It will be three years ago next month that the Rock Island/Milan school board closed Audubon School on busy 18th Avenue.|
In all that time, we are not aware of an organized effort to "save" the building or public discussions regarding its historic value as it sat empty.
Only now, at the 11th hour with the building in the process of being sold and expected to be demolished, have fans of Audubon swooped in. They are unhappy that Fareway Stores wants to buy the property and tear down the school to make way for a new market. The project means more than just the $475,000 sale price for R.I./Milan schools. A new Fareway also will generate much-needed tax revenue every year for schools, the city, the township and the county.
That's why we hope the decision last week by the Rock Island Preservation Commission to give historic landmark designation to the building will not slow progress on the project. Technically, of course, it would be difficult to stop it. The designation -- which, it's important to note, Audubon's school district owners opposed -- would protect only against future deals for the building should this one fall through. And we're pleased to see Fareway has said it is going through with its plans. The school district has given the company until Aug. 1 to complete the deal. But continued loud and vocal opposition could prove worrisome for a project the community needs.
We are sympathetic to the concerns of neighbors who would rather not see their "park" paved over for a parking lot. Few of us would seek to live next to a busy grocer in an already high-traffic area, but such a use of that property is consistent with the heavy business presence already on 18th Avenue. Indeed, that busy commercial thoroughfare will get even busier as the years go by.
We also commend preservationists for their diligent efforts to protect Rock Island's history, but in this instance, we fear they've come too late to the party. If there were ways and reasons to save the structure, why weren't they explored before now? Indeed, weren't Q-C preservation commissions created to head off the need for last-ditch do-or-die campaigns that jeopardize development?
Buyers have not lined up to take on the old school and there is no reason to believe they will. Few with the wherewithal to do so clamored, for example, for a chance to save old Lincoln School, despite its historic and aesthetic value. It was a drain on the taxpayers for years before it became an eyesore and ultimately met the wrecking ball. We cannot assume Audubon would be spared a similar fate. Besides, what makes Audubon worthy of landmark status and not other old schoolhouses such as Longfellow or Denkmann?
Finally, school districts are not charities. They must use the tax dollars they receive in the best interests of students, not to save and preserve old buildings. Similarly, school boards have a responsibility to capture whatever additional funds they can by selling property they no longer need. Certainly, they should not be forced to eat the cost of maintaining an empty behemoth in perpetuity. And when school districts can't do necessary maintenance, the resulting impact of a derelict building in high-traffic areas such as this one do significant damage to a city's image.
If there's a lesson in all this, it would seem to be this: Historic preservation must be proactive, not reactive. It is something that should be practiced 365 days a year -- not just ahead of the wrecking ball.
Rock island, IL Details
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