Chicago Sun-Times

St. Ignatius denies that deal to use an acre of CPS property is ‘land grab’

St. Ignatius denies ‘land grab’ after alderman questions deal to use CPS property for athletic complex

- Carlos Ballestero­s and Manny Ramos are corps members of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster SunTimes coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side. BY CARLOS BALLESTERO­S AND MANNY RAMOS Staff Reporters

A deal allowing a prestigiou­s private school on the Near West Side use of nearly an acre of public land for the next 30 years is under fire from the neighborho­od’s new alderman.

The deal involves St. Ignatius College Prep, a Jesuit Catholic school, and the Chicago Board of Education. According to a copy of a preliminar­y shared use agreement between the board and the Inner City Education and Recreation Foundation, a nonprofit arm of St. Ignatius, the Jesuit school is allowed to expand its new athletic complex onto 41,360 square feet of land adjacent to John M. Smyth Elementary, which is at 1059 W. 13th St. and is owned by the Board.

The new facilities — which St. Ignatius expects to open at the start of the upcoming school year — will include new baseball, football and soccer fields and a 400-meter track spread across about 10 acres of land immediatel­y south of Roosevelt Road and between Blue Island Avenue and Morgan Street. St. Ignatius has put up signs advertisin­g the area as home to its Wolf Pack sports teams.

In exchange for use of the CPS land, Smyth “shall have first priority” to use the athletic facilities weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and whenever they are not being used by St. Ignatius, which has priority use at all other times, according to the preliminar­y agreement. St. Ignatius will also install new fencing around Smyth, a new LED marquee for the school and build a new playground for its students.

St. Ignatius also agreed to demolish a onestory Chicago Public Schools building on the corner of Blue Island Avenue and Maxwell Street and replace it with a driveway for Smyth students to be picked up and dropped off. The building — which has been vacant for a decade — used to house the Bernice M. Joyner Child-Parent Center.

A spokeswoma­n for CPS said Wednesday the entire project will “improve the efficiency, access and safety of the school’s drop off process, and provide students with access to a high-quality garden and athletic facilities during school hours at neighborin­g St. Ignatius.” She said the district is “aiming to have all of the renovation­s and upgrades completed by before the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.”

CPS officials did not respond to questions on the costs of the improvemen­ts being made to the properties, or say how much the public property that will become part of the athletic complex is worth — or whether the land was even appraised.

Alderman raises concerns

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) worries the move — which was initially approved in 2017 — represents another giveaway to the wealthy. Before he was elected alderman in April, Sigcho-Lopez headed the Pilsen Alliance neighborho­od group, which held a protest before a Smyth Local School Council meeting in December saying the city needed to “protect Smyth” from Ignatius’ expansion plans.

“I’m concerned about this deal struck in a silo between CPS and other entities,” SigchoLope­z said in a statement Wednesday. “We’re talking about a significan­t piece of the community that affects the everyday lives of children and families. I’ve called on CPS to share the land-use agreement so we can have a transparen­t public input process and ensure accountabi­lity.”

Earlier in the week, Sigcho-Lopez’s office tried to stop remediatio­n crews from working on the Joyner building, saying it had not seen a final shared-use agreement despite repeated requests. The office went as far as to issue a letter “to cease and desist any constructi­on work being conducted on Joyner Child-Parent Center until all necessary permits and relevant documentat­ion is present[ed] to the aldermen’s office.”

While the district spokeswoma­n said that agreement had been “finalized,” CPS did not respond to a Sun-Times request for a copy of it. The agreement was still listed as being in negotiatio­ns in the minutes of the last Board of Education meeting.

Not a ‘land grab’

John Chandler, a vice president of St. Ignatius who oversees the school’s developmen­t projects, said the new athletic facilities and driveway will benefit Smyth students and the surroundin­g community.

“I want to dispel the notion that St. Ignatius is on some crusade of a land grab in the area,” Chandler said. “It’s a community benefit that would help the kids of Smyth school because there is no playground or recreation­al spaces for the kids at the moment.”

Smyth had playground­s at each end of the school before constructi­on of the complex started, and there was a large area with grass and trees. Neither St. Ignatius nor the Chicago Board of Education provided renderings showing the plans for the new playground or the proposed circular driveway that will be built where the Joyner building is now.

Smyth principal Dr. Ron Whitmore could not be reached for comment. He and members of the local school council have expressed support for the deal.

 ??  ?? LEFT: The view looking north from Maxwell Street of an athletic complex being built by St. Ignatius College Prep (upper left). RIGHT: A view of the fields looking south with John M. Smyth Elementary in the background.
LEFT: The view looking north from Maxwell Street of an athletic complex being built by St. Ignatius College Prep (upper left). RIGHT: A view of the fields looking south with John M. Smyth Elementary in the background.
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