Clarke Elementary School in Austin. | Igor Studenkov

Members of Austin’s Island neighborhood are looking to use an abandoned parking lot at 1100 S. Menard Ave., across the street from Clark Elementary School, 1045 S. Monitor Ave. as a school parking lot, so that its current parking lot can be used to expand the playground.

The proposal came in response to the current owner’s plans to subdivide the property into two lots and build a pair of three-flat buildings. After a group of residents expressed concerns that the plans wouldn’t fit the neighborhood, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes the property, declined to support the owner’s project. This led to discussions about what would be the better way to use the lot.

Nate Tubbs, president of the Island Civic Association community organization and Clark’s Local School Council, said that the students were the ones who came up with the play lot expansion idea.  He said the plan presents a rare opportunity for an otherwise landlocked school to expand. But any deal would require the Chicago Public Schools district to buy the property.

The Island neighborhood gets its name, because it is separated from the rest of Austin by industrial areas to the east and the Eisenhower Expressway to the north. 

“I think it’s important that we try to maximize any properties we do have,” Tubbs said.

Clark Elementary open space is about evenly split between the outdoor areas, with some playground equipment and faculty parking. Shifting the parking lot somewhere else would double the school’s play area.

Tubbs said that, to the best of his knowledge, the Menard Avenue parking lot was previously used by the industrial businesses across the street, but it has been abandoned “for a number of years.” The fence and the parking gate show some rust, and plants grow through multiple cracks of the pavement.

Adam Zegarski, the owner of West Humboldt Park based A-Z Builders construction and remodeling business, 4715 W. Chicago Ave., bought the property in November of 2021. He applied to change the zoning from Neighborhood Shopping District to residential and divide the property into two lots. Each lot would have a three-unit building with three parking spots. 

“I and a few other neighbors began receiving calls from other neighbors asking what was going on,” Tubbs recalled. “We reached out to [Taliaferro], who informed us of the zoning change request and that he didn’t think the request was a bad idea.”

The alderman said that, since the surrounding area is residential, “it would be good to keep it consistent, to keep it residential,” but he still wanted to hear input from residents.

Tubbs said that residents opposed the plans for various reasons, including impact on parking and “not wanting more housing in the neighborhood” to concerns that the buildings would look “too modern” compared to other buildings.

Tubbs said that some residents preferred to “see the space used for something our community needs, rather than what a developer wants.”

He and Taliaferro said that a public meeting on Jan. 21 had a strong turnout and the alderman was persuaded not to support the plan. While the application was referred to the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards on Dec. 15, 2021, the City Clerk’s website indicates that the ordinance hasn’t moved anywhere since then.

Zegarski said that he still intends to build something residential on the property, and he was working with Taliaferro to design something that would be more acceptable. Taliaferro said that he hasn’t heard anything from Zegarski since the Jan. 21 meeting.

When asked whether he would support the playlot expansion proposal, Taliaferro said that “it’s not for me to support or not to support,’ since he has no say over CPS’ real estate decisions.

Tubbs said that he is leery of what might happen to the property if Ald. Taliaferro wins the June 28 Democratic primary race for 11th subcircuit judge. With no Republican opponents in general election, the primary win would be as good as winning a seat.

“The most likely thing is, the developer would try again, and we, as the community, would like to be notified of those plans,” Tubbs said. “And, if the [alderperson] changes, I would be concerned about the future of the property. I would like to see it used for something the community wants.”