Audubon School Should Be Saved PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Written by Alexandra Elias   
Tuesday, 04 June 2013 08:04

(Editor’s note: After this commentary was submitted, the Save Audubon School coalition announced developer interest in the site.)

Does the Statue of Liberty pay her own way? Does the Chicago Public Library make money? The Rock Island City Council would have you think they ought to. Despite hearing overwhelming testimony in favor of retaining Audubon School, six council members voted on May 13 to destroy a 1923 historic treasure that has educated five generations of students in Rock Island. The building had been designated a city landmark until the city council stripped the designation to make way for a chain grocery store. This is terribly short-sighted and ignores this site’s value to the neighborhood that surrounds it and to the entire city. The school must be saved.

Community icons occupy a special status in our communities for a reason. Their beauty adds value – economic, aesthetic, and historic – to a community. They ground us in respect for our past while inspiring our future. Rarely today is a building built to be as beautiful as design and construction techniques allow. Our efforts are usually to keep costs down, and quality is secondary to the economic purpose. Buildings such as Audubon were not burdened by the need to be fiscally prudent, and we should not expect them to be now. These sites were a statement of the importance of creating beauty in the built environment, and are a lasting tribute to the community that built it. Audubon reminds us of the best of our city’s past and, in doing so, asks us to better its future – not to tear it down.

Audubon School has been a graceful presence on 18th Avenue for 90 years. When 324 students began their fall term, they entered a building designed by Benjamin Horn, an important Quad Cities architect in the early 20th Century. More than 1,500 people attended the formal dedication ceremonies. This beautiful building and its landscaped grounds were a commitment made by a growing community to the education of its children. By all accounts of the period, the building was a treasured asset in the community.

Proponents of demolishing the building claim the community needs another store and there is no other site. Both claims are spurious. Five hundred feet from Audubon is a large Hy-Vee. Down the road less than a mile is an Aldi. There are other redevelopable sites nearby. And yet the council is so afraid of “losing Fareway” that it voted instead to lose a community treasure. These leaders must stand up and decide whether we want to be a community that destroys its own landmarks, or whether we respect our own city enough to defend what makes it special.

Some council members have also claimed that Audubon needs to generate revenue or face demolition. First of all, no sensible community believes or practices this principle. Second, the notion that a site such as Audubon is a singular engine of economic development is misguided. The site has never generated tax revenue because long ago it was determined that the value of the site to the community was in the education of our children.

Besides, economic development and historic preservation are not mutually exclusive goals. Economic development must be a balanced, comprehensive approach that includes consideration of all elements that contribute vitality to a community. The City of Davenport has actively retained many of its old schools including Central, Sudlow Junior High, and Madison Elementary. Others are now community centers. Omaha, Denver, and other cities have repurposed old schools as residential lofts and business incubators.

City planners spend a great deal of time trying to achieve the pedestrian and aesthetic elements that already exist in the Audubon site. We as a community – neighbors, preservationists, elected officials – must be willing to protect the things that make us part of a community. The Preservation Commission and the community have spoken.

Why isn’t the city council isn’t listening?

All urban-design talk aside, if you want to see what Audubon provides to our city, walk or drive around it. Then for comparison, walk or drive around the Hy-Vee down the street. Does Audubon have value to the community simply for being? It most certainly does.

Audubon is a community resource for gathering, for play, and for simply appreciating the beauty of a building that could not – and would not – be built today. Even as the shadow of the wrecking ball looms against the beautiful patterned brick and elegant arches of the school, we must rally to save it.

Visit Facebook.com/SaveTheAudubonElementarySchool for more information, or to help.

Alexandra Elias, a Davenport native, is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. For eight years she was a Senior Project Manager for Centre City Development Corporation in San Diego, California, where she led a $200-million waterfront-redevelopment project and a 30-year plan for downtown development.

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