Addendum to “The Alderman’s Secret Housing Meeting”

Sources tell me that parking was the only issue raised at last night’s meeting on the new housing development at Western and Morse Avenues. About a dozen people attended and were satisfied that the 26 parking spaces proposed would suffice.

Each townhouse is expected to sell for about $450,000, while each condo will cost about $340,000. These price points raise some interesting questions about property taxes and gentrification, but those issues were not part of the discussion.

Are residential buildings rather than commercial buildings the best choice for this stretch of Western Avenue? Should that be decided  only by a dozen residents, the developers, and the alderman?  What are the risks that existing residents will be forced out of the neighborhood because of higher property taxes? Can we talk about the fact that this development permanently alters  the character  of that part of our neighborhood? Should the larger community have any input? What exactly is the alderman’s vision for the community and how does this new development fit into it? Or is that a secret too?

So many questions. So few answers. Will the alderman meet with the entire community to discuss them?

Stay tuned.

 

 

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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?

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.

Financing

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.

Patients Aren’t Potheads

Here we go again.

A medical marijuana dispensary, one of only 13 in the entire city, has been proposed for 6501 North Western Avenue, next door to Warren Park. The owner says he plans to hire workers from the 50th Ward, particularly veterans and the disabled. Most residents are happy to see a viable business that would employ neighborhood residents and relieve human suffering choose West Ridge as its location.

The only resident whose vote determines whether or not that business opens doesn’t agree. On Friday Alderman Silverstein announced that she is “unequivocally” opposed to any medical marijuana clinic in the 50th Ward. Just flatly refused to consider it. In true Silverstein style, she offered no reasons, no explanation of the thinking behind her opposition.

On Sunday, the alderman claimed her opposition is based on the “hundreds of children” from 2 to 17 engaged in the park’s sports activities, day camp, and other year-round programs. As further justification, she bizarrely noted that “In addition, Warren Park is home to three playgrounds, tennis courts, batting cages and an ice skating rink,”  all apparently in danger from seriously ill people filling valid prescriptions at a legal business tightly regulated by federal, state, and local authorities.

She supports the idea of medical marijuana, she says, but many residents have told her that they object to the facility, and now “…it has become my feeling that this is not the proper location….”  The clincher comes when she announces that she “strongly believe(s) in community involvement…” and wants to hear from everyone in the neighborhood.

The similarities between this proposed business and the recently-approved storage facility are too obvious to overlook.

Both campaigns began with fear-mongering.  Then it was the alleged crisis of “almost daily” crime at the old theater, now it’s the danger to 2-year-olds from patients seeking to relieve their suffering. Just like a storage facility is the only business that could open on the theater site, a medical marijuana dispensary is the only business that can’t open across from the park. The community is invited to have a role in the process, and then it turns out that the “majority” doesn’t represent the entire community.

I have heard only one person speak against the proposed business, and that’s Debra Silverstein.

Let’s look at the other businesses currently across from the park.

Is the alderman worried about McDonald’s? Should kids be exposed to all that fat and salt, all those empty calories? I’ve yet to meet a kid who goes to McDonald’s for the salad. Using the alderman’s logic, we should ban fast food operators from locating across from parks lest they turn our kids away from healthy outdoor activities and get them hooked on unhealthy foods.

What about the car showrooms? Cars are dangerous, too. Speed. Sex. Independence. Should we encourage kids to dream of the day when they can zoom away in their very own speedster to indulge in who-knows-what illicit pleasures? We’ll need to ban car sales on Western to protect the kids.

How about those vacant stores and lots? Exposing kids to business failure, encouraging graffiti, suggesting political indifference. Should we attract some business that might bring employment and payroll taxes and benefit some members of the community as well? Not if it’s a medical marijuana dispensary. Better to let some alderman with less moral indignation and more common sense snap it up to benefit another ward.

The alderman’s protests ring hollow. The change between Friday’s absolute refusal to allow the dispensary to set up shop anywhere in the ward and Sunday’s I-just-want-to-protect-the-kids backtracking suggests that the messages she’s heard are in support of the proposed business, not against it. She might be open to locating it elsewhere. Meanwhile, she invites residents to attend the public meeting on May 28 at the Zoning Board of Appeals. This could be another formality, another event staged to look like democracy in action.

Is another done deal in the works? Is there another packed meeting in our future? Are we in for another display of moral hypocrisy?

We’ll need to protect the kids from that, too.