Key City Panel Endorses Plan to Build Boys & Girls Club at Redesigned Police, Fire Training Academy

The Boys & Girls Club set to be built as part of the new police and fire training facility is the first new club to be built in Chicago in a generation, officials said. (Credit City of Chicago)The Boys & Girls Club set to be built as part of the new police and fire training facility is the first new club to be built in Chicago in a generation, officials said. (Credit City of Chicago)

Members of a key city panel unanimously backed Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to build a new Boys & Girls Club as part of a redesigned police and fire training academy that has been at the center of a ferocious controversy for nearly four years.

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The vote by the Community Development Commission sends the proposal to the City Council’s Housing and Real Estate Committee, which could consider the matter later this month before a final vote of the City Council.

The mayor’s proposal calls for the city to rent the land for the two-story, 18,000-square-foot facility to the Boys & Girls Club for $1 per year for 55 years, with two 10-year options to extend the lease. The $6 million cost of building the facility will be funded by private donations to the Boys & Girls Club, according to plans presented to the commission.

The new Boys & Girls Club, the first built in the city in a generation, will “enrich the lives of our young people living on the West Side,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

Construction quietly began on the $95 million facility in West Garfield Park in January, said Victor Owoeye, a spokesperson for Lightfoot. It is set to be completed in the fall of 2022, according to a timeline presented to the commission on Tuesday, whose members are appointed by the mayor.

While the start of such an expensive — and high profile — project would typically be showcased with a news conference and ceremonial groundbreaking complete with gold shovels, Lightfoot has not publicly acknowledged that work has begun.

The facility will also be home to two restaurants, Peaches and Culver’s. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel added those eateries — both owned by African Americans — to the facility as opposition rose to the proposal.

Emanuel announced the plan for the training facility in August 2017, saying it was needed to address serious concerns outlined by the U.S. Justice Department in its January 2017 investigation of the Chicago Police Department that found officers graduate from the five-month academy “unprepared to police lawfully and effectively.”

The City Council voted 38-8 in March 2019 to approve the facility over the objections of hundreds of protestors who blocked access to City Hall’s elevators for 10 hours the day before the decisive vote. 

The impassioned protests, which came to be known by the #NoCopAcademy hashtag, urged city officials to spend that money on restoring cuts made to Chicago Public Schools’ budgets, social services or reopening mental health clinics closed by Emanuel. 

When Emanuel unveiled the proposal for the new training facility, Lightfoot was president of the Chicago Police Board and told the City Club of Chicago that while a new training facility was “desperately needed,” the former mayor’s plan was “ill-conceived.”

“Putting this edifice to policing in this high-crime, impoverished neighborhood where relations between the police and the community are fraught, without a clear plan for community engagement, is a mistake,” Lightfoot told the City Club.

But shortly after she took office, Lightfoot said the facility should be expanded to ensure it was “big enough” and be “best-in-class.”

The facility is set to replace the police training academy at 1300 W. Jackson Blvd., built in 1976; the fire prevention training facility at 1010 S. Clinton St., built in 1950; and the Fire Academy South at 1338 S. Clinton St., built in 1965, officials said.

The training facility will include classrooms, labs, simulators, conference rooms, an auditorium and offices as well as a shooting range and space for “active scenario training and a dive training pool.” The campus will also include a driving course, skid pad and a place for “hands-on practice in real-world situations.”

The site plan for the new police and fire training facility. [Credit: City of Chicago]

At the direction of Lightfoot and Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox, city planners revamped the plan for the site before work began because it was “disjointed” with “no pedestrian amenities,” planner Ernest Bellamy told commissioners Tuesday.

The revised plan is “more connected to the broader community,” Bellamy said.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th Ward) said she was thrilled a Boys & Girls Club would be part of the training facility.

“It has been a long time coming,” Mitts said.

Cox told commissioners that the inclusion of the Boys & Girls Club would “change the dynamic” between young West Side residents and the city’s first responders by giving them a chance to interact in a positive environment, including basketball games.

The Boys & Girls Club will offer arts classes, a fitness center, day care, summer camp and after school programs, officials said.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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