Post-Survey Thoughts

So, where were we? Oh, yes. The alderman gave the architects the results of her library survey—the one that showed that 7 out of 10 respondents don’t use the Northtown Library, slightly more than half of respondents (52%) never even visit the Northtown Library, and 76% of the 600 respondents under age 16 voted in favor of a coffee bar but did not support space for the community to meet. She said these results would aid in designing the library we all need and want.

The alderman also stated in her newsletter that the LEARN Survey obtained similar results. It did not. It asked different questions, but even where the questions were comparable, results differ significantly. This is because the LEARN Survey was a serious attempt to gather information from the community, and not a last-minute pastiche of poorly-conceived questions designed to deflect attention from the lack of information coming from the alderman’s office.

Had the alderman been serious about gathering information, she would have taken the time to properly design her survey: First question: Do you use the Northtown Library? “Yes” respondents should have been directed to one set of follow-up questions, “No” respondents to another set. It’s more important for planners to know WHY someone doesn’t use the library than to know that non-users would like to have a coffee bar. It should not be up to the alderman, the architects, or the residents to guess at the reasons people don’t use the Northtown facility; that question should have been part of the survey. If answers are subject to interpretation, then the survey has failed its most important test: Does it tell us what we want to know?

Input from the neighborhood’s children could have been captured by a separate survey designed with them in mind. Children should have a voice in selecting books and media bought for their use, but they should not be voting on the need for a community meeting room.

Whoever thought it a good idea to have the kids take the survey in class or for homework or whatever other reason has done the community a disservice. I’m sure it was meant well, but the overwhelming number of under-16 responses means the survey’s results are distorted and therefore almost meaningless.To disregard the children’s vote is as bad as giving it too much weight. Did the alderman attempt to mitigate the disproportionate response from the youngest group when she sent the results downtown? If so, how? If not, why? Was there any cover letter outlining her interpretation of the results?  Can we see it?

The survey-takers did not include one key demographic—those aged 17 to 25. These young adults are finishing high school, starting or in college or grad school, or just beginning their work lives, seeking jobs and opportunities to help get a start in life. Only seven people in this age range took the survey, and that is simply not representative of the neighborhood.

Transmitting highlights of the survey results to the community via the alderman’s weekly newsletter was in my opinion the wrong way to make the results available. For one thing, not everybody subscribes to her newsletter; for another, those who get print copies don’t have access to the full survey results (the link to those is a “click here” function, not a URL). I had hoped that the alderman and her Advisory Board would take the time to pull the results of her survey and the LEARN survey together so that the community—and the architects—might gather truly useful information that would be fully and fairly considered as the building plans move forward. I had also hoped that the alderman would then discuss these results with residents.

Instead we got an information dump on the weekend before Passover and Holy Week, with the alderman’s Devon office closed for three of the following five work days.

Time is rapidly slipping away and I wonder if it’s already too late for residents to play a significant role in this project. If the building is to be delivered on schedule—December 2018, 20 months from now—you can bet more decisions have already been finalized than we now know. Maybe the quest for  “community input” is nothing more than the sham already suspected.

The last community meeting was on March 20, more than three weeks ago. The “many, many meetings” promised are not being scheduled. Alderman?






A Tale of Three Surveys

Three community input surveys about library usage, needs, and desires are currently available online; two are specific to the new Northtown Library, and one is addressed to all library users.

The LEARN Survey
LEARN is the West Ridge coalition that was formed because the community was unable to secure a new library even though the existing library is woefully out of date. LEARN obtained 2,500 signatures on a petition for a new library and presented that petition to the alderman. In February 2017, LEARN launched its online survey, asking West Ridge residents about how they use the library and what they’d like to see improved, added, and eliminated from current services.

Nearly 400 people have responded so far. Not surprisingly, 67% of respondents requested an increase in library hours, with the same number seeing improvement in library offerings as critical. The numbers also indicate widespread support (more than 50% of respondents) for a variety of children’s programming, including arts and crafts; materials that reflect the uncommon diversity of the 50th Ward; computer and technology improvements; and creating a children’s reading area.

Strong needs for more parking and for bicycle racks were also expressed.

Respondents listed as first priorities large-print books, improved technology, an outdoor reading area, Braille books and talking books and movies, separate areas for children and teens so they don’t disturb adult patrons, programs that would bridge age and cultural gaps, more new books, and better-trained staff and librarians.

Many users felt that a wider selection of books was most important, while others stressed the need for a wider variety of children’s books, ESL programming, Arabic-language books, and a dog-friendly area for special reading programs.

The LEARN survey is ongoing.

The Chicago Coalition of Friends of the Library Groups
An exciting new citywide coalition comprised of all the City’s Friends of the Library groups, this organization is the brainchild of Kang Chiu, longtime president of the Friends of the Rogers Park Library. Kang’s leadership led to the creation of the “new” Rogers Park Library on Clark Street at Farwell Avenue; that building replaced a library as outmoded as Northtown’s. The vision for the Coalition of Friends is to help organize Friends groups throughout the City and create a cooperative environment through which such groups could work together on areas of common interest and support one another through partnerships and experience-sharing. The Coalition of Friends’ groups survey was launched in January 2017.

So far, more than 675 responses have been submitted, with 97% of respondents indicating they used the library; more than 95% have library cards. Nearly 50% said they use the Sulzer Library, the Harold Washington Library, and the Library Web site in addition to branch libraries, with more than 70% stating that they use the library on a weekly or monthly basis. An equal number say their visits last an hour or less, but a quarter of all library users say they stay two to four hours per visit.

While at the library, more than half of respondents say they read books and magazines or request holds for library materials. Roughly one-third of all library users request help finding materials, and nearly as many use the free wi-fi service. More than 20% of visitors are attending community meetings or attending workshops and seminars. More than 15% of library users are there to use the free computers, the copiers or scanners, or the audio-visual materials. Almost as many come to the library for children’s story times, to participate in reading or discussion groups, or to attend musical or theatrical performances. Ten percent of users can be found in the study rooms or attending meet-ups for hobbies or using digital content.

Most library users indicated in this survey that they would like to have more books and magazines available, more workshops to continue lifelong learning, more book discussion groups, and, as with the LEARN survey, longer hours. Other users suggested more workshops on health and financial planning as well as homework help.

Most respondents wanted to see library hours increased to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. More than half of all respondents said they would use the library more if it were open longer hours.

Finally, more than half of all respondents would join a Friends of the Library group if one were available.

The Coalition of Friends’ survey is active through the end of April.

Alderman Silverstein’s Survey
The alderman released her survey March 17. She describes the response as “fantastic” but has not released any details yet.

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.





Community Meeting for New Library-Senior Housing Building

Last Friday the alderman announced that there will be a community meeting on Monday, March 20, at 6:30 p.m. at Warren Park to discuss the new library-senior housing building to be constructed at Pratt and Western. CHA and Library officials will be present to hear for themselves what West Ridge residents want and need in our new facility.

Please be sure to tell friends and neighbors to attend. The larger the crowd the stronger a signal we send that residents have opinions about the new building and expect to be included in the decision-making.

Take the Survey on the New Northtown Library!

The LEARN Coalition has just released its community survey, a planning tool that asks West Ridge residents to give the designers, architects, and alderman feedback about what we’d like to see in our new library. It also provides space for respondents to state their own preferences for ideas that might not appear on the survey.  All responses will be submitted online.

Surveys are due on or before March 15.

The LEARN Coalition is the community’s voice in making our new library a reality. LEARN created the petition for the library and secured more than 2,000 signatures. The petition was presented to the alderman and was instrumental in persuading the Library Board that West Ridge residents needed, wanted, and would support a new facility. It’s critical that the community continue to show that support by responding to LEARN’s survey.

Survey results will be presented to the alderman and the community as well as the developers, the designers and architects, and the Library Board.



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?