What Does “Community Input” Mean in Chicago?

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.





2 thoughts on “What Does “Community Input” Mean in Chicago?

  1. Hi,

    I spoke with you briefly this evening after the community meeting about the West Ridge library.

    I’m the “Fight the good fight!” guy.

    There doesn’t apppear to be a way to contact you directly, so I apologize for doing this in such a public forum.

    I’m not sure if this is appropriate but there’s a talk taking place on Sunday at the Ethical Humanist Society in Skokie. And while this is not 50th Ward-specific, I think it’s relevant because it’s about affordable housing and community design, which are two subjects that were hot topics at this evening’s meeting.

    So, for what it’s worth, here’s the info in case any of your followers might find it interesting. If this isn’t an appropriate forum to share, feel free to delete my post. No harm, no foul.

    – Derrick

    Sustaining Community: Affordable Housing and Community Design in Chicago


    Jeff Bone, a principal at Landon Bone Baker Architects, will discuss the work of his firm which specializes in community-based, affordable, and environmentally responsible housing and design in Chicago and the region. For almost 30 years, the firm has successfully balanced context, technology, and economy in its work while bringing a strong sense of ownership to the residents of a wide variety of new and rehabbed affordable, subsidized, and supportive housing developments.

    From large-scale urban design and planning initiatives to small non-profit projects integrated into existing neighborhoods, Chicago’s diverse housing needs require unique design solutions both big and small for people in communities across the city.


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