U of C gets $1 land deal for charter school

The city of Chicago has proposed to sell highly valued real estate on the South Side to the University of Chicago for one dollar.

The property, comprising about 20 parcels between 63rd and 64th Streets in Woodlawn, has an appraised value of $755,000, according to the city.

The sale surfaced as early as April of this year, when 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran sought a rezoning of the land for "a new institutional planned development for a charter school," according to city documents.

The city's Community Development Commission okayed the sale at its Oct. 13, 2015 meeting. Soon after, a public notice appeared in Chicago newspapers, inviting others to submit "alternative proposals."

The university currently operates a charter school across the street from the property, at 6420 S. University Ave. The school, called UChicago Charter Woodlawn, uses land and buildings that it leases from the Chicago Board of Education.

The leased site is the former home of Wadsworth Elementary School, which Chicago Public Schools moved several blocks south into the former Dumas Elementary in 2013. The vacated school buildings were then leased to UChicago Charter Woodlawn.

In August 2014, the U of C proposed to buy the former Wadsworth land and buildings from the Board of Education for $100,000. At the time, the university said that it planned to spend $23 million to redevelop the campus. That deal never went through.

Instead, in early 2015, the university unveiled a plan to build a new charter-school campus north of 64th Street, on vacant, city-owned land between Greenwood and University Avenues. The plan calls for the university to break ground in February 2015, and open the new campus in August 2017. UChicago Charter Woodlawn would move entirely to the new campus. (A link to an excerpt of the plan appears below.)

Woodlawn charter site

It appears that neither the city nor the university disclosed how much the university would pay for the city-owned land—until last month, when a 2.5" by 3.5" ad in local newspapers announced the proposed sale price of one dollar.

"It's a giveaway to the University of Chicago," said Ulysses Blakely, whose long-time home is next to the existing charter school.

Blakeley has been active with a group of other residents, called the Woodlawn Development Council, who have questioned the University's charter-school expansion plans since 2014.

Both the existing school site and the proposed development site reside in a tax increment financing (TIF) district, wherein the city sets aside property taxes to fund new development. The city often awards TIF funds to developers who build in so-called blighted communities—thereby generating more property taxes and creating community amenities.

Which is partly why the charter school deserves a break on the land price, said Calmetta Coleman, a University of Chicago spokeswoman, via e-mail. Coleman said that the development "will offer public benefits on land that has been vacant for 40 years."

"The city often donates land to individuals and organizations where there is a commitment to invest in the land for a community benefit," Coleman said. "In this case, the city is essentially donating the land to support the university’s efforts to redevelop it for public use."

Blakely disagrees with the university's stance. "Their position is, 'Well, nobody else is doing anything, so we should just be given this' . . . that's patently false," Blakeley said.

According to Blakeley, the presence of UChicago Woodlawn Charter has inhibited other development—a condition that expansion will exacerbate.

"That constrains what other investors or developers might want to do with [nearby] property," said Blakeley.

To put the school on vacant land south of 63rd Street, Blakeley maintained, "sort of closes off potential development for anything else on the north side of the street. There are regulations about what can go within a certain distance of a school, what can be sold, what kind of establishments can be there." Building the new campus, he said, "automatically captures that space for the university's purposes into a sort of educational ghetto."

According to city documents, if the city receives no alternative proposals for the land by Nov. 16, the planning department may green-light the sale.

The city's planning department did not respond to several requests for comment.

Document: April 2015 presentation by U of C on Woodlawn charter-school development