Where the empty Overton Elementary School building now stands on 49th Street between South Indiana and South Prairie Avenues, Royce Cunningham sees a model of environmental consciousness within an urban community: one part produce market, one part office or gathering space, and one part museum of Bronzeville history. If realized, the Bronzeville native and founder of the Bronzeville construction management firm Architectural Services Group says that Overton will be one of the first buildings of its kind on the South Side: a marriage between high-tech sustainability and community involvement.
In March, CPS announced a plan to repurpose the fifty school buildings closed last year, inviting community members to propose plans subject to approval by their respective aldermen. In this first phase of the process, which CPS is calling “Competitive Redeployment Phase,” only firms whose proposals are approved by the aldermen will be allowed to bid on the buildings.
CPS has emphasized community involvement in the approval process to assure that the buildings are not simply sold to the highest bidder, but according to CPS representatives, the buildings will be sold to “the highest bid among proposals that satisfy the designated criteria for each site.” If the Board of Education does not then approve the sale, a school can be re-advertised as available for bids.
A member of the Bronzeville Community Action Council and the Grand Boulevard Federation, Cunningham is one of many community members with big plans for how to make these buildings serve their communities in new ways. According to the website that CPS has launched to facilitate the repurposing process, proposals include a community center, a boutique hotel, and additional parking for a hospital.
Cunningham envisions taking the building off the electricity grid, and hopes it might surpass self-sustainability to provide energy and produce to the neighborhood. He hopes to take advantage of the extensive window surface area of the building to develop a vertical garden, which could produce fresh crops year-round.
“Instead of going to Jewel or Trader Joes once or twice a month and buying a whole two carts of food that’s maybe two weeks old, [Bronzeville residents will be] coming here and purchasing a head of lettuce that’s no more than a couple days old. So that means that the incidence of some of these chronic urban diseases—high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, start to nosedive. It’s going to make the University of Chicago Medical people not happy—it’s gonna hit them in the pocketbook,” Cunningham said, laughing.
Additionally, he hopes to incorporate educational elements into his final design in order to bolster the Overton’s new role as a community hub and tourist destination. He also sees it as a chance to replace young people’s involvement in gangs and violence with education and jobs.
“Most of these kids have never seen that many black professionals. They probably haven’t seen a college professor or engineer—they see police all the time—lawyers, or rocket scientists, or some of the other professions that some of us have had the fortune to be involved in. So, they need to see us,” said Cunningham.
A representative of 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell’s office, under whose jurisdiction Overton falls, confirmed that several groups have approached the alderman about the school, but no official proposals have been submitted, not even the Architectural Services Group. Further, Cunningham has not yet secured the initial $10 million investment that he estimates will be required to fund the plan. Because of this high cost, he has some apprehension about the alderman’s approval of such a plan, but remains optimistic.
“Normally, [at] four o’clock two years ago, there would be a thousand kids, and another thousand parents, so this would have been a community hub,” Cunningham said of the Overton building. “And we want to turn it back into that.”
Update: As of May 21, 2014, Cunningham now estimates that the price tag of his project will be $4 million.