Buena Vista Street in Highland Park is in pretty rough shape. The road is potholed to nearly gravel. Abandoned houses and overgrown lots line the street.

But one remarkable transformation on the block carries the promise of a new direction for the economically-challenged city. Developer Juan Shannon is in the process of turning the grounds of Thompson Elementary School — abandoned for two decades — into the centerpiece of a $5 million smart neighborhood and urban farming operation called Parker Village.

Although work on the social enterprise is still in its earliest stages, the site is already home to a smart solar street light that was installed with the help of a grassroots group called Soulardarity. Work has also begun on a hoop house that should be operational this coming spring and solar-powered irrigation and tool shed on the site.

The shed is decorated with a mural painted by a young artist named Waleed Johnson. It presents a landscape of Highland Park’s past and potential future separated by two hands cupping a growing seedling.

“The left side of the mural represents some of the history of Highland Park: the city of trees, our mascot the polar bear, the Ford plant, the Model T and the Davison Expressway,” Shannon says. “Then it bridges the gap and shows the growth and the planting of the seed that are things we’re going to be doing here in Parker Village: the renewable energy, the technology, the healthy food, and aquaculture.”

Ultimately, the former school will take on the role of a community resource center. The nearly 24,000-square-foot facility will house an events center, co-working space, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) lab, and serve as an incubator for new businesses. The building will also be the headquarters for Shannon’s company, Modern Tribe Communications, as well as contain two studios and a broadcast area.

Shannon has been collaborating with architect Paul Bierman-Lytle, known nationally for his sustainable designs, to make the structure energy efficient and sustainable. A solar array is being planned for the roof, and wind and geothermal energy technologies are also being considered for the facility.

An aquaponic urban farm, consisting of two hoop houses linked to a fish barn which will help irrigate crops, will be located in a lot adjacent to the community center. Blue infrastructure will collect rainwater and melting snow that will be used to irrigate the gardens and utilize grey water for toilet flushing and other functions at the facility. There will also be a garden cafe on the site that should be operational next spring.

The cafe will offer a variety of healthy meat and vegan options, which the interested can get an advance taste of at a special event being held at TechTown on Jan. 17.

Shannon also plans to create a residential community around the school grounds. Right now, he’s rehabbing an energy-efficient single family home that will be occupied next March, building a four-family-unit townhouse complex from the ground up, and planning the construction of a net-zero townhouse and an electric vehicle service station.


Story by David Sands
Photos by Nick Hagen

Read the original story: Model D