People Power & the New Library

A summer of petitions and citizen activism led to last night’s community meeting about the new library to be built at Pratt & Western. A crowd of more than 100 residents was presented with a sheet of photos and renderings showing what might be an approximation of the proposals to be voted on by the community at a later date. As of now, nothing is known for sure except the site, and the alderman promised “many, many more” community meetings to come before she and her staff select the final proposals and present them to the community for a vote on the final design.

Community meetings with the alderman are a rarity, and this is the first one in her six years as alderman where she actively sought real citizen input into the decision-making process. While I’m sure that more than we know is already set in stone, there appears to be room for community input this time.

I am convinced that none of this would have happened had it not been for (a) the LEARN Coalition’s petition for a new library, which garnered more than 2,000 signatures in the last few months and finally got the process moving; (b) POWR’s petition for a referendum on participatory budgeting, which was signed by nearly 125 voters per week in its four-week attempt to make last week’s ballot, an effort which sadly fell short of the number of signatures needed; and (3) Donald Trump’s election victory, which sent a wake-up call to complacent politicians.

People want change, they want input, and they are ready to throw out politicians who aren’t listening.

It’s worth noting that, although the handout from the meeting outlines a two-year process, Eugene Jones of CHA says the Mayor has ordered him to get this accomplished in 18 months.  That would be just in time for the latter stages of the 2018 campaign for the 2019 municipal elections. At this writing, it appears that both Emanuel and Silverstein will be running again, and she is one of his most dependable supporters. A new library is a good talking point for both of them. It’s also proof that politicians can get things done when it’s in their best interests to do so. There’s no motivator like re-election.

Present at the meeting were Ald. Silverstein, Eugene Jones of CHA, Patrick Malloy and Andrea Telli of the Chicago Public Library, more than 100 residents, Sen. Silverstein, and the alderman’s parents.

Residents learned that very little information is available, but there were still some important issues raised. The residents asking questions after the brief formal presentation were sharp and focused, asking about everything from the book budget to parking, traffic congestion, and the layout of the building. Topics covered included:

The LEARN Coalition

Although the alderman still has not mentioned LEARN by name, she did thank signers of the petition for the impact they had on securing the new library. Several residents did thank the LEARN Coalition for its 18 months of work seeking input from the community and obtaining signatures from residents to support community demands for a new building.

LEARN’s Chairman, Tony Martinez, offered the Coalition’s assistance as the process moves forward, noting that “consistent communication” between residents and City officials is vital to the project’s success, as is the need to include as wide a cross-section  of the community as possible in future meetings.

The Building

There will be an architectural competition for the contract to design the new library. How the contractor will be chosen was not discussed.  CHA will own the building; the library will pay “a nominal fee” to rent its space, according to Jones. Although a developer will handle the actual construction, CHA will run the building. However, because HUD doesn’t want to fund libraries, CHA will fund this project, the first of its kind in the country. (See Financing, below).

Silverstein gave the Mayor full credit for the concept of housing atop the library. She said the process “started here” with the petition. At other times she claimed to have been involved in the process for “a very long time.” In response to a resident’s question whether there were any other options for the building, she gave a definite “No, this is the way it was presented to us,” suggesting that her involvement may have been minimal and that other forces may have played a larger role than has been acknowledged.

Once the architects have finished their designs, the alderman and her staff will choose which designs to present to the community for a final vote. Jones noted that West Ridge is “the first one we’re doing” and that the community’s input “will be an integral part of the design process.” He added that “CHA is all about working with the community.”

The number of lots in play is a bit murky, with both the alderman and Jones saying two lots while a persistent resident pointed out that, based on frontage estimates, there would be six city lots involved. Jones said the building designer would “figure it out.” Using the figure of two, Silverstein and Jones said that one lot would be reserved for parking, and the building would be constructed on the other lot.

Most of the building will be given over to senior husing, which will occupy the two stories above the library.

There may be a coffee shop on the first floor. It was not specified whether this would be part of the library space, cut from the library space, or part of the senior housing. It might not be a good idea to invite strangers into senior housing unless there are safeguards for tenants, like security guards or key entry to the tenant lobby.

One resident was met with applause for asking that the building be certified “green.” Another resident suggested attention be paid to wind and tornado resistance as well as the use of tubular skylights.

It has not been determined if the alley behind the development will be closed off. Traffic congestion at Pratt & Western was another resident’s concern, and that, too, was deferred for later discussion.


CHA will finance the project and will use state tax credits. Silverstein said that TIF monies were not available. “There’s no extra money for the library,” she added.  Jones told the audience that “we’re not starting something we’re not going to be able to finish.”

There are two active TIFs in West Ridge. The Lincoln Village TIF spent $600,000 to create Park 525 at Devon & McCormick. This was essentially to guarantee the sale of the old Cineplex theater to a storage company, the sale being contingent on turning an MWRD parking lot into green space. As I understand it, the Devon-Western TIF pays the interest on the construction of West Ridge Elementary School.

A resident wanted to know about the tax implications of having the library share a building with public housing. Would this result in a tax increase for residents? Jones answered that no property tax increase was expected. Another resident commented that he preferred a library to the shuttered bingo hall that had occupied the site for years. CHA property, however, will be off the tax rolls, while a check of the property records reveals the bingo hall’s owners did pay property taxes.

Jones may have spoken too soon. With such a large parcel added to the growing number of properties in the ward which do not pay real estate taxes, it’s safe to say that someone is going to get an increase. More on this in another post.

Senior Housing

There will be 30 one-bedroom apartments situated on two floors above the library. The photo in the handout (top right) suggests what a typical unit might look like. Each unit will be limited to 1-2 adults age 62 or over; family members will not be permitted to move in. No word yet on overnight guests. The entrance to the senior housing will be separate from the entrance to the library.

There may or may not be one parking space per unit, Jones said, adding “We’ll figure it out.” To a question about whether underground parking might be available for the units, Jones responded “All that is on the table.”

The question of who would qualify for the apartments was not answered directly, with Jones late in the meeting suggesting that “some” local residents may be accepted. Tenant selection will include the alderman and the community, a curious decision. Why should politics play a role in determining who qualifies for an apartment? This needs clarification and discussion.

Politicians and politics should be excluded from the tenant selection process, especially since it is known that CHA has a waiting list for its senior housing. There are both moral and legal questions arising from any decision to favor local residents—especially those with political connections–over seniors already at the top of the waiting list.

Library Features

The new library will be spacious—16,000 sq. ft.—and Telli noted it will include an early learning area; school age area; space for teens; small meeting rooms for the community; shorter stacks, and more public computers. There will be a STEM program similar to that in Albany Park, and the teacher-in-the-library program will continue. Like all new libraries, she said, it will receive an “Opening Day Collection” of 30,000-50,000 “brand new books.”

There will be no specific ethnic collections, Telli said, since the library’s books are chosen to appeal to the majority of users. However, there could be “boutique collections” and patrons are welcome to request books from throughout the system.

Because the new library will be physically larger than the existing library and will offer more programming to various groups, its staff will also be larger. However, it has not been determined if additional senior services will be offered, although there may be more adult services provided.

Telli noted that the library is currently open 48 hours per week; libraries used to be open longer but hours were cut during past budget reductions; however, “we’re always having discussions” about hours and increasing the hours is “absolutely on the table.” Trust me, it will happen.

The Current Library

No one knows what will happen to the current library building. It’s owned by the City, which may repurpose, demolish, or sell it. There are other possibilities for it, and I think the community should have a voice in what happens to it. I suspect it’s already spoken-for, since that’s the way things are usually done around here, but I’d like to see some community discussion around its fate.

Economic Development

The alderman once again noted that she “hopes” the new library will spur economic development on Western, “which we so desperately need.” She’s got that right. As it stands, we’ll be exchanging one vacant building for another.

But, if you think about it, maybe it Silverstein always intended to move the library to Western, which would explain why she refused to permit the medical marijuana dispensary (MMD), with its jobs for veterans and the disabled and its property taxes, to open, and why she had the site secretly rezoned so that no other business could operate there.  The taxi parking lot which the MMD would have replaced won’t be permitted to remain, you can count on that. It will be interesting and instructive to see who buys the site and what gets built across the street from the new library.

There’s never a dull moment in the 50th.

3 thoughts on “People Power & the New Library

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