Monday, July 12, 2010

Message to the University Architects: Cafe ECC.

posted by Elizabeth Fama

Istria Cafe enlivens the corner of 57th and Lake Park, despite all odds.

Last week, alumni, parents, and "friends" of the U of C Laboratory Schools got a letter from David Magill, Director, saying that the University of Chicago's Board of Trustees had given the Early Childhood Center (among other Lab projects) the green light.

In my opinion, the Lab campus should not be split into two locations. Nevertheless, the cogs of institutional construction are in motion, and there is probably no turning back. So I'm introducing a challenge to the University and the Lab Schools: use the new Center to enliven Stony Island; resist the urge to plunk an isolated, car-oriented fortress on an already desolate block; create a public eatery and gathering space in the front of the school that will define the new culture of that school.

You read that correctly: I challenge the architects and administrators to incorporate a lovely cafe, right at the streetfront of a nursery through grade 2 school, and to keep it open for nighttime business.

A public cafe would:

1. encourage parents to mingle before and after drop-off and pick-up, thereby discouraging an exclusively "drive-by" use of the building for families (see the Booth Cafeteria at these hours for proof)
2. provide a great meeting place for parents and their children (of all grades) after school (again, see Booth)
3. provide an informal meeting space for teachers (see Booth)
4. give University employees, students, and community members another neighborhood amenity on the east end of campus (see Istria)
5. enliven that stretch of Stony Island, both during the day and after 5 PM.

Numbers 4 and 5 are for the benefit of the neighborhood and the University as a whole. For the Lab Schools, numbers 1 through 3 would go much further toward integrating the two separate Lab campuses and creating a school community than the shuttle buses Mr. Magill plans to operate between the two campuses. Just look at how the Lab Schools have planted their own culture in the Booth Cafeteria -- that's the market in action; that's how the schools' population chooses to socialize.

Naturally there would be security concerns about a public space inside a school with young children. But since they're designing the ECC from scratch, the architects should be able to arrange it so that strangers in the cafe won't have access to the main part of the school. The cafe could funnel into the school through one door, with a permanent security guard stationed there. There could also be alternate school entrances that bypass the cafe entirely.

During the school year, the Booth Cafeteria is full of Lab students, parents, teachers, and administrators, along with other University and community members. The ECC architects should try to mimic that success.


chicago pop said...

This idea makes loads of sense. And what security concerns are there that couldn't be taken care of by a security guard or some kind of restricted entrance separating any cafe from the school? Right now, anyone with a bomb could waltz right in to practically any building on campus (except maybe the Regenstein Library or Ratner Gymnasium) and blow up untold numbers of people; why would the presence of a cafe -- with more neighbors and parents around to actually keep an eye on things -- make things any less secure than they are anywhere else?

If the security argument were enough to put the kaibosh on this proposal, I'd say it was a fairly ridiculous and dispiriting concession to the overall paranoia of our time.

Richard Gill said...

Sorry, Beth, but Vista Homes may worry about coffee-soaked, caffeine-stoked revelers spilling out of the cafe at closing time and creating riot conditions in the street.

Anonymous said...

What about the parking?? Won't someone please think about the parking!!

I'm sure the neighbors can be convinced to allow it if Lab School agrees to build them a private parking garage.

SK Barnum, MD said...

Since, as you mention, there is an Istria close by, why put another cafe so close?

How about a business establishment that's family-oriented?

Chuck E Cheese, for example, SouthSide version.

Or a water park?

Anonymous said...

Good point about the cafe overload. The new Z&H is going in just down the block on 57th, too.

You know what would be cool though is some kind of museum... Lab School has a pretty interesting history with lots of important people attending there. How about a Lab School museum (with the mandatory coffee bar and gift shop)?

chicago pop said...

Chuck E Cheese, south side version? Would we really want another Medici in the neighborhood?

David Farley said...

Security guard or no, it seems to me that putting a business in a elementary school that would attract people who would not necessarily have any immediate business with the school is a non-starter.

chicago pop said...

All summer long I see elementary school kids march through Istria on Cornell to get to their pottery classes at the Hyde Park Art Center. Creepy looking grad students and university types are everywhere. What's the difference?

Elizabeth Fama said...

I don't see cafe overload in this neighborhood. I see people lining up anytime a new business opens. This cafe/cafeteria wouldn't simply be an imposition on the Lab Schools for the social good -- it would be an amenity for the school population. Have you never been to the Booth cafeteria at drop-off, lunch, and pick-up?

susan said...

As I'm planning a bat mitzvah (a true statement) and am reduced to telling my relatives to stay at Ramada, etc. (also true), I really wish the Lab School would open a little hotel-ette, with or without wild party facilities.

z said...

At the first ECC outreach meeting, I (a lab parent) spoke privately with the ECC architects about the need for a during- and post-school play area convenient for parents. Specifically, I urged a cafe that incorporated a limited access courtyard for parents and kids to to have a warm refuge during cold whether and where if need be parents could keep a watchful eye from inside the cafe's floor to ceiling windows while kids, who NEVER seem to get cold, could continue their play. To their credit, the in subsequent presentations, the ECC architects included such a 'public space' at the ECC entrance with an attached courtyard. The U of C official at the presentation added that very likely the 'public space' would include a cafe component similar to the Hyde Park Arts Center.

With luck...and encouragement from others...I hope the ECC final design does include a cafe.