CPS already has paid more than $3 million for about 2 acres near 104th Street and South Indianapolis Avenue, a triangular parcel near a heavily congested traffic corridor, train tracks and towering industrial plants.
No matter the level of pollution, records show CPS bought the property "as is," which means the district will cover all the cleanup costs before it breaks ground on school construction.
"It's a horrible site, and it would be terrible for students," said Jose Garza, chairman of the local school council at nearby Gallistel Elementary Language Academy.
Neighborhood residents have for years complained to CPS about overcrowding in their schools, particularly Gallistel, where 1,400 students — almost double the capacity — are spread among three campuses and an army of portable trailers.
But Garza and others are angry over the CPS plan for crowding relief and suspicious of the deals made to make it happen.
CPS bought an acre from a relative of Ed Vrdolyak, aka "Fast Eddie," the former Southeast Side political heavyweight and longtime alderman who had a reputation for wheeling and dealing. Vrdolyak was released from prison in November after serving 10 months for his role in a $1.5 million Gold Coast real estate scheme.
Though Vrdolyak's political career ended two decades ago, his name still resonates on the East Side, where longtime residents are quick to share stories about the former power broker and foil to former Mayor Harold Washington. So when they learned it was Vrdolyak's niece, Barbara Vrdolyak, and her husband, Gary Dorigan, a former CPS school engineer, who sold the land to CPS, they had questions.
The couple, who could not be reached for comment, bought the property in 1998 for $125,000, according to Cook County records, and built a successful carwash there. Despite the contamination, the school district paid $1.1 million for the property.
"Nothing gets done here accidentally in this ward," said Richard Martinez, a lifelong 10th Ward resident who lost a bid for alderman last year. "And nothing gets done without Ed Vrdolyak knowing about it."
Garza put it another way: "Why would anyone spend so much money to buy in an undesirable area if they didn't have to?"
However the deal was arranged, it's the children who lose out, said Patty Fisher, another longtime resident and member of Gallistel's community advisory group.
"This plan isn't good for anybody," Fisher said.
The neighborhood, like others in the region, is still recovering from the collapse of the steel industry three decades ago. Yet for all the vacant land and shuttered buildings, finding space for an elementary school is no easy task, said the ward's current alderman, John Pope.
Pope said he helped CPS choose the property and thinks it's a fine place for a school. He called the connection to the former ward boss a "nonissue."
"There's a desperate need for a new elementary school in this community," Pope said. "Are there potentially better sites in terms of a wish list? Sure. But they just aren't available there."
The deal to acquire the property was struck almost three years ago under the previous CPS Board of Education and former Mayor Richard Daley. Three independent appraisals of the site in 2009 valued the land and the carwash at $1.4 million to $1.9 million.
CPS negotiated a lower price, and ultimately condemned the property, because of the contamination and because the cleanup responsibility would fall on the district. The sale was approved by the current board in August.
Soil concerns aside, the neighborhood suffers from some of the poorest air quality in the state, thanks to a coal-fired power plant in nearby Hammond that is slated to close this year and thousands of trucks, cars and freight trains that roll through the area each day.
The new school would sit about a mile northeast of George Washington High School. In 2010, an air monitor atop that school recorded the state's highest levels of toxic chromium and sulfates, pollution that can trigger asthma attacks and heart problems. The BP Whiting refinery and the ArcelorMittal steel mill, two of the region's biggest sources of air pollution, are a couple of miles away.
In California, concerns over air quality prompted lawmakers in 2003 to prohibit districts from building schools within 500 feet of a freeway. Studies indicated the ultrafine particles kicked up by vehicles and noxious fumes were harmful to children's lungs and increased the risk of asthma and bronchitis. There is no such law in Illinois.
Erin Lavin Cabonargi, executive director of Chicago's Public Building Commission, which builds schools for CPS, called the environmental risks at the Vrdolyak property "nominal" and said the site was chosen after a careful review of the options. She said CPS was limited to searching within the attendance boundaries of Gallistel and nearby Addams Elementary, which is also over capacity.
Some residents say CPS overlooked the simplest, and perhaps, cheapest option: buying up available land next to both schools and expanding them.
"You're talking about putting children in a toxic environment or investing in the schools that are there now," said Garza, who has three children at Gallistel.
Pope said that scenario would have been more expensive and delayed development.
"Parents have the right to object and make their concerns heard, but we looked high and low for a location to make that school work," Pope said.