Nearly $100 million. That’s the projected price tag based on a detailed schematic design for the construction of a new physical education wing in the southeast portion of the current building at Oak Park and River Forest High School that is called Project 2.
“The cost is jaw dropping,” said Tom Cofsky, OPRF District 200 school board president, in a telephone interview a few days after the meeting.
Officials from Oak Park based architectural firm FGM Architects presented their long awaited schematic design to the OPRF school board on Oct. 27. The exact projected cost of the project is $99,464,839. Upgrades such as solar panels ($2.2 million), solar thermal hybrid panels ($4.4 million) or an occupiable roof plaza ($963,000) could add to the cost.
The new wing would replace current physical education spaces in that portion of the Scoville Avenue campus. The design includes a new 10 lane 25 x 40 yard swimming pool with three diving stations and a 420 seat observation gallery to replace the current two pools which are nearly100 years old. The design also includes a new three court gym with a spectator capacity of 800 to be built on the third floor above the new pool, a new larger weight room, new locker rooms that would include a dedicated space for students who consider themselves non-binary, and new classroom and office spaces.
The design also includes a new dance studio with dance specific flooring, a sound system, changing area and dedicated storage and a fourth floor yoga/self-defense room. The project would also, for the first time, add an elevator to the southeast portion of the building.
Upgrades are also planned for adjacent theater spaces including a larger Green Room, more storage space for props and new, larger dressing rooms that would accommodate productions of varying sizes and gender needs. The theater portion of the project is 5,100 square feet.
“There is this misperception that this is just a pool project,” said Kebreab Henry, an OPRF school board member, during the Oct. 27 meeting.
The nearly $99.5 million estimate is a sizable increase from the 2018 estimate of $64.5 million. The previous estimate was based only a high-level conceptual design and not a detailed schematic design. The footprint of the project also increased by 11,500 square feet and would bring the building a little closer to Scoville Avenue. The physical education area is 167,400 square feet. Building a gym over a pool is one reason the cost has increased but the biggest factors contributing to the increased cost are higher material and construction costs that have risen rapidly during the past couple of years.
“What has changed in that we’ve experienced a global pandemic, supply chain issues, and steep inflation,” said a FAQ sheet on the OPRF web site explaining why the cost has increased since the 2018 estimate. “In addition to these factors, the schematic design cost reflects the significant structural needs of building gyms on top of a pool.”
Board members showed little enthusiasm for some of the possible upgrades such as the roof plaza that would include an outdoor classroom area, an outdoor yoga/mediation area, informal seating and a roof garden.
“I don’t want to be selling outdoor yoga,” Cofsky said during the meeting.
Cofsky said he wants the project to focus on needs rather than wants and said that some of upgrades seemed to stray from that.
“I started hearing words that were a lot more want-ish,” Cofsky said. “We need to focus on needs.”
Board member Mary Anne Mohanraj, a college professor at UIC, said that while she loves taking classes outdoors, she questioned how much use an occupiable roof would get given the Chicago weather.
School officials say that current physical education spaces are antiquated and need to be improved. Current gyms, which were built for a time when boys and girls had separate gym classes, are old, small, and cramped. Currently some classes are held in hallways, the district FAQ fact sheet said.
“There is no elevator in this wing of the building and many of the spaces are inaccessible to anyone with mobility issues,” the fact sheet says. “Our locker rooms lack private changing areas; students of all genders identify this as a problem, and it’s a particular concern for our gender-nonconforming students.”
Poor air ventilation is also an issue in the current pools and PE spaces.
The school board has not yet discussed in any detail how to pay for the project as the discussion last week focused on the scope of the project. The district’s community finance committee will examine financing options in detail. Cofsky said that all options are on the table.
OPRF is projected to have nearly $76 million in reserves at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, 2023, down from $90.4 million in reserves as of June 30, 2022. Funding for the Project 2 is likely to be a combination of reserve funds and borrowing. Borrowing could take the form of a bond issue that would have to be approved by voters in a referendum or by more expensive debt certificates which do not require a referendum.
In 2016 voters narrowly rejected a $25 million bond referendum for a new pool by the scant margin of 28 votes. The soonest a new referendum could be put on the ballot is next April’s school board and municipal elections but that would require quick action by the school board and is unlikely. The next election after the April municipal and school board elections is not until the spring of 2024. Cofsky said that the goal is to decide on financing by the end of the current school year. The goal is to begin work in the summer of 2024.