The former Emmet Elementary school building is now in the hands of a venerable West Side nonprofit, which so far hasn’t shared much about what it plans to do with the building. 

During his March 7 community meeting, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said that Westside Health Authority, the well-known social service organization, bought the building. 

The purchase comes 15 months after Chicago Public Schools moved to sell all of the shuttered buildings as quickly as possible and a little over a month after another shuttered Austin school, Francis Scott Key Elementary, was sold to a private school currently in Oak Park. 

Morris Reed, WHA’s CEO, said that the organization plans to use some of the building for operations and lease out the rest, but didn’t elaborate any further, stating only that WHA will get input from the community. He said the organization will also create a community benefits agreement for the project to ensure that the interests of Austin residents are satisfied.  

Robert Emmet Elementary School, which was located at 5500 W Madison Street, was one of the four Austin schools closed in the spring of 2013 as part of the last city-wide wave of school closings. 

George Leland Elementary School was acquired by Austin non-profit Kidz Express [sic] in September 2016 and Keys Elementary was acquired by the Field School, a private school that services children from across the Chicago area. Members of the school’s administration said that they had been planning to locate in Austin. 

In the fall of 2016, Cook County Health and Hospital System, the Sinai Health System and the Oak Park-based PCC Wellness Center proposed a joint project to convert the building into Emmet Community Health and Wellness Center. 

It was supposed to have a number of medical services, including primary care, dental, behavioral healthcare, specialty care and a facility with diagnostic equipment such as x-ray machines. The idea was to consolidate the services of those medical providers at one place in Austin, so that residents wouldn’t need to travel outside their community to get them. 

As Austin Weekly News reported at the time, many residents expressed concerns about the projects impact on the surrounding neighborhood and whether the residents themselves would actually benefit from the proposal.

But all of that became a moot point in January 2017, after CPS decided to fast-track the sale process. As Taliaferro told residents during his Jan. 4, 2017 community meeting, the school district decided that selling the buildings made more sense than continuing to spend money on upkeep and maintenance. 

The buildings would be sold to the highest bidder, the alderman said, with the Board of Education approving all bids. The aldermen would have a say over any zoning changes the new owners would ask for, but not over the development process. According to CPS officials Emmet is zoned for mixed-use and business purposes.

WHA provides a wide variety of social services, including healthcare services, community development, employment assistance, youth advocacy and services to help ex-offenders re-enter society and lead productive lives. 

It also runs Special Service Area 72, which includes the portion of Chicago Avenue between Central and Kilpatrick avenues, and the section of Cicero Avenue between Rice and Ohio streets. Properties inside the SSA pay more in property taxes in order to generate funds for public improvements in the area. 

WHA is currently headquartered inside the SSA, at 5051 W. Chicago Ave., and it operates some of its services in other buildings throughout Austin. For example, it provides reentry services for ex-offenders at 5422 W. Division St. 

During his March 7 meeting, which was held at the Columbus Park Rectory, Taliaferro said that WHA may use the purchase as an opportunity to move its offices and services under one roof. 

“There’s a lot of community engagement with WHA,” he said. “They will probably be consolidating offices into the location.”

Taliaferro added that the building may give them space to offer more services. 

Moving to Emmet would put WHA outside of the SSA and further from the community’s geographical center, but it’s larger than the organizations current headquarters. According to CPS’ invitation to bid, the three-story former school building spans a total of 72,400 square feet. The building has amenities that can be re-purposed, most notably a gym that can double as a meeting area. 

It is located inside Madison/Austin tax increment financing (TIF) district, which had $3.9 million in 2017 that can be used to refurbish and renovate the building. WHA can also potentially request money from several nearby TIFs. 

In an e-mail statement, Reed wrote that his organization was still trying to figure out how it would use the building.

“We acquired the property as an opportunity to develop the space with community input and a benefits agreement that will maximize opportunities for residents,” he stated. “We intend to be one of the many tenants that will be necessary to develop the property. We are currently evaluating the best use for the property and potential tenants.”

Reed did not respond to follow-up questions about what kind of tenants WHA was looking for and why the tenants were necessary to develop the property.


Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...