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New gym for Leo High School, community health center highlight proposed developments in Auburn Gresham

The proposed Healthy Lifestyle Building, 839 W. 79th. St., is being developed by the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation. (Zak Koeske / Daily Southtown)

An ambitious plan aims to breathe new life into Auburn Gresham's 79th Street Corridor by developing a community health center and athletic facility for Leo High School on a long-vacant block in the South Side community.

While a neighborhood-wide economic resurgence remains the ultimate goal for community stakeholders, the plan's initial phase focuses on the revitalization of a single block of 79th between Peoria and Green streets, directly adjacent to Leo.

The 92-year-old all-boys Catholic school is eyeing the north side of the block, which exists currently as a bare plot of gravel and patchy grass, for a long-sought sports complex that would be open to the community.

The complex would be outfitted with a regulation basketball court, sprint lanes for its award-winning track and field program, retractable seating to accommodate its devoted fan base and offices for watching game film.

"We would have a facility that would be big enough not only to hold sporting events, but concerts and also have some day-to-day activities with some additional classrooms," Leo administrator Mike Holmes said. "So it would be a complete community center, but the gym obviously would be a major part.

"We're trying to make something that's really appealing and nice for the community, and make them have a sense of pride in the facility."

Across the street from the proposed athletic complex, a local nonprofit economic development group is readying to transform an old furniture showroom at 839 W. 79th St. into what it's calling a "Healthy Lifestyle Building."

"Physical health, mental health, financial health, you name it," said Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, who describes his vision for the 55,000-square-foot building as, "health and wellness, education, all wrapped around living wage jobs."

A community health clinic will anchor the four-story Healthy Lifestyle Building, which is also expected to house a restaurant/café and the offices of multiple health and education-focused community-based nonprofits and local businesses.

Nelson said his goal in redeveloping the vacant building, which the GAGDC bought in December 2016, is to "really bring back to life an entire vacant block on our key commercial corridor."

"I would be willing to bet that thousands of people drive by it, walk by it and as big and hulking as that building is, it's not even noticeable now, because it's just been so ominously darkened for so long," he said. "We're going to blast big windows on each side because we want the light emanating from the building… and we want people from the street to look up and notice. We want it to be a beacon of light and a beacon of hope."

In addition to providing residents better access to health care and a sit-down eatery and gathering spot — both of which are lacking in Auburn Gresham — Nelson said he expects the building to act as an economic engine by creating local jobs and catalyzing community development.

"These are all living wage jobs," he said, referring to the types of jobs the employers he expects to attract to the building will offer. "The types of jobs that will allow these people in this building to buy the vacant houses that are still proliferating in the community, that will be able to shop at the businesses that we're putting in the commercial corridor, that will be able to build and generate wealth."

The proposed Healthy Lifestyle Building, 839 W. 79th. St., is being developed by the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation. (Courtesy of Greater Auburn Gresham)

Both projects conform to the neighborhood's quality-of-life plan released in 2016 by community development group LISC Chicago.

The QLP, a document created with input from a variety of neighborhood stakeholders, lays out a common vision of what those stakeholders would like to see for the future of their community, explained Jake Ament, director of LISC Chicago's Neighborhood Network.

In Auburn Gresham's case, the QLP identified the need for more living wage jobs, economic development and health resources in the community.

The Healthy Lifestyle Building and community athletic facility — while not explicitly conceived of as part of the QLP — represent a tangible realization of its major themes.

"All of (the community stakeholders' work as part of the QLP) kind of culminates in this project," Nelson said. "And this project is just Step One of many."

Both he and officials from Leo said the only thing preventing them from moving forward immediately to realize their vision is funding.

Nelson has received some small pre-development loans from LISC and a couple much larger commitments from foundations that are contingent on the tenants he's able to attract.

If he's able to land a Federally Qualified Health Center as his anchor tenant — both Chicago Family Health Center and University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System have expressed serious interest — he'll unlock a $2 million foundation grant, he said. Another $3 million foundation grant will become available once the project has raised half of its $10 million anticipated total layout, he said.

The remainder of the project's funds are expected to come from a variety of sources, including donations, grants and private capital investments via the New Markets Tax Credit program, he said.

Nelson said he believes the pace of funding, which thus far has been slow, will accelerate once a health care tenant commits to the project.

"Once we have this anchor tenant, much of what we're describing will fall smoothly into place," he said. "Because this anchor tenant allows people to see the payback strategy, the way the building is going to operate."

Nelson said he's hopeful that he'll receive a commitment from one of the three current anchor candidates in the next three to six months, which would allow for construction to begin in the third quarter of this year, with an opening of the new building by the second quarter of 2019.

Leo High School in Auburn Gresham has aspirations to build an $8 million sports complex on a vacant
strip of land across the street from its parking lot on 79th Street. (Zak Koeske / Daily Southtown)

Leo's plan for its community athletic complex is also in need of cash, administrators said.

Expanding Leo's footprint on 79th Street to create the sort of campus feel that many of the other Catholic high schools in the city have has been a longstanding mission for Holmes, one of the school's most distinguished graduates.

"It's going to be done, and sooner than later," he said. "Times dictate that we do this now, we can't continue to wait."

Holmes estimated the price tag for the Cadillac version of his vision — which includes not just the athletic complex, but street lighting and a landscaped courtyard that would connect to the school's parking lot — at $8 million. He conceded, however, that the project could be downsized to control costs.

The project is a priority for Leo, whose bandbox, third-floor basketball court, while legendary, prevents it from hosting large crowds, including some of its older alumni, who struggle to climb the three flights of stairs necessary to reach the court.

"The gym is great… it's an historical landmark in the city," Holmes said. "But again, that being said, we can't host events on the scale that we as a school are at.

"We believe we're a high-end high school, we service a lot of people and we do a lot, and we want to do more. And your gym is usually the facility that affords you that opportunity."

Leo officials, who see the school as a cornerstone of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, view construction of an athletic complex not just as a boon for the school, but also for the community.

"Besides retirement homes, there hasn't been a lot of construction in Auburn Gresham in the last 20 years," Principal Shaka Rawls said. "There's been a lot of demolition, but not a lot of construction.

"It's not lost on us what construction in communities like this does," he continued. "When people see that there's an investment in the space that they occupy, then they tend to want to be a part of that space even more."

School president Dan McGrath said he envisions the proposed facility as a veritable community center, something that Auburn Gresham sorely needs. Not only could it host local and regional basketball games and tournaments, but it could also be used for concerts and wedding receptions, which he said are just as important.

Holmes agreed, saying that having a space where both adults and kids can come together on a regular basis would provide a means of hope for the community.

"That's what we want this facility to be," he said. "Somewhere where they can take pride in coming to, where we can have a Barack Obama come and speak and all the neighborhood people and the kids and community could come and listen. Or have an orator or play or theater or just different events that I think the community needs to uplift them and make them feel better about where they actually live."

Funding for the project is expected to come from a variety of sources, although Holmes said the school does not intend to go into debt to build the facility.

The school, which after years of enrollment declines is expecting its largest freshman class in recent memory in the fall, would like to break ground on the facility within two years, McGrath said.
Twitter @ZakKoeske

Keywords: Auburn Grehsam, Build on 79th Street, Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, Healthy Lifestyle, Leo High School

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