Lockport — The Lockport Township High School Board held its first public presentation of plans to renovate its Central Campus building Monday night at a meeting hosted in the 114-year-old facility.
The building, located at 1222 S. Jefferson St., houses about 1,000 students as the district’s freshman center and home of the Lockport Academy, a special education program for students with individualized education plans.
While the building’s architecture is unique and steeped in local history as the district’s original school building, the facility itself is in need of an update, as its last major addition was completed in 1953.
As Superintendent Dr. Robert McBride explained in a pre-meeting public tour of the building, much of the building is not Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, as wheelchair users are only able to enter through one door and there is only one elevator.
Additionally, there are other mechanical issues that need work, including modernizations and repairs needed on the roof and to the electrical and HVAC systems.
Additionally, there is a lot of space in the building which is underutilized either because similar, more modern facilities are available at East Campus or because it is occupied with outdated mechanical systems like boilers which could be downsized with modern upgrades.
Despite the facility’s issues, the community has been historically opposed to replacing the building with six past referendums to build a new school failing in the past 30 years.
“Rather than offer new construction, the board has worked with a committee to come up with a plan over the last year to renovate Central,” said McBride, who also noted that similar, old school buildings in Lemont and Downers Grove have been saved in recent decades by advances in renovation technology.
“Continuing tradition here is important to the community, and renovating is more equitable since every student will continue to go through both buildings, instead of creating the acrimony that drawing building boundaries can cause,” he said.
School District 205 serves students across three municipalities in Lockport Township, Crest Hill, Homer Glen and Lockport, with seven feeder districts.
During the board meeting attendees heard a presentation by DLA Architects about potential changes which could be made to the facility to improve both its infrastructure and functionality.
Some of the most common issues the DLA team said it identified after inspecting the building and talking with students and staff included the noted accessibility difficulties, small classrooms, outdated bathroom facilities, lack of natural light in areas like the cafeteria, and a classroom layout which spreads departments awkwardly across the building.
“Continuing tradition here is important to the community, and renovating is more equitable since every student will continue to go through both buildings, instead of creating the acrimony that drawing building boundaries can cause.”— Dr. Robert McBride, superintendent of Lockport Township School District 205
To address the issues, DLA offered two proposals, one which would address only the infrastructure issues and one which would modernize more of the building’s functionality.
The infrastructure plan would include replacing the roof and windows, making life safety changes including ADA compliance and bringing the building up to code, and adding fire sprinklers and air conditioning throughout the building. This plan would cost an estimated $40 to $45 million dollars, something McBride noted the board would likely be able to approve without going to referendum, though he questioned the logic of that decision.
“If you did that and didn’t beautify anything else, would that be a wise expenditure?” he asked during the tour. “It would be like if you had a beautiful classic car that had a rusty body and bad steering and can’t start. You could pay to put a new engine in and it would drive beautifully, but would it be worth it if you didn’t fix the other problems?”
Laying out the larger vision
The larger plan would be more of a remodel of the building and would restructure much of the inside to better utilize unused space and modernize the classrooms, including everything from re-flooring and painting classrooms, to completely rebuilding the cafeteria and eliminating the building’s auditorium.
As McBride explained to tour guests, this plan would include expanding the cafeteria into a larger student commons, by potentially demolishing the seldom-used auditorium directly above the existing cafeteria to turn the space into a multi-story, multi-purpose area with extensive windows and space for small performances and student gatherings.
The top floor of this new space would include a new renovated library and media center, while the current Central Campus Port library would be turned into additional classrooms.
Additionally, the building’s subterranean pool, which is in need of $1.5 million in mechanical upgrades and is no longer used for competitions — as well as the surrounding, unused athletic locker rooms, of which McBride joked “the 1950s called, they want their locker rooms back” — could also be removed and opened to ground level to make space for an expanded space for the Lockport Academy.
Since the four-story building sits on a block in the center of the downtown residential district of Lockport, the architects noted that everything will need to be done within the existing building’s footprint. Current classrooms of 500 square feet are eyed for expanding to something closer to the industry standard 800 square feet, McBride said.
The more extensive plan, in conjunction with the necessary infrastructure improvements, would carry an estimated total cost of $95 to $115 million, though DLA Principal Eric Sickbert said, this would still amount to about half the price of building an entirely new school.
“There is no complete, concrete solution yet,” said DLA Associate Principal Peter Pontarelli. “We were asked to evaluate if this building could reach its goals in its existing state, and I think the answer is yes, but it will take some work.”
If the extensive remodel is approved, the district will need to hold a referendum to approve new debt, and likely subsequent tax increase, for the project, which would likely take place in March 2024. If approved, the construction would likely not start until Summer 2025 and would take an estimated three to five years to complete.
No action was taken on the plan at Monday’s meeting, though the board said it will continue to hold discussions on the issue in coming months as it decides how to proceed.