On Thursday night (2/11/10), the University, Lab Schools, and Alderman Hairston hosted a community meeting about the possible use of the Doctors Hospital site (58th and Stony Island) as a location for a new Early Childhood Center (ECC) for the Lab Schools.
I counted roughly 140 people in attendance. Most people in the audience had positive comments; there were few hard questions. Most identified themselves as Lab parents or Stony Island neighbors. One preschool teacher vocally supported the proposed off-campus location, citing the nightmare-ish drop-off and pick-up she experiences daily at the Woodlawn Houses (two homes currently used for 4 nursery classes on Woodlawn near 58th).
After attending the meeting, and spending a few days digesting the presentation, there are three important questions that I believe go to the core of whether this is good decision-making versus hasty*, shortsighted decision-making:
1. Would the University have bought a 10 million dollar property (not counting the cost of demolishing a 1920s masonry hospital) just to build a Lab School ECC?
2. Is this the best use of the Doctors Hospital site from the University's and community's points of view?
3. Is it this the best place for the Lab Schools to build its ECC?
I think the answer to all three questions is unfortunately, "No."
1. I assume that the U of C bought this property with the hotel in mind. Now that the precinct has voted itself dry, the hotel developer is gone and the University is searching for a worthy cause for the property. The Lab Schools ECC is a handy cause, but not necessarily the right cause, and it wasn't chosen with any sort of Master Plan in mind for either the Lab School campus or the University campus. The University owns much of the land on Stony Island between 56th and 59th -- for example, one person at the meeting questioned whether they had more useful plans for the facilities building between 56th and 57th -- and it should be working toward a coherent vision for that entire stretch.
2. So what is the best use of the Doctors Hospital site? Stony Island is currently a relatively desolate street-scape, and it would be best for the community and for the University if it were enlivened with a steady flow of pedestrians and with some sort of night life. The ECC will be locked down tight after 5 PM, and it will be designed with little interest in foot traffic: the play spaces will be safely enclosed, away from the street, and the drop-off and pick-up car line will snake around the back of the building, with a slow lane and an express lane. Because the children it's intended for are in grades N through 2, very few families even in Hyde Park will feel they're within "walking distance" to school, particularly if they also have older children to drop-off on the main Lab School campus. The very rough schematic of the building already shows that it encourages a car (not pedestrian) culture. In my opinion, this "green" building will actually increase the number of families who drive to school.
I can think of two better alternatives for the site without even breaking a sweat:
a) build a large dorm complex geared especially toward 3rd- and 4th-year students. Dean John W. Boyer has written a detailed pamphlet discussing how the University should strive to be like Oxford, where students live all four years on campus. That will only happen if the housing options include something designed for the maturing lifestyles of upperclassmen, namely (from my informal poll of college students): suites made up of four single bedrooms surrounding a kitchen and bath. There could be an exercise room and a rec room on-site, plus common hang-out areas on each floor. There could be a cafe on the first floor that is open to the public (like the Booth cafeteria). Students would mill about the neighborhood on foot at all hours, and would help make the street safer.
My two U of C college students know many upperclassmen who like dorm living and feel a loyalty to their houses, but leave housing after their first or second year because the dorm lifestyle (eating in the residence halls and sleeping in the same room with a roommate) no longer fits their needs. On top of that, if you haven't been in them lately, Broadview, Blackstone, and Snell-Hitchcock are barely suitable for human habitation (the kitchen units in Blackstone are downright dangerous) and desperately need to be remodeled or closed.
b) build a faculty apartment complex (managed rentals or a mix of condos and rentals) with an exercise room, a rec room, indoor parking, and that same cafe on the first floor (open to the public, like the Booth cafeteria). This would draw young faculty back to the neighborhood from the north side, and allow faculty in lower-paying disciplines to afford to live on campus. It would also, incidentally, convert some commuting Lab families to walking families -- a hidden "green" benefit. Perhaps after several years of eating at the cafe, the neighbors would vote themselves "wet" again, just to be able to have a glass of wine there. (I can dream, can't I?)
3. The problem of space on the historic Lab School campus comes down to this: preserving the regulation-sized soccer field that's on Jackman Field. I'm not kidding. When you peel everything away, that's the reason they're proposing splitting the campus in two (either the regulation soccer field will have to go, or the tennis courts). Rather than list the pedagogical reasons that I believe a single campus is at the heart of Lab's teaching mission and should be a selling point for the school (as it is for Lab's feisty competitor, Francis Parker, which touts "Parker is proud to be the only independent school in Chicago where 14 different grades learn, share and grow under one roof."), I'll just offer the simple solution that solves the space problem: put the regulation soccer field -- which only high schoolers use -- across the Midway, near the South Dorm, the Harris School, and the future home of the Booth dorm (bonus: a soccer field would get plenty of use by the University and by Woodlawn neighbors). Then build an ECC that can house all of N through 2 (including the Woodlawn houses) on the historic Lab campus. Mind you, this still leaves room at Lab for a non-regulation soccer field for gym classes and practice, and leaves the tennis courts intact. Only the regulation soccer field would move. It would be relatively cheap to build a field and a shower/locker room facility across the Midway.
In sum: there are much better uses for the Doctors Hospital site, and there are ways to keep all of the grades at Lab in contiguous proximity to each other, to preserve the educational, progressive principles we should be holding dear for all grades, not just N through 2. Preserving one Lab campus would also help to decrease the driving culture surrounding the school and the University.
*Post-script for dedicated readers:
Some of the sense I got of the "hastiness" of the Stony ECC idea were logistical, practical issues. The University will obviously work on them, but they added to the proceedings a slight air of "rushing the plan through."
1. Alderman Hairston reassured the audience that the drop-off and pick-up car traffic associated with Bret Harte (a public school at the corner of 56th and Stony) would not interfere with that of the new ECC because a plan was in place to re-route Bret Harte traffic through an alley behind the planned Solstice development. When questioned about what would happen to that re-routing plan if the Solstice project did not get off the ground (a real possibility, because Antheus Capital has not sold enough units yet to break ground), Alderman Hairston said, "We'll have to find alternative funding somewhere." With the City's current finances, that seems thorny.
2. The Stony ECC would have 70 parking spaces for staff, and Mr. Magill said the staff will number about 75-80. However, with six classes for each grade, I count 72 teachers and assistant teachers just for the classrooms alone. Presumably there will also be teachers in art, music, and computers, staff for the library, tech support, facility services, a principal, a secretary, a security guard, and a nurse -- not to mention visitors spaces. On-site parking isn't important to me, but the numbers should add up in a presentation.
3. Much of the outdoor play spaces are in the form of enclosed courtyards. Even with a glass building, these spaces will be wet and muddy for much of the year. The pretty pictures didn't show the typical Midwestern "coatroom-mudrooms" that usually handle that kind of mess -- instead it looked like an idealized Palo Alto scene.
4. Many of the "best practices" schools that the architects studied were in warmer climates like Palo Alto, where the weather is ideal for contiguous indoor-outdoor space. The architect spent some time talking up the Google corporation's Wetlands preschool. A quick check shows that tuition at Wetlands is $57,000 per year (and no longer subsidized for employees). The student-teacher ratio is ridiculously low, with enrollment of only 72 kids in the Google Woodlands preschool, in Mountain View CA, for example.
If you're interested in participating in an open (and I hope open-minded) discussion of the ECC plans on facebook, here's the link.