The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

A Tale Of Two Schools? Or Upzoning’s Cautionary Tale?

Manierre Elementary School in Chicago, IL.  Source: Google Earth
If there was ever a proxy story that explains my position on the potential perils of upzoning in major cities, this is it.

Chicago public radio station WBEZ published this story (which also ran on the airwaves; check it out) about two of the 566 public elementary schools currently in operation in the city.  What happened should spark outrage among the fiscally frugal, education reformers, and those who uphold the value of diversity in America.  But what the story really demonstrates is how race-based decisions are made that isolate some and insulate others — even when the decisions are not explicitly race-based.  I contend that, in an effort to provide more affordable housing, upzoning to do so could play out in a very similar fashion.

From the WBEZ story:

“Manierre Elementary is in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, tucked away behind the bustling commercial corridors on Wells Street and North Avenue.

The school is surrounded on two sides by renovated brownstones, new modern abodes and mini-mansions.

But most of Manierre’s students are poor and black. Many live directly across the street in the Marshall Field Garden Apartments, a 10-building complex of subsidized housing.
Over the past few years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school district officials have made a series of decisions that virtually guaranteed that Manierre will not be integrated with children beyond those in the subsidized housing nearby.

Manierre’s story is illustrative of a pattern that is playing out in other areas of the city, especially in communities that circle the Loop. In these cases, new schools or annexes are built to deal with the overcrowding that is the result of middle-class families flocking to the city.”

Some context.   In 2013, the Chicago Public Schools announced it would close nearly 50 schools, a controversial decision that prompted protests from parents, students and teachers.  CPS said the closings were considered as a cost savings measure; most of the schools on the closing watch list were underutilized schools with many operating far below capacity.  Most of the low utilization schools happened to be in predominantly South and West side African-American neighborhoods, and that is where the impact of the school closings was most pronounced.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  CPS is also faced with overcrowding in its schools in other parts of the city — in largely Latino neighborhoods on the Northwest and Southwest sides, and in largely white (and affluent) neighborhoods surrounding the Loop and extending northward along the lakefront.    The WBEZ story notes that CPS reports that 313 of the city’s 566 elementary schools have excess capacity, but that also means that 253 do not.

Manierre Elementary sits in one of the few places where an underutilized, underperforming school lies virtually within sight of an overcrowded, high-performing school — in the Old Town neighborhood on the city’s Near North Side.  Manierre (and Jenner, another nearby school) are vestiges from the area’s Cabrini-Green days, when both schools primarily served residents of the vast public housing complex.  About one mile to the north is Lincoln Elementary, squarely in the middle of the affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood.  Parents of Lincoln students have been clamoring for more space for years.

The WBEZ story goes on to explain that Manierre was originally scheduled to be included with the other school closures in 2013.  Manierre parents were outraged and pushing CPS to offer its rationale for closing, especially since they knew their school was underutilized in the middle of an overcrowded school landscape.  Manierre was eventually spared from closing.  However, a document found after the school closings may have shed some light on CPS’s decision-making process:

“In the summer after the school closings, a document came to light that appeared to give a reason for the district’s desire to close Manierre and merge it with Jenner. It was an internal planning document generated by school district officials and produced as part of discovery in a lawsuit challenging the school closings.

The document says that once the Manierre building was “emptied” of Manierre students, it could possibly be “leveraged” to deal with overcrowding at nearby schools.”

Keeping Manierre open meant that strategy was off the table.  But CPS’s next step was stunning.  Again from the story:

“(Chicago Mayor Rahm) Emanuel’s next decision further cemented Manierre’s racial and socioeconomic isolation. He announced a $19 million annex for Lincoln Elementary, adding 19 classrooms.

The mayor, district officials, and Ald. Michele Smith defended the controversial addition, arguing the redevelopment of the old Children’s Memorial Hospital would be bringing many new families to the area.

But once the new annex was built onto Lincoln, there would be no incentive for wealthier residents of the Lincoln Park area to look to Manierre as an option for their children.”

That last line is where a parallel can be drawn between this action and the possible impacts of upzoning.

Rather than utilize its existing assets, and possibly tackle issues of integration at the same time, CPS elected to spend money it doesn’t have to build an annex that, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t need.  One could argue that the Lincoln annex puts the two schools further apart, not closer.

And that has been the crux of my anti-upzoning argument.  Where upzoning succeeds, it creates more housing in the place where the demand is greatest.  Upzoning gives license to the development community to do just that.  It also gives license to others — us — to forget about the underutilized parts of our cities, and wait until other neighborhoods are “emptied” so they can be “leveraged” to address the overcrowding in other areas.

This is repugnant.

Many will say they don’t see the parallels, or this is an apples-and-oranges comparison, or the racial and cultural dynamics of their city don’t match Chicago’s segregated and divisive nature.  No.  Similar actions are taking place in cities across the country.  It just happens to be clearer and more evident in Chicago because 1) the numbers of minorities — particularly African-Americans — is higher here than in many other cities, and 2) segregation’s legacy has left pretty stark lines across the city, making such actions all the more visible.  In cities that have fewer African-Americans, or where segregation is less visibly defined, the same patterns and policies exist.

I’ve already made my claim that the proponents of upzoning have already won.  They’ve developed a sound intellectual foundation in the midst of the return-to-the-city phenomenon of the last 20-25 years.  High home prices and rents in metros across the country lead people to believe that reasonable new actions should be considered.

But why can’t people see that reasonable actions could create insulated enclaves where empathy for those outside of it disappears?  Or that reasonable actions could reasonably leave a lot of people isolated from the rest of society?

3 Responses to “A Tale Of Two Schools? Or Upzoning’s Cautionary Tale?”

  1. Brennan Griffin

    Upzoning is a fundamentally different policy, though! You do see the same shenanigans with school district boundaries everywhere in the country. We have not seen large scale upzoning in places with high demand, though, to my knowedge. And most proponents would pair it with density bonuses, inclusionary zoning, and policies around building affordable housing in areas of high opportunity. So upzoning as a desegregation is unproven but promising, by my lights. Not upzoning in cities with high demand is total surrender to segregation, however.

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