February 16, 2010

Two sites proposed for Lab Schools addition

The University unveiled two proposals Thursday for an Early Childhood Center (ECC), to be built by the Lab Schools by 2013.

The plans call for an early education–specific building to be constructed on the school’s current campus at 59th Street and Dorchester Avenue or on the site of the Doctors Hospital, at 58th Street and Stony Island Avenue. University officials, architects from firms FGM and VDTA, Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, and Lab Schools Director David Magill spoke to an audience of around 80 in the Lab Schools’ Judd Hall.

Lab Schools have an obligation to accept a certain number of University-affiliated children, but historically, they are balanced by an equal number of unaffiliated students. Magill said the ECC project is part of a larger Lab Schools expansion aimed at rectifying a growing disparity between those groups, which ratio he placed at 65-to-35.

“It is really squeezing out the neighborhood children, and that has not been the tradition of the Lab Schools,” Magill said.

The expansion would make Lab Schools the fifth-largest independent school in the nation, Magill said, with 650 students in the ECC (from kindergarten to second grade) and 1,400 from grades 3–12.

The ECC would be a well lit, large space, Magill said, with easy access outdoors no matter where it is built. “Children learn best when they are extremely engaged in their learning,” he said.

Magill outlined the pros and cons of each site. Building the ECC on the Doctors Hospital site would allow for an airier building and more room for parking, but would split Lab Schoolsinto two campuses, on either side of the METRA track. To address this, the school may bus students from one site to the other to prevent families with children in each from having to travel across Hyde Park.

An ECC on the current Lab Schools site wouldn’t require busing, but either the tennis courts or soccer field would need to be bulldozed to make room, and the architects said the building would be more constricted.

But Economics Professor John Cochrane and Hyde Park blogger Elizabeth Fama, Lab Schools parents, asked at the meeting whether moving or removing the soccer field would be the easiest way to allow the ECC room it needed; demolition of the Doctors Hospital will be costly and is estimated to take three more months than the fields.

Community activist Jack Spicer agreed. “Wouldn’t you rather be busing kids to a soccer game once and a while...rather than busing little kids over to another site every day during the school year?” Spicer said in an interview. He also attended the meeting.

The Doctors Hospital is architecturally significant, and if that site were chosen, the new building might reflect the Hospital’s aesthetic up to a point, FGM spokesman Joe Chronister said, but the demands of an ECC-dedicated space make that difficult.

“The issue is that what we’re looking for is a low, wide building, and what we have with the existing building is a tall, narrow building,” Chronister said.

While the audience expressed some concerns, especially over parking availability and how families will adjust to bringing children to two different campuses should the Doctors Hospital plan go through, most used a Q&A period to remark on how open the process has been.

The University came under fire two years ago for pushing the development of a hotel on the Doctors Hospital site, which community members staunchly opposed.

Vice President for Civic Engagement Arnold Randall told the audience that this was the first of many talks the University would hold on the ECC’s development, a strategy that arose out of mistakes in how the dispute over the Doctors Hospital was handled.

“There was not enough communication, not enough transparency,” Randall said. “There were lots of ways for things to go better, and this is one of them.”

Robert Norton, who lives in the building just south of Doctors Hospital, said, “I’m very grateful for the open words about missed opportunities and communication with the neighborhood.”

Spicer said the meeting was fairly run, although he said it seemed the University had made up its mind to develop the Doctors Hospital site, despite protests to the contrary. Spicer was mildly surprised that the audience did not probe deeper into the presentation, however.

“It was a very moderately attended meeting and the tone was very businesslike,” Spicer said. “[The University was] clearly trying to make a quieter, more controlled community conversation, and I think they did so.”