Public education vs. preservation

Public education vs. preservation

How important is it to let the past dictate the future?

The undeniable message dominating the November 2016 Champaign schools expansion proposal was “Keep Central Central,” and voters overwhelmingly approved it. This, after voters rejected other expansion proposals that called for building a new Central on the city’s northern edge.

Well, the new Central High School will certainly remain central — in the form of a vast expansion of its current location west of downtown Champaign.

But in what configuration?

It’s unclear because even though it seemed beyond obvious that new construction to accommodate the expansion would require the demolition of older neighboring properties, local preservationists have challenged that approach by asking that three of the buildings acquired by the school district — and likely facing demolition — be given historic landmark status.

The three buildings are:

— The Phillippe Mansion/McKinley Family YMCA at 500 W. Church St. Part of the building is the former residence of Davis and Rachel Harris Phillippe, built on land owned by Rachel’s father, influential banker B.F. Harris Sr. In 1938, a citizens’ group bought the mansion using a bequest from the estate of U.S. Sen. William B. McKinley, who had died in 1926, and turned into the YMCA that bore the Illinois senator’s name. The YMCA built additions including a swimming pool and gymnasium.

— The Burnham House at 603 W. Church St. Once a grand mansion, the building has been modified to accommodate multiple apartment residents.

— The Bailey House at 606 W. Church St.

Although members of the Champaign Historical Preservation Commission voted Nov. 2 to recommend all three buildings for historic status that would block their demolition, staffers for the city of Champaign last week urged the plan commission to apply that designation only to the Burnham House.

The issue has mostly been confined at this point to discussion of preservation issues. But it’s ultimately going to be resolved on a broader basis — how would any preservation concerns, if adopted, affect the school district’s ambitious plans for the broader area surrounding Central High School — by a political body, the city council.

Suffice it to say, members of the school board are not happy with the late intervention by Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County.

School board President Chris Kloeppel said the board was clear in its intentions and dropped some proposals — the construction of sports facilities — to meet public concerns. Former Mayor Dan McCollum, who is hardly hostile to preservation concerns, has also criticized the idea that the buildings be accorded landmark status at such a late stage of the game.

Process and policy, however, are two different things.

PACA officials defend their late arrival to this debate because of the complexity of marshalling the material needed to justify landmark status for these properties. But that really doesn’t matter. They’re entitled to do what they’ve done, and that should settle the process argument.

Policy, however, is a different matter altogether. If the argument is to be settled on the merits, the outcome will be resolved by what is the greater good.

Champaign architect Neil Strack has noted that Central, too, is a historic property. If it’s to be maintained as a school that offers modern amenities, that also has to be fit into the equation.

As this debate unfolds, it would be in the school district’s interest to explain its construction plans as fully as it can as it relates to the construction complications caused by the preservation any or all of these three properties.

That ought to include the cost of renovating and updating these properties. Frankly, it’s hard to see what the school district would do with any of them if forced to keep these buildings in their current form.

One other problem is that the district has spent a considerable sum of money buying the properties, and it seems patently unfair that, after having acquired them, others would be allowed to decide what’s to be done with them.

If this sounds like an endorsement of the school district’s position, it is — but with qualifications. The primary one is, to what extent would preserving any or all of these properties undermine the district’s construction plans?

If the choice is between building the best possible high school in the most sensible geographical format or preserving an old property because it was once an esteemed, unique building, the future and all its promise must trump the past and its lost grandeur.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion

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rsp wrote on November 12, 2017 at 10:11 am

The two groups had all the information they needed back in the 1980's. Why didn't they apply then? Because they knew of no plans to change the building. I have lost all respect for them in this process.

There are other properties in town deserving of such an honor. Have they reached out to the owners? Researched the buildings? Are they just lying in wait in case a property is sold to a new buyer so after the fact they can disrupt plans and possibly someone's life investment?