Community Needs To Be Heard on New Library

What’s happening with the new library? What information we have was obtained thanks to DNA Info and CHA press releases. The alderman herself has not said a word since last November, either in person or via her newsletter. It begs the question of whether she is the point person for this project or as much in the dark as the rest of the 50th Ward.

Ald. Silverstein is not known for being proactive, and recent developments suggest that community input may now come too late to have any impact on the building’s design. This is especially problematic because it’s beginning to appear that the new library is no longer the main purpose of the new building.

So far, there’s been no meaningful community input on the building and its uses. The alderman has not held a meeting on this project for more than three months, nor has she updated the community via her newsletter or bulletins from her office. In my opinion, we should have heard about the architects’ selection from Silverstein, not DNA Info.

Adding housing and possibly commercial space to the library building is beginning to look like an idea whose time has come and gone.

This building will stand for 30 years no matter how the ward around it changes. While we need affordable housing for older adults, is the space above the library really an  appropriate place for it? Combining senior housing with a library is not a new idea, having been tried in Europe since at least 2011 with mixed results. The question for West Ridge is how housing and possibly commercial space will impact the square footage available to the library. Residents have been clear about wanting public meeting rooms, dedicated spaces for toddlers and teenagers, more computers, and classrooms in the new building. Does it make more sense to include cultural space—dance and music studios, performance space, an art gallery—rather than senior hosing? Instead of commercial space, would a daycare center be a better fit?

This new library will be the neighborhood’s showpiece. Let’s consider a magnificent building that integrates cultural space with our library.

Given the ample parking at the building as well as parking available across the street at Warren Park, a strong case can be made for cultural space rather than senior housing in this magnificent new building. Imagine going to the library on a Sunday afternoon for a performance by a local dance company or string quartet. Imagine attending a gallery showing by neighborhood artists or a show by neighborhood first-graders.
We can make that happen. Public pressure works.

The LEARN Coalition has continued to press the alderman for a public meeting, and is about to launch a community survey asking residents for input on what they want the library to be. As soon as that survey is ready–any day now–Follies will publish it or a link to it so you can voice your opinions and ensure that they count. LEARN will present its survey results to the alderman and the CHA.

LEARN is also asking for representation on the alderman’s public advisory council for the new building. It is critical that representatives on this council not be appointed solely by the alderman. The advisory council must be open to groups and individuals who truly represent the community.

The focus should be on getting the library built right—enough space for the uses envisioned by the neighborhood, some room to grow—before we start thinking about additional uses for the building.

Maybe senior housing belongs elsewhere in the ward. Warehousing older adults in small apartments is not a good idea. Would they be permitted to have pets? Or does the presence of the library preclude that? While Warren Park’s across the street, crossing Western is dangerous, and bus travel would be required for shopping trips since there are no grocery stores nearby. Anybody who’s ever waited for a bus on Western knows how infrequently they run. How much is CHA willing to budget to provide services such as transportation and exercise facilities? Is this going to be a building for active adults? Or for the housebound? Will the residents come from within the ward or from CHA wait lists? Who chooses the residents?

Making these decisions may require more time than the City and CHA are comfortable with. The current building plan targets a completion date that coincides with the 2019 municipal elections. We should not be bound by the current construction deadline. Community input should have a reasonable cut-off point, but the community needs to take whatever time it requires to ensure that its input is maximized.

Any short-term political benefit that could be realized from building the new library must be outweighed by the long-term benefits this building should provide for West Ridge.

No discussion of the new library is complete without a discussion of the fate of the current library. The site is already publicly owned. Might this be a better place for senior housing, providing older adults with easy access to shopping and public transit? Or should this building be repurposed as cultural space? Can and should it be expanded by adding a second or third floor?

There has been some discussion of whether the current library, while not of major architectural significance, merits some consideration as an example of 1960s modern design, contributing to our neighborhood’s rich architectural heritage. This idea should be explored when we consider its future uses. Looking at it now, one can envision a senior center on the ground floor with apartments above. Such a use would rectify another missing element in the area: a place for older adults in the south end of the ward, where housing is rapidly becoming unaffordable and the need is so great.

These are among the many issues surrounding the proposed library that should have been addressed in public meetings over the past three months.

It is now incumbent on the alderman to open the process and include the community. What’s going on with the new library?

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