PBL Eastlawn School

PBL Eastlawn School, slated to be demolished this fall, is located at 341 E. Center St. in Paxton.

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Can we allow the fate of the historically significant PBL Eastlawn School building to be based on a coin toss?

Now that the addition to Clara Peterson Elementary School is complete and everyone is enjoying the new facility, let us all take a step back and contemplate the fate of Eastlawn.

Eastlawn is not a dilapidated, rundown building that needs to be torn down. It is a solid, beautiful brick structure that could stand for another 100 years. The Eastlawn building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places — a national honor! The building has historic significance to people within our community and beyond, who appreciate early 20th century architecture.

Eastlawn was designed by Joseph William Royer, who also designed our local courthouse. Royer was a prominent architect, and his architectural achievements are well recognized (Urbana has an entire district designated as an homage to his work). Despite all of this, school district representatives are essentially standing by the demolition of this historically significant structure based on results of a misguided referendum that are on par with a coin flip.

The referendum

In several Ford County Record articles concerning the demolition of Eastlawn, the school district representatives stood behind the referendum as a sort of absolute, providing them with total authority to follow through with the demolition schedule they had devised that would lead to the obsoletion of the Eastlawn building. Since this all seems to hinge on the result of that referendum vote, let us take a moment to revisit the wording of the referendum, and the results.

The wording of the referendum was mostly focused on seeking approval for funds for the addition and renovation of Clara Peterson, with only a brief mention of the fate of Eastlawn. Everything would have been so much easier if these were treated as two different items for evaluation, since they are two very different things — one promises something wonderful for the children of our community, while the other concerns the future of a building with historic significance after it is no longer needed by the school district.

The bulk of the requested funds that required voter approval was for the addition to Clara Peterson, as was most of the wording in the statement. The fate of Eastlawn was seemingly tacked on to a more enticing package, which likely caused spurious results.

As for the results of the vote, let us remind ourselves of what actually happened. I recall several comments on early Facebook feeds relating to the demise of Eastlawn that seemed to assume the referendum passed by a landslide, but that was far from the reality. The results were so close, that it took some time before the tally was official.

The official tally was 2,024 (~50.9%) votes for “yes” and 1,954 (~49.1%) votes for “no.” If we ran a simple statistics test on these results, we would find that these results are not statistically different from a coin toss!

So how can they stand by that result in such a steadfast manner that they will not even give pause to their process, and listen to arguments to give a second chance to a solid brick, historically significant building that is eligible for the National Register?

Overspending of tax dollars

The initial referendum information provided to voters listed the cost breakdown, and the demolition of Eastlawn was listed as $864,056. However, the actual cost for the demolition came out to $1.15 million dollars, which is nearly a 30% increase in costs to the taxpayer. Voter approval was required for the referendum, and though the vote barely passed, the voters technically only approved the proposed demolition costs, and not the costs we are about to be faced with if the demolition proceeds.

IEPA permit likely required

Another issue that the public might not be aware of is that the demolition likely requires a specific permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) relating to stormwater drainage. When buildings of that size are demolished, there are more things that need to be considered for the health and safety of all.

The organization Landmarks Illinois has written several letters to the school district representatives regarding the necessity of this permit, but they have yet to receive any sort of response, even when direct questions were asked and answers were requested.

Since the IEPA is a state agency, the status of the historic Eastlawn building as eligible for the National Register of Historic places comes into play. This status would require the school district to consult with the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to mitigate any adverse impacts (clearly, demolition is an adverse impact). The auction at Eastlawn in July, as well as the asbestos mitigation currently in progress, would likely have been considered adverse impacts in consultation with SHPO.

The school district representatives were aware of this requirement prior to those adverse activities taking place. They had the authority to stop both from happening the way they did (an auction could have still taken place, but the items being auctioned off would have been more appropriately considered to maintain the integrity of the interior of the building), but yet, they did nothing.

What is the post-demolition plan for the land?

A question that I am sure is on the minds of many is what the school district plans on doing with the land Eastlawn sits on after it is demolished, as well as the park-like area adjacent to Eastlawn.

The playground equipment was moved to Clara Peterson, so will the neighborhood be left with empty lots for decades?

The park is a large piece of property (currently zoned residential) that is adjacent to the commercial strip along U.S. 45; it is prime real estate for substantial development if there was any interest. Plus, by re-zoning that block commercial, that would allow for Eastlawn to be more easily rezoned, as well, since it would then be contiguous.

It would be in the city of Paxton’s best interest to be actively engaged in this, since the use of this land, for whatever purpose, will have a long-term effect on the community.

The initial referendum information provided to voters stated: “Eastlawn Elementary would be demolished as part of the referendum option. The cost of the demolition is included in the referendum. The Eastlawn site would be returned to sod to be repurposed by the district or the community.”

Well, what if the community would prefer to repurpose the Eastlawn building and allow the building to remain standing?

Ironically, members of the “community” have not been given responses to direct questions pertaining to this, and furthermore, it does not seem that there have been any discussions with the city about the future plans for the land that the community has been notified of. If there is a plan for this property, it appears to be a well-guarded secret.

So, I would like to ask you, fellow citizen, are you OK with that type of closed-door approach? Wouldn’t greater transparency on a topic such as this benefit us all? Wouldn’t it be wise to halt or delay the process of demolition and get the city and school district to work together on ideas of long-term development that would most benefit the community, and then decide the fate of Eastlawn?

From an urban development standpoint, with a focus on long-term economic stability and prosperity in our community, it would be wise for the school board to communicate with the mayor and city council members as to how this school property could be best utilized now that it no longer serves a purpose for education.

Request for proposals

For those who fear that if Eastlawn was left standing it would be transferred to private ownership and could too easily go into a state of disrepair, the solution would be for an official request for proposals (RFP) to take place instead of a bid.

To clarify, a bid would allow the building to go to the highest bidder without any understanding or need for a plan of how they will utilize that property. However, an RFP would not only ask for a bid, but also a detailed proposal as to how that organization would use the building in the long term, and how it would in turn benefit the community and local economy.

It is unlikely that the school board would be interested in initiating a formal RFP, and really the board’s focus should be on education, not on urban development and planning. So, this is a point where the city would have a more vested interest. If the city were to negotiate with the school board to, say, purchase the land and the Eastlawn building for even $1 (saving taxpayers the remainder of the demolition costs), this would allow the city to initiate a formal RFP and make an informed decision that would most benefit the community in the long term.

Adaptive reuse potential

Eastlawn may no longer serve a purpose in our community’s public education system, but please take a moment to imagine some of the adaptive reuse possibilities that Eastlawn would be perfect for.

Some people view Eastlawn as a liability for the city because of its sheer size, but on the flipside, its size is what could make it an incredible asset to our community, as that has the potential to attract a larger business.

A business or organization of that scale would have greater potential to benefit our local community by creating more jobs, attracting more residents and possibly attracting tourist dollars (depending on what type of business model was developed). Plus, our community would retain a beautiful, historic brick structure that fits the character of our community’s landscape.

Even though asbestos abatement has commenced, Eastlawn is still a valuable building, and in some ways the building might now be even more enticing to a developer, since in this state it is a clean slate for a new vision.

We really need to look beyond our local community and attract outside organizations to look at the opportunities that this building could serve them. Eastlawn could be anything from condos, assisted living, a specialized school, or even a hydroponics facility that could grow produce year-round, but we would need to seek this level of development and not just expect it to stumble upon our wonderful community by chance.

The city’s newly approved solar ordinance could also be used to attract development. The roof of Eastlawn is nearly half an acre, and the installation of a solar garden on it could have the potential to both generate a considerable amount of green energy and simultaneously help preserve the roof. In this sense, Eastlawn could be a valuable testing site, as it would be a great example of how a historic, flat-roofed building can be beneficial to communities across our country.

Attracting a business that would fit the scale of Eastlawn would also benefit the community by creating a new source of tax revenue from that building, and the development of the adjacent empty lots would do the same. This could potentially help the city with a new tax revenue stream that could help alleviate the $6 million debt to the school district that resulted from the underperformance of the city’s tax-increment financing district.

Furthermore, through job creation and the attraction that Eastlawn as a standing building could have to prospective businesses, there could be a greater appeal to draw new families to our community, which would also help reverse the trend of our district’s steadily declining school enrollment.

Our community has been making a steady comeback in so many ways, and a lot of great people in town have put their heart into creating and sustaining local businesses and entities that add character, value and a unique sense of place to our community. This is helping us become a stable local economy, but if we want to thrive, we also need to think beyond our current scope and embrace new opportunities.

The historic Eastlawn building — brimming with exterior craftsmanship, historic significance and a grand aesthetic — is an opportunity for our future, but those in power need to step back, think deeply and give it a real chance!