The Chicago Plan Commission voted unanimously on April 15 to recommend zoning changes that will allow a private school to build a new facility and athletic fields in East Garfield Park. 

The Chicago Hope Academy, a private Christian high school at 2189 W. Bowler St., and the Chicago Lions Rugby club are looking to redevelop the land at the east end of East Garfield Park into the new school and new athletic fields. The property is located in the area bound by Taylor Street in the south, Washtenaw Avenue in the west, Harrison Street in the north and the railroad embankment in the east. 

Hope Academy already operates an athletic center at the north end of the property, at 2641 W. Harrison St., and it plans to build a school at the west end of the property, at 731 S. Washtenaw Ave. Lions Rugby will build two athletic fields and a field house, along with a dog park and a playground for community use, at the south end of the site. 

Mike Parella, a project manager with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, said that the two organizations have been working on the project since 2018. They held community meetings on Jan. 10, 2018 and March 8. In response to the feedback, they agreed to add a dog park, a basketball court and a playground exclusively for community use.

Project architect Joe Buehler said that the school will be three stories tall and span 120,000 square feet, with a chapel at the north end of the building and second-floor outdoor terrace connected to the top of the athletic field bleachers. A new fitness center will serve as a connector between the school and the athletic building. 

“The new school will have a big trades component; we’re working with the unions on that,” Muzikowski said. “We need more people in the trades, so it’s going to be a big part for the students in our school.”

According to Hope Academy’s presentation to the commission, the project will create 150 construction jobs and 80 permanent jobs. They set the goals of hiring at least 50 percent of the workforce from Chicago, and at least 7.5 percent from the surrounding community.

The project is estimated to cost a total of $37 million, $34 million of which Chicago Hope Academy has already raised. Hope Academy founder Bob Muzikowski said that the existing school was at capacity, and the new building will allow them to teach more students while turning their current building into a K-8 school.  

An architectural rendering of the new school Hope Academy is planning to build in East Garfield Park. | Provided

Now that the proposal has cleared the Plan Commission, it will need to clear the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards before going before the full City Council for the final vote. The vote isn’t on the agenda for the next committee meeting on April 20. 

Muzikowski told the commission that Hope Academy traces its roots to a Little League baseball team that launched in the Cabrini-Green public housing development in 1991 and was profiled in “Hardball: A Season in the Projects,” a 1993 book by journalist Daniel Coyle. 

“When they took the field away, at Cabrini-Green, we moved the league over to the West Side,” he said, saying that they ended up practicing at Altgeld Park, located at 515 S. Washtenaw Ave.

In 2004, the nonprofit purchased the closed St. Callistus School and parish from the Archdiocese of Chicago. Muzikowski said that the school acquired the largely industrial land for the new school “around seven years ago.”  

Bruce Prince, who said he has lived in the community for 50 years, explained that he appreciated what Hope Academy has done in East Garfield Park so far and that he fully supports the project.

“I have no objection to them building a school in the community,” he said. “I actually welcome it.”

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...