The proposal to convert the shuttered Emmet Elementary School into a community health care campus is running into strong opposition from some Austin residents.
At a community meeting on June 14, residents blasted the proposed project and Chicago Public Schools’ bid process involving the property at 5500 W. Madison St.
A group including PCC Community Wellness Center and Cook County Health and Hospital Systems won the March 13 deadline bid for Emmet.
According to Terry Diamond, an attorney for CPS, the bid amount was for $75,000, an amount that drew gasps from the 100 or so attendees at Wednesday’s meeting, which was held at Duke Ellington Elementary School, 243 N. Parkside.
The group, which includes Sinai Health System, plans to build an all-purpose campus featuring a variety of services, including mammogram screenings, a senior center and fitness center.
The Chicago Board of Education will have to approve the group’s bid before the project moves forward.
But opponents of the project said it already looks to be a done deal, and they criticized CPS’ “lack of transparency” in keeping the community informed about the process.
Diamond, who moderated the sometimes contentious meeting, said the bid was announced on CPS’ web site, in one of the city’s main newspapers and on local TV news.
Residents, however, criticized CPS for not advertising in community newspapers, which they said most residents read regularly. This, they argued, was another example of the lack of transparency.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), however, told the audience the community needs the health care campus and its services.
“This is an opportunity to take a blighted school and make it something that’s beneficial to the community,” Taliaferro said.
But the biggest criticism and concern involves the impact the campus will have on existing clinics and hospitals.
“If these services already exist in the area, then why are we bringing more of the same?” said James Poulos, founder and senior partner at Madison & Pine Dental Clinic, 5470 W. Madison St., which is right across the street from Emmet.
Angela Walker, community relations manager for Loretto Hospital, asked if there was more than one proposal offered for the Emmet site. Diamond said only one bid was made for Emmet.
That, Walker responded, is problematic and means the whole bid process should be revamped. Loretto was also not consulted about the project, Walker said, adding that she was speaking as a resident and not on behalf of the hospital.
Emmet has been closed since 2013, one of four schools in Austin and among 50 total citywide shuttered by CPS. One bid each was also received for the Francis Scott Key and Louis Armstrong elementary school buildings, Diamond said, though she didn’t elaborate on either proposal.
School buildings not already acquired were put up for sale in January of this year, with a March 13 deadline for submitted proposals. The properties are being made available to prospective buyers to re-purpose for other use, according to CPS.
The West Side health care group announced its desire to acquire Emmet in October of last year. The project’s cost is estimated to be $20 million, developers said.
Residents demanded that local African-American contractors be hired on the project. They also want community residents to be among the estimated 81 new employees developers have promised to hire at the campus.
And residents want these and other details to be hammered out in an iron-clad “community benefits agreement” before any construction starts.
Bruce Washington, a resident and member of the Emmet School Redevelopment Committee, said that agreement is being worked on. He added that the community was involved in the process through the committee.
But some residents expressed outrage and surprise in just learning that such an advisory committee existed.
Washington said the 11-member group included such organizations as Bethel New Life and the Westside Branch NAACP. The committee, he added, formed shortly after the October 2016 public meeting where project was first announced.
The committee, which has met about a dozen times since, did not hold public meetings, Washington said, responding to a question about the group’s transparency during a particular heated exchange with the audience.
When asked if the community approved of the Emmet project, Washington said the committee vote was 10-1.
The lone dissenter was the Westside Branch NAACP, said its president, Karl Brinson, who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting. In fact, Brinson said he felt compelled to speak and clarify the organization’s position.
While the NAACP was a part of the committee, the organization had concerns about CPS’ process, Brinson said, adding, “We’re not anti-development. We know we need something, but we also need a strong process.”
That process, Brinson and others insisted, needed to involve more community input, as well as an impact study on how this project will affect the neighborhood.
Resident Janice Henry, who also works at Loretto, said the services being proposed for the campus are already being provided by her hospital and other health facilities in the area. Henry and other residents said the site can serve other community needs, such as affordable housing or something for youth.
Longtime Austin resident and community organizer Lillian Drummond put it even more bluntly, saying, “We know what this is all about. This is a money grab for Medicare.”
Some residents also criticized Ald. Taliaferro, a supportor of the all-purpose health campus from the beginning.
Resident and organizer Dwayne Truss said there’s been both a lack of transparency and leadership on this project. The proposed campus, Truss added, is also a slap in the face to existing facilities like Loretto.
“When many institutions abandoned us, Loretto Hospital was still there, so you talk about behavioral health care, senior services – these are things they’ve been doing in this community.”
Taliaferro, however, told residents he was dedicated to bringing development to the community and believes the health campus is a good fit.
Concerning desires by residents for things like a grocery store at the site, Taliaferro said such businesses have been approached, but none has expressed interested in the Emmet location.
Many residents said their frustrations and skepticism stems from decades of past exploitation of the community by certain groups.
Doris Davenport, a Chicago radio talk show host, told the audience to much applause, “We’ve seen this game played so many times before, and we’re tired of it.”