In the spring of 2013, Chicago Public Schools announced that the district would be closing forty-nine public schools, the largest school closure in the nation’s history. As the schools were mapped, a pattern emerged that Chicagoans were already familiar with: the schools slated for closure were concentrated on the city’s historically disinvested South and West Sides. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) cited three indicators (utilization rate, performance levels, and state standards on test scores as determining factors) in justifying which schools would be closed. Days after CPS made the announcement and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated that the time for negotiations was over, thousands of activists, including the Chicago Teachers Union, took to Daley Plaza, a civic center named after longtime Mayor Richard J. Daley, to protest the closings. “Let’s not pretend that when you close schools on the South and West sides the children affected aren’t Black,” Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis declared as she took to the microphone to address the crowd in Daley Plaza. “Let’s not pretend that’s not racist.”1
As the tenth anniversary of the 2013 school closures approaches, I have looked into how the forty-nine closed schools have been repurposed, sold, adaptively reused, or left vacant, and the forces—economic, social, and political—that have shaped their outcomes.
In May 2013, the six members of the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Emanuel, voted 6-0 to close forty-eight elementary schools and one high school program colocated in a building with an elementary school. The forty-ninth school, Von Humboldt Elementary, was broken out as a separate vote and passed 4-2. Mayor Emanuel released a statement later, printed in the Chicago Tribune, acknowledging that the situation was “incredibly difficult” but added, “I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future.”2
As the schools shut their doors, the Office of the Mayor announced that an Advisory Committee for School Repurposing and Community Development would be organized. Consisting of civic leaders, the advisory committee would create a set of guiding principles and a process proposal for the future of the schools that would maximize community benefit, with a principal consideration being, according to the report published in February 2014, to determine “how to make the most efficient use of these properties in timely, financially viable ways that returned them to constructive use quickly.”3
In the report, the committee recommended a three-phase process reflective of the guiding principles, including immediate reuse, competitive redeployment, and development through a revitalization partner. Within the immediate reuse phase, a city agency, including CPS, could identify an interim use for properties and other city agencies could also identify uses for the shuttered buildings.
The competitive redeployment phase would then give the public an opportunity to purchase the remaining schools through a public bid process, where each school would be sold at its market value. The schools not sold would then move into phase three, where CPS would work to repurpose schools with the help of redevelopment partners in the private and philanthropic sectors. A timeline detailing this process recommended that the third phase be implemented in the second quarter of 2014, with redevelopment projects continuing into 2015 and beyond.
From their architecture to the type of social relationships they create for students, parents, and the community at large, Chicago’s neighborhood schools have always been complicated. Public funds supported three schools in Chicago as early as 1833, four years before the city’s founding and the establishment of the Chicago Public School district. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed ten public schools, and while CPS was quick to rebuild and add new schools, a population increase at the turn of the twentieth century, coinciding with the planning and building for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, meant that there weren’t enough desks for students. As the Great Migration brought a generation of Black families to Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, policies like redlining and urban renewal were enacted in the decades that followed. These policies dictated where Black families could live and limited where Black students could attend school, causing overcrowding in Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods. The city’s population peaked in 1950 and then began steadily decreasing for the next four decades. As white students and their families moved to the suburbs by the 1970s, CPS began serving a majority of students of color. In 1980, the Department of Justice found the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education guilty of unlawful segregation of students based on their race and the Board entered into a consent decree. Magnet schools were founded and attendance areas were redrawn, while other students were transported to schools farther away from their homes. As the twenty-first century approached, Chicago continued to experience a population loss, including school-aged children.
Chicago also saw a growth in publicly funded, independently run charter school enrollment. According to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, charter schools created a demand for public school closings. Between 2005 and 2011, Chicago saw a rise in charter school enrollment of 191%.4
The design of Chicago’s public schools began with a “small square log building, originally designed for a schoolhouse,” standing just outside Fort Dearborn, the first settlement in the city, evolving to include both frame and masonry structures as the city grew. School reforms of the nineteenth century introduced features to provide ventilation and light, and led to schools heated by steam and featuring indoor bathrooms. Noted Midwest and Chicago-based architects introduced a narrative of architectural features to public schools, giving rise to schools in Classical and Queen Anne styles that rivaled the private sector architecture at the turn of the twentieth century. Architecture firms working at the crossroads of midcentury modernism and technology in the 1950s and 1960s departed from a classical school model, using clean forms and colorful materials to increase efficiency and reflect broad design trends.
Schools across the district were named after American historical figures, such as Betsy Ross and Enrico Fermi. As the district began serving a larger population of students of color, schools were named after notable Black Americans, including Anthony Overton, Garrett A. Morgan, and Arna Bontemps.
As of January 2023, twenty-four of the original group of forty-nine schools closed in 2013 have been converted into new schools or combined with other schools and are currently educating students. Three have been turned into market-rate housing and one has become affordable senior housing. Two have been demolished, one for a new development of single-family homes.
Thirteen schools, all currently owned by the Public Building Commission, remain mothballed and vacant, without any city-approved or supported plans for their sale or reuse. Five of these schools are located on the West Side: Matthew A. Henson Elementary, Genevieve Melody Elementary, John Calhoun North Elementary, R. Nathaniel Dett Elementary, and Nathan R. Goldblatt Elementary. Eight schools are located on the South Side, including Arna Bontemps Elementary, Betsy Ross Elementary, Garrett A. Morgan Elementary, Alfred D. Kohn Elementary, Francis Parkman Elementary, Songhai Elementary School Learning Institute, Elihu Yale Elementary, and Robert A. Lawrence Elementary. According to CBRE Group, the real estate company managing the portfolio of the 2013 closed schools, a stoppage on sales has been initiated by the Office of Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The Mayor’s Office was not able to be reached for comment.
The remaining schools have been sold with permanent redevelopment projects in various states of planning, approval, funding, and construction. Many of the schools remain in limbo, with plans still being refined by the community and at the ward level. Supply chain issues, labor shortages, and the global COVID-19 pandemic are also playing a role in a project’s ability to come to completion.
Those delays, ten years later, speak to the level of complexity of the planning and implementation of repurposing a neighborhood public school, and a lack of political will over two mayoral administrations to implement a comprehensive plan around their reactivation. A CPS-managed website for school repurposing does not provide a timeline beyond January 2015, while the advisory committee report recommended long term city-led initiatives to sell and repurpose the properties. The advisory committee provided recommendations for school repurposing that were followed during the immediate aftermath of the closures, but the City of Chicago failed to follow through with phase three in the long term, leaving schools in some of Chicago’s most historically disinvested neighborhoods still empty and without a revitalization partner. Some sales approved by the Public Building Commission to private or philanthropic owners during the competitive bid process were not completed, but the schools have still not returned to the original roster of schools for sale.
Pursuant to the Advisory Committee’s report, information on each school, including ward, neighborhood, square footage, zoning, maintenance, and carry costs, and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) information was provided for potential redevelopment during the public bid process. Each school was also evaluated in terms of its architecture, including an assessment of any public art on the property and its potential for historic preservation. These evaluations conveyed a bias based on the building’s location, even when school buildings were of a similar type and had similar character defining features. Midcentury modern schools, even those exemplifying the style or the work of a significant architect, were undervalued, particularly if they were located on the South or West Sides. A document prepared for Anthony Overton Elementary, located in Bronzeville, states that the “building is not a priority for historic preservation” and evaluated the building as a “prototype design by Perkins & Will.”5 Once it was sold, Anthony Overton Elementary was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016. The building meets multiple criteria for designation as a Chicago Landmark.
Despite their architecture, the results of the redevelopment of each school looking to be repurposed is largely reflective of its location, with schools in amenity- and development-rich neighborhoods faring better in terms of their redevelopment outcomes.
Of the four schools closed on the North Side, one, Lyman Trumbull Elementary, became a Waldorf School, while two, Graeme Stewart Elementary and Elizabeth Peabody Elementary, were redeveloped as market-rate apartments. A fourth, Von Humboldt Elementary School, which shared space with Roque De Duprey, also closed in 2013, is in the process of being developed into a mixed-use development marketed toward teachers.
The first school to sell in 2016 was Elizabeth Peabody Elementary in Noble Square, on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Purchased by Svigos Asset Management, the developers pursued listing on the National Register of Historic Places in order to take advantage of Federal Historic Tax Credits, and also worked with the City of Chicago to designate the building as a Chicago Landmark. “The preservation piece was a distinguishing factor for us,” said Nick Vittore of Svigos Asset Management. “Doing the landmark designation was a well-received approach from the alderman’s office and the community.” In redeveloping Peabody for residential tenants, Svigos worked with Pappageorge Haymes Partners, who focused on historic features such as original maple floors, bookshelves, and built-ins, a formula that worked with previous adaptive reuse projects of closed CPS schools that Svigos Asset Management had completed.
“We saved all of the original features we could,” added Vittore. “The tenants can’t get enough of the bookshelves, and they use them all.” Yet, adaptive reuse at such a detailed level added costs to the project. “The idea that these schools can be closed and flipped into other uses is very difficult money-wise, and it’s not like regular new construction where you can put up an eight-foot wall. The volumes in these buildings are big, and they have fourteen-inch-thick masonry walls.” The Peabody School Apartments began welcoming tenants in 2022.
In Auburn Gresham, on the far South Side, Garrett A. Morgan Elementary School sits empty, while a plan to transform the site into a community center has not been permitted to move forward. In 2018, the Public Building Commission of Chicago approved the sale of the school to Pilgrim Baptist Church of South Chicago, Inc., but the sale was never completed and the school never went back to public bid.
“I went to Morgan,” said Ja’Mal Green, a community activist and 2023 mayoral candidate. “This has been my neighborhood and my home for all of my life.” Working with community members, Green developed a project proposal, including funding, to demolish the existing school and build the Morgan All-Star Center, a community center looking to provide career and social support to the surrounding area. “From career advice to healing, from trauma to making childcare available, we want to tackle every piece of why young people might be headed on the wrong path. It was one of those things where the community wanted to see a new use for Morgan Elementary.” Green cites a lack of organization from the City of Chicago and a rivalry between himself and current Mayor Lori Lightfoot as the reason why the plan has not proceeded. “At the end of the day, we are just asking to repurpose it for the community.”
According to a study explaining school closures published by the Urban Planning and Policy Department Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois, CPS reports that over 70% of Chicago Public School buildings were built prior to 1970.6 While Peabody Elementary was, according to Nick Vittore, in “very good shape” because it was maintained faithfully when it operated as a public school, each of the currently vacant schools are experiencing the direct effects of sitting vacant for a decade, including lack of security and vandalism.
“The Morgan School is in terrible condition because it has been sitting for ten years. The city leaves these schools and never checks up on them,” adds Ja’Mal Green. While occupancy preserves buildings and reduces maintenance costs, not doing so quickly multiplies a building’s existing material challenges if it is older and has an overall negative effect on the surrounding area. According to research conducted by Local Initiatives Support Corporation, vacancies destabilize and traumatize neighborhoods, and those where neglected buildings are a normal occurrence experience higher rates of hyperlocal crime.7
The Creative Grounds initiative may hold a key to stabilizing schools in the short term for an ultimately long-term benefit to both communities and those working towards adaptive reuse.8 After purchasing Bronzeville’s Anthony Overton Elementary School in 2015, Ghian Foreman of Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative partnered with Borderless Studio, a design and research practice that connects communities with design processes and who leads community programs at Overton as the Creative Grounds Initiative. Creative Grounds provides a bridge for the school between its closure and redevelopment that allows the building to be activated instead of mothballed between each phase. Paola Aguirre, founder of Borderless Studio, describes her initial conversation with Ghian Foreman: “My pitch to Ghian was ‘you have this vision and this plan, but it will take time. Can we do something in the timeline in between?’” The school’s classrooms are used for workshops and gatherings, the gym is used for basketball, and the school’s grounds are used continuously for community events and activities. “Development is invisible work,” continues Aguirre. “At Overton we have a parallel process that is visible to the community.”
According to a 2021 The Harris Poll survey, 78% of Chicago residents agree that Chicago lacks sufficient affordable housing, with three in ten residents polled identifying as rent burdened.9 Initiatives like the City of Chicago’s LaSalle Street Reimagined Initiative seek to make city financial resources and other incentives available for the conversion of underutilized office space downtown as residential units, with 30% of the proposed housing units in each development to be made available to residents at affordable levels. As Chicago seeks to address both vacancies within privately owned buildings in the Loop and a need for affordable housing, an equivalent initiative might be developed to encourage the redevelopment of the portfolio of schools that are vacant and mothballed in some of Chicago’s most disinvested neighborhoods.
“Schools are great candidates for housing because of the central corridor, with classrooms on both sides. There are also plenty of complications,” said Scott Henry of Celadon Partners, an affordable housing developer. In 2018 Celadon Partners purchased the West Pullman Elementary School and began coordinating with the Chicago Department of Housing on adaptively reusing the school to accommodate housing for low-income seniors. “My mother and grandmother went to West Pullman, so what really put me over the edge was my family’s connection to the school,” added Henry. “But we needed to structure the transaction in a way where we wouldn’t be carrying debt.” The project used subsidies from the Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund and, as a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, took advantage of Federal Historic Tax Credits.
Working with architectural firm UrbanWorks, the rehabilitation of the West Pullman School included restoring and reusing original doors and interior elements, and like the adaptive reuse of the Peabody School, couldn’t have happened without robust community input.
That community input, along with new commitments by the City of Chicago, will be vital in correcting the harm the school closures have caused to communities, harm that has now reached across two mayoral administrations and affected a generation of already vulnerable public school students. Reopening the public bid process will allow existing plans to get back on track. Initiatives like INVEST South/West, which targets many of the same neighborhoods as these vacant schools, must examine how the remaining schools could be integrated or aligned with efforts to use public sector funds.
Yet, even with the support and financial assistance of the public sector, the adaptive reuse of closed schools still presents risks and uncertainty. Neighborhoods struggling with disinvestment do not do so on just one level, with challenges such as lack of commercial activity layered with low property values, vacancies, and transportation and employment challenges all persistently working together. These challenges contribute to the closure of schools, which serve to exacerbate existing problems, creating a situation where a neighborhood may not meet baseline requirements for technical or organizational feasibility.
Adding to the challenge is the physical nature of school property. Public schools in Chicago were built and modified to accommodate student population growth. Many schools, particularly those constructed at the turn of the twentieth century, began with a large multi-story central building. As a neighborhood school approached overcrowding, CPS would add an addition or annex to the existing school instead of building a new school. This strategy led to school campuses that take up a full city block, including playgrounds and open space, with some buildings topping out at over 100,000 square feet. While classrooms may be easily converted to living or community space, rooms for administration or gathering present use and programming challenges. The value engineering of both new schools and later additions to CPS’s school portfolio makes them unattractive candidates for adaptive reuse, which often has architectural significance or quality as its core value.
Whatever the size, a closed school building solicits strong feelings from the community around it, and the community that was nurtured by it, with these communities, their histories—both tangible and intangible—often intersecting. Scott Henry, who aspires to adaptively reuse additional schools in the portfolio of schools closed in 2013, added that “the community has to, at least, have the chance to opine and weigh in on the next chapter of the school. There is a responsibility for the city to be a part of that.” Paola Aguirre believes that community self-determination must be a focus within any future policies or comprehensive plans. “Schools are so special. They are social infrastructure. They are paid for by public dollars and taxes. Adds Aguirre, “Chicago’s Public Schools are going to keep changing, resizing, and closing. How do we prepare for that?”
The results of the actions a city takes—in terms of both its built environment and its residents—often take a decade or more to convey their long-term effects. At the tenth anniversary of the 2013 Chicago Public School closures, we see a reflection of the same systemic issues that led to the decision to close forty-nine public schools when we observe which schools remain unsold and vacant. If a vision for the future of the schools is not developed, they will continue to convey the same harmful systemic issues that their closure sought to solve. The next decade will be critical as the City of Chicago looks to encourage public, private, and philanthropic investment on the South and West Sides, with new builds and adaptive reuse projects breaking ground to be reactivated for future generations as others continue to further deteriorate.