Brach site school plan submitted

Activists publicize proposal to convert Brach site to college-prep campus

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By TERRY DEAN and ROBERT FELTON

Community backers for a high school to be built at the Brach site at 401 N. Cicero in Austin are floating their own proposal for the location-a sprawling campus with multiple buildings, green space and athletic fields.

The Austin Education Network of community organizations, including the Westside Health Authority, presented their proposal to the public at a June 12 press conference at the Brach site.

For the last three months, the WHA has been vocal in its support of a state-of-the-art, college-preparatory campus at the North Cicero location. Joined by residents, community youth and clergy, supporters presented an 11-page document, which included renderings of what the campus will look like. It also included the development proposal from ML Realty Partners to the city's Department of Planning and Development. ML Realty bought the property in January, but activists say the deal isn't final until the city signs off on it.

The Illinois-based developer has plans to convert the site into a distribution center. Supporters of a high school face an uphill battle to take over the site, which is zoned for industrial use, and the city isn't keen on rezoning the site for anything but.

Still, activists envision a large campus with multiple buildings, an outdoor commons area, and with football, baseball and soccer fields. The school would also have a swimming pool and a manufacturing trade school, and it would be run like a college campus with one principal and various departments, such as cultural arts and foreign languages.

The entire Brach's site covers 500,000 square feet.

The network's proposal didn't include a cost for the plan, but Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan has said it would cost about $100 million to build any new high school in the city. According to their proposal, the network, through a private donor, said it offered ML Realty $4 million-supposedly what it put up for the site to the city- for the property, but the developer declined.

The Chicago City Council's Finance Committee earlier this month tabled the plan to provide a $10.6 million TIF (tax increment financing) to ML Realty, a deal supported by Ald. Ed Smith (28). Smith has become a target of the network because of his support.

"Ald. Ed Smith said no school is going there and [Chicago Public Schools CEO] Arne Duncan said that no school is going there," said State Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th).

Though Ford was one of the first elected officials eyeing the Brach land for a school, he now acknowledges that the site is a no-go.

"We need to stay focused and begin to look at other options and locations," he said.

Ford hosted a hearing on a new high school for Austin on Monday at the Bethel New Life Center, 1140 N. Lamon. The Austin state rep is urging the community to consider other options.

"A school still must be built," he insisted. "The city says the site is sold and that the company is invested in the project. So we need to pursue other options at this point."

Supporters, though, aren't budging. Jacqueline Reed, executive director of the Westside Health Authority, conceded that the network's plan would be costly, requiring federal and state funding and funding from the Chicago Board of Education.

She also admits that tearing down and rebuilding on the site is less a concern than keeping local politicians on notice concerning "the will of the community."

According to World Business Chicago, a non-profit, business development group, it would cost in the millions just to tear down the buildings of the former candy complex.

Reed, though, insists that once the Board of Education gets on board, the financing will take care of itself.

"When we were trying to get the [WHA] Wellness Center built, a lot of skeptics asked the same questions: 'How will you afford to get it built? Is there enough support for it?' But we made it happen through persistence and hard work," said Reed. "We have not seen the funds these developers are supposed to be bringing to the table. So far, it has been all talk from them. Until the site officially has an owner, the fight must go on. [The Brach's site] is the biggest resource we have in Austin...We are still in the fight."

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