City officials and community leaders, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, attended the Dec. 1 ribbon-cutting for the new fitness plaza outside of Emmet School in Austin. | Shanel Romain

The Aspire Center, the workforce development and community center coming to the former Emmet School building, 5500 W. Madison St., won’t open its doors until 2024. But in the meantime, residents can take advantage of an outdoor community space that officially opened on Dec. 3 in the southwest corner of the school’s former parking lot.

The POPFit community plaza is the latest of the Public Outdoor Plaza (POP) spaces built on vacant city-owned lots thought a collaboration between the Westside Health Authority (WHA), Lamar Johnson Collaborative architecture firm and the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

The POPFit plaza features a youth soccer field, a running track and outdoor fitness equipment. WHA owns the Emmet School building, and it’s currently working with the Austin Coming Together coalition and other Chicago nonprofits to turn the building into the Aspire Center for Workplace Innovation, which will have a BMO Harris bank branch and community spaces. The center will also offer job training and social service programs.

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There are currently four POP plazas in the city, with seven more planned in the future. The first POP plaza opened last year at the southeast corner of Chicago and Lockwood avenues. Another one, POPGrove, opened in August in West Garfield Park.

The Aspire Center is part of the larger Aspire Initiative, which also includes 60 units of affordable housing and a new health and fitness center in other parts of Austin. WHA will move its existing workforce development program into the building, and it will become a new home of ACT’s Austin Community Hub social services program. The Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) will provide manufacturing jobs training.  

A plaza wasn’t part of the original plans for the Aspire Center. During the Dec. 3 grand opening for the fitness plaza, WHA CEO Morris Reed said that a fitness court was something recommended by the Good Neighbor Campaign. Vanessa Stokes, who heads WHA’s community development initiatives, said that the organization embraced the idea because the space makes it easier for community members to exercise.

POPFit plaza features a running track wrapped around a soccer field and a fitness area. Stokes said that the outdoor fitness equipment that was put up during the grand opening was a temporary placeholder. The permanent outdoor exercise equipment should be installed by mid-December. She said that during colder months, the soccer field can also be turned into an ice-skating rink, the only one on the West Side.

Stokes that the Aspire Center construction is expected to begin on March 23, with the goal of completing it within the next 12 to 18 months.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during the grand opening ceremony that the plaza is an example of a project where the city listened to the community’s wishes, as opposed to “some elected official who is talking and talking about values and not doing [anything].”

Lightfoot also described the project as a way to change the narrative about the West Side by creating something powered by the community and uplifting, turning “community eyesores” into “community assets.”

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes Emmet School, said the mayor “has given her heart and her soul not just in the 29th ward, but in the West Side and the South Side … I went from trying to get a trash can [during former mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration] to seeing the Aspire Center come to life.”

DPD commissioner Maurice Cox described the plaza as a symbol of the city’s commitment while the Aspire Center remains under construction.

“We have to give folks a little sense of what was possible, because it takes a long time, as those folks will tell you, to pull off this transformation,” he said.

ACT Executive Director Darnell Shields said that, as someone who grew up only a few blocks south of the Emmet site, he’s eager to see the building revitalized and pleased that the Aspire Center has community support.

“We’re now the community that’s building,” he said. “We’re not the community that just trying to survive. We’re moving forward.”

Marshawn Feltus, of Austin, is planning to open the Act Yoga studio storefront near the POPfit, at 5457 W. Madison St., early next year, and he plans to hold outdoor yoga classes at the plaza. He described it as a “much-needed” amenity.

“Just having this park around here, based around health, it [fits] what I want to do,” Feltus said. “It’s good to have it in this space in my neighborhood — where I live, work and play.”

Editor’s note and full disclosure: Darnell Shields sits on the board of Growing Community Media, the nonprofit that owns Austin Weekly News.

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...