February 2, 2010

Lab School proposal evokes memories of failed Doctors Hospital bid

Hyde Parkers are recalling tension and politicking with the University after the Lab School announced tentative plans to build a new building on the site of the Doctors Hospital.

This isn’t the first plan for the shuttered site, on 58th and Cottage Grove, which the University bought for $10 million in 2006. The original University proposal included a hotel that was strenuously opposed by community members. In November 2008, the 39th precinct of the Fifth Ward passed a referendum banning the sale of alcohol in the area, the so-called “dry vote,” that effectively killed any hotel proposal before the measure can be reconsidered in 2012.

The future of the Early Childhood Center (ECC), an expansion of the Lab School for nursery school through second grade, still depends upon a permit to change the zoning of the site. This will require the support of the city, local officials, and community members, many of whom voted to obstruct the hotel plan over a year ago.

Jack Spicer, a Hyde Park community activist and preservationist, said that the failure of the hotel plan was the result of poor communication with Hyde Park residents. Spicer said that the University needs to change its development strategy for the ECC so that the community “doesn’t feel it’s being hustled. We’re not just sheep needing a shepherd.”

Spicer said he has not seen evidence of more substantive community outreach. The University can best produce results, he said, by “treating the community as a partner, not the enemy. Sometimes the phrase ‘civic engagement’ can have a certain Orwellian quality when used by the University.”

Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston said fears that the University would ignore community input were unfounded. “The approach of the University will be different this time. They will actually talk with people in the community,” she said.

Lauren Polite, president of the Lab School Parents’ Association, said the Doctors Hospital site is just one site on which the ECC may be built. The Lab School needs to expand, she said, because it has become too competitive for many students without University affiliations to get in. “One thing parents value is diversity. If there’s not room to admit students from different backgrounds, then there is no diversity,” she said.

Polite thinks the University has been able to get many opinions on the proposal from within the Lab School community. “I think the school and the University have done a good job of including everyone affected, including parents. They’ve reached out to everyone. From what I’ve seen they’re very committed to an open process.”