By Bob Uphues
A seemingly routine vote to approve a special use permit allowing Riverside School District 96 to build a well-publicized addition onto Blythe Park School was postponed for two weeks after one elected official questioned the wood cladding proposed for the extension.
Trustee Edward Hannon questioned the use of horizontal composite oak paneling for the small, 800-square-foot classroom addition to the far southwest corner of the school, and wondered why matching brick might not be a better option.
"It's our charge as a board to make sure it's not detracting from that area," said Hannon, noting that Blythe Park School's low-slung brick profile fits in well with the brick homes that dominate the surrounding neighborhood.
Hannon's fellow trustees agreed to send the matter back to the Riverside Preservation Commission, which had recommended the wood exterior for the addition, to get to the underlying rationale for that preference, since a matching brick option had also been provided by the school district's architect.
Blythe Park School, designed in the late 1940s by the architecture firm Perkins and Will, is a village landmark and the Preservation Commission was required to sign off on a certificate of appropriateness for the proposed addition. The Planning and Zoning Commission, meanwhile, recommended approval of granting the special use permit to expand the school, which sits in a residential district.
District 96 has been talking about a major building project this summer at all of its elementary schools since summer 2018, with additions planned for Blythe Park, Ames and Hollywood schools.
The work has been the subject of several public meetings and forums in addition to the village's vetting of the plans more recently. The plans, including the wood-cladded addition at Blythe Park has also been available on the District 96 website for months.
No residents objected to the proposal at the Preservation Commission meeting, and the commissions appeared to favor that option, she said.
That wasn't enough for Hannon, however, who responded, "Just because no one shows up doesn't mean people are for it."
In addition, said Riverside Community Development Director Sonya Abt, the U.S. Department of the Interior guidelines, recommend that additions to historic buildings be "sympathetic" but not mimic the original design. The Preservation Commission, whose job also includes making sure Riverside maintains its designation as a national historic landmark, looks to the Department of Interior standards for guidance in such matters.
"[Additions] should be sympathetic to but differentiated from [historic buildings], so they are not mistaken as part of the original historic structure," Abt said.
Trustee Doug Pollock said he was hesitant to override the recommendation of the Preservation Commission.
"They're the experts on our landmark status," said Pollock.
Hannon indicated that sending the matter back to the Preservation Commission for a deeper dive into the reasons behind their recommendation was being made out of an abundance of caution.
"This isn't a two-year, three-year improvement to our community," Hannon said. "It's not as if we're putting in a sidewalk and, if it's somehow not what we anticipated, we can tear it up and put it back out. This is a one-time shot and I want to make sure we're doing it with the right intent."
The Preservation Commission is scheduled to meet on Feb. 13 and ought to be able to provide enough input for the village board to consider the school district's special use application at their next meeting on Feb. 20.
While the school district wants to be able to begin nailing down construction timelines for this summer, that delay should not pose too much of an issue.
"Two weeks is something, in order to do the right thing, to make everybody comfortable with what we're doing, then that's something we can do," said Ryan Kelley of DLA Architects, the firm hired by District 96.