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District 158 School Board adjusts plans to accommodate chimney swifts

Architect explains options and constraints; Board moves to choose temporary fix now, with plans for permanent solution later

by Melanie Jongsma

LANSING, Ill. (July 21, 2018) – In the space of five weeks, School Board 158, JMA Architects, and dozens of Lansing residents have become chimney swift experts and, to varying degrees, chimney swift advocates. The July 18 School Board meeting was the second to have swifts as an item for discussion, and the Board spent more than 30 minutes listening, asking questions, discussing ideas, and reviewing timelines and budgets before voting to direct JMA to construct a temporary chimney as soon as possible, to reinspect the old chimney for fledglings on August 6, and to cap the old chimney if the fledglings have left, with the hope of redirecting the swifts into the temporary chimney.

That will solve the immediate need—to demolish the old structure in time for the start of the school year. And the temporary chimney will buy the Board some time to incorporate a permanent chimney into the design of the new school building.

The site plan from JMA Architects shows the original 1928 Coolidge building in red, and the addition in yellow. These structures were scheduled to be demolished in June in order to ensure the new parking lot will be ready for an updated drop-off and pick-up plan for the new building, shown in gray.

Inspecting the chimney

Architect Jim Maciejewski addressed the Board to share the various impacts of changing the construction schedule. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

In his presentation to the Board, Architect Jim Maciejewski first thanked Reichelt Plumbing, who agreed to use their sewer camera to allow JMA to inspect the chimney. Because a sewer camera has a long cable and is designed to survey long, dark, narrow spaces, and because JMA Architects has worked with Reichelt on other projects that required the use of a sewer camera, a sewer camera is what came to mind when Maciejewski was faced with the task of seeing inside the Coolidge chimneys. “They [Reichelt] agreed to do it,” Maciejewski told the Board, “somewhat in excited fashion, because they’ve never used their equipment for something like this before.”

“It gave us a decent view of the chimney all the way from the top to bottom,” continued Maciejewski. He described the bottom of the chimney as “rather messy” after decades of roosting by hundreds of birds.

The sewer camera was able to capture a photo of the nest that had been discovered in the smaller chimney on June 19. That nest is now home to two young swifts that were estimated to be 5–7 days old, based on the observation that their eyes are still closed and their feathers have just started growing in.

Using a sewer camera from Reichelt Plumbing, JMA Architects got photos of the two chimney swift fledglings that are in the smaller chimney. (Photo provided)
Working with the Lansing Fire Department, School Board 158 was able to re-inspect the Coolidge chimneys (both the large one and the smaller one) on July 16. (Photo provided)

The larger chimney, which is the main attraction for “Swifties” who come to watch the birds return each evening at dusk, does not contain any eggs, fledglings, or even nests. Apparently the hundreds of swifts who have been observed diving into the chimney are using it for roosting only, not mating.

Considering the options

Maciejewski outlined four options for the Board:

  1. Leave the 1928 structure in place throughout October and demolish only the 2003 addition to allow partial asphalt to be poured before the start of the school year.
  2. Wait for the fledglings to leave and then demolish the 1928 structure.
  3. Create an alternative habitat for the birds.
  4. Create a roof-mounted chimney structure on the new school.

School Board President Robert Bonifazi proposed another option, asking whether it would be possible from an engineering standpoint to remove the chimney from the 1928 building and somehow incorporate it as a standalone structure on the Coolidge campus. Maciejewski explained that the chimney was not designed to be freestanding, and if it were repurposed in that way, new building codes would come into play, resulting in costs potentially into seven figures.

A related idea, discussed after the meeting, was to simply repurpose the bricks of the old chimney into a newly constructed chimney swift tower.

Finding a solution

The questions raised by various Board members indicated their struggle to find a solution that would balance costs, schedule, and concern for the birds. In the end, Bonifazi summarized the discussion and proposed the following:

  1. Under the guidance of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, quickly construct a temporary chimney and position it near the existing chimney to give the swifts a chance to acclimate to it.
  2. Potentially proceed with demolition of the 2003 addition in preparation for paving yet this year.
  3. Reinspect the chimney on Monday, August 6.
  4. If the re-inspection shows that the fledglings have left the nest, cap that chimney and proceed with demolition of the 1928 building in an effort to ensure a safe environment for the beginning of the school year on August 22.

In addition, Bonifazi suggested that at a later date the Board consider a permanent structure that could be incorporated into the design of the new campus.

The motion was made and seconded, and the vote showed unanimous approval.

Community response

Gathered outside the District 158 offices, members of the public discussed the outcome. They had attended the meeting to voice their concerns and hear the discussion, and the general consensus was positive. The meeting had disbanded before dusk, so several attenders headed over to Coolidge to share the news with other Swifties. By the following day, news of the School Board’s decision had been posted on social media, and celebratory comments were posted in response. “Wonderful news,” “Congratulations, Swifties!” and “Nice to hear people here in Lansing care about wildlife” were among the opinions expressed.

New District 158 Superintendent Nathan Schilling’s comments at the Board meeting serve as an affirmation of the outcome: “As a school district we do acknowledge the importance of the chimney swifts to our ecosystem and to our community as a whole. They have definitely brought people together. We acknowledge the role of these birds as a protected species whose numbers are declining, and we also do very much recognize the educational curricular value they bring to our students.”

The Coolidge chimney swifts can be viewed returning to their chimney every evening at dusk, from now until October. The viewing area where most of the Swifties gather is near the corner of Henry and Adams.



Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma grew up in Lansing, Illinois, and believes The Lansing Journal has an important role to play in building community through trustworthy information.