So much for community input. Late on Saturday the Mayor released drawings of the new library-senior housing building to be constructed at Pratt & Western. The alderman’s community input meeting is scheduled for tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Warren Park.
The alderman carefully says that what the community will give is “feedback” on the “current design.” The lack of transparency in decision-making in Chicago, especially in the 50th Ward, has never been more obvious than in the matter of the new Northtown Library. Don’t expect any more transparency when we get to the matter of repurposing the old library, either.
We are stuck with a concept nobody asked for, a design competition with no conversations between the designer and the ultimate users, and a soon-to-be vacant public building whose next use will be or has been decided behind closed doors. Whatever the residents of West Ridge want is not as important as the need for political razzle-dazzle set to coincide with the 2019 elections.
The alderman’s role in all this is far from clear. Was she an active player? Did she speak for the neighborhood when the Mayor decided his bold concept overrode neighborhood needs? Or was she as surprised as everybody else to learn of his plans? As late as December 2015 the alderman had proposed a zoning change for the site approving it for automotive use. [Ord 02015-8470, introduced December 9, 2015; referred to City Council Zonong Committee; still pending.] How much in the loop was she if a mere ten months later the site was designated as the site of the new library? It’s also worth asking whether the City or one of its agencies has acquired the property yet.
Who asked for senior housing? Was the library-cohousing idea a concept in search of a site? Did our need for a new library mesh with the mayor’s need to create excitement to deflect attention from an increasingly dysfunctional and violent city? Was the rush to complete the building tied to the 2019 municipal elections, whose candidates will include both the alderman and the mayor?
Why didn’t anyone, including the alderman, discuss this concept with residents before the design competition?
I decided to look at the public record and create a timeline of what happened when. The information below is taken from public statements, press releases, news reports, and the alderman’s newsletter.
February 2015 LEARN (Library Enhancement and Renewal Network) Coalition formed by concerned individuals and community groups seeking to bring a new library to West Ridge
March – Dec 2015 LEARN members begin to educate public on need for a new
library, create a Web site and Facebook page; meet with alderman
June – Aug 2016 LEARN members gather 2,500 signatures on petition in support of a new library
September 2016 LEARN leadership meets with alderman and presents petition
October 21, 2016 Mayor announces library-senior housing building to be constructed at Pratt & Western Avenues
October 21, 2016 Alderman reiterates announcement in email to residents (email includes picture)
October 28, 2016 Alderman reiterates Mayor’s announcement (newsletter includes picture)
November 4, 2016 Alderman announces community meting on November 14
November 11, 2016 Alderman reminds community of November 14 meeting
November 14, 2016 Alderman emails community meeting reminder; holds well-attended meeting; does not mention the work of LEARN Coalition. Says this is the first of “numerous community meetings” she plans to hold about library; later refers to “…many, many meetings” to come; states “this is not the last meeting.” Meeting is attended by CHA and CPL officials, who offer handout demonstrating what library and housing units “could” look like. No specifics on either; alderman and both officials repeatedly state that “everything is on the table” and “we’ll figure it out.” LEARN Coalition Chair speaks at meeting and stresses need for “consistent communication,” asks that all parts of the community be involved in decision-making, and volunteers LEARN to help coordinate outreach efforts
November 18, 2016 Alderman reports on November 14 community meeting; does not mention LEARN Coalition (newsletter includes two pictures).
December 30, 2016 Alderman recaps 2016; mentions new library (newsletter includes picture)
January 20, 2017 Alderman announces Jan. 30 community input meeting
January 27, 2017 Alderman announces postponement of Jan. 30 meeting
February 27 , 2017 LEARN leaders meet with alderman, advise of LEARN survey, reiterate willingness to help gather community input
March 2, 2017 LEARN finalizes online community input survey, which is then released via email; survey availability announced on social media Web sites, blogs, and other networks
March 3, 2017 Alderman announces library is “proceeding on schedule” and that she “…will hold another public meeting to begin gathering community input, so we can all work together….”
March 10, 2017 Alderman announces March 20 meeting
March 17, 2017 Alderman reminds community of March 20 meeting; provides link to community input survey she developed with her heretofore unknown community “advisory board” but does not announce names of the advisory board’s members; mentions LEARN survey but does not provide link to it
March 17, 2017 Mayor calls various members of the press to talk about the exciting new library-housing designs he is about to release
March 18, 2017 Less than 24 hours after Alderman releases her community input survey, Mayor releases designs for new library-senior housing buildings to press
March 19, 2017 Chicago Tribune publishes drawings of new library designs and story by Blair Kamin, who notes that “…it’s difficult to judge at this stage whether the plans rise to the most important standard for projects of this type. Meeting human needs.” He later adds “What’s troubling is that the rapid-fire [design] competition did not allow for extensive community input. That’s still to come.”
March 20, 2017 Alderman sends email reminding community of meeting. Asks residents to complete library survey that she and her advisory council developed.
March 20, 2017 Meeting to provide community input on Northtown Library at Warren Park at 6:30 p.m.
From November 19, 2016, through March 19, 2017, the alderman did not hold any community meetings to discuss what residents need and/or want in the new library, did not discuss forming nor ask the community at large for volunteers for her library “advisory board,” did not create any survey tool, and did not accept the LEARN Coalition’s offers of help with community outreach in this matter. The alderman does not appear to have done anything to encourage the Mayor to step back and talk with residents before this project moved forward. She CHOSE not to speak to residents for four months, during which time she could have funneled our dreams as well as our concerns to the Mayor and the design team.
At no time during this four-month period did the alderman ever call a meeting with West Ridge senior citizens to discuss the new senior housing or to seek input, nor did she contact the City of Chicago’s Aging in Place Program that helps older adults age well within their communities. There was thus no input from older adults on housing supposedly designed with them in mind.
Are we really going to discuss these things NOW, after the building has been designed and the concept locked in place?
So much for community input.