City moves forward on library/housing plans on Taylor Street despite vocal opposition
September 1, 2017

The new Roosevelt Branch Library on Taylor Street will have low-income housing upstairs, prompting opposition from some community members.

By Susan S. Stevens

Near West Side residents have been protesting the idea of a new Taylor Street library featuring low-income housing upstairs on Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) land that formerly housed the ABLA Homes public housing project.

More than 660 people signed petitions asking for a delay in a Chicago City Council zoning committee hearing over six stories of low-income housing above a new library at 1328-1350 W. Taylor St. They said they were not informed well enough nor consulted early enough.

Despite seven people testifying before the Chicago Plan Commission to ask for a delay, and two testifying in favor of the proposal, commissioners unanimously voted Aug. 17 to forward the library/housing proposal to the City Council zoning committee. That followed an Aug. 9 go-ahead vote by the City’s Community Development Commission to approve spending $7.1 million in TIF money to pay for about one-third of the $36 million building. Federal funds will pay much of the rest because of the attached housing.

If the zoning committee approves the project, full City Council approval is likely.

Hard to handle

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose ward includes the site, spoke in favor of the building but said he wants residents to understand the whole project better. He scheduled a Monday, Sept. 18 meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame, for the CHA to provide an overview of the entire Roosevelt Square redevelopment plan.

“This is one of many phases of the project,” Ervin said. More than two decades in the planning, Roosevelt Square ultimately will provide about 3,000 housing units in a mixed-income community. In the near future, the 73 units above the library will be among 120 constructed, with 50 being market-rate townhouses.

The 73 units will be 37% CHA, 28% affordable, and 7% market rate, said Jacques Sandberg, vice president of Related Midwest, developer for the site. He noted the plan would designate 27 of the 73 units for CHA residents. Targeted tenants for the 29 affordable apartments will be people who work in area restaurants. Units will have one or two bedrooms and permit a maximum of two residents per bedroom.

Between the library building apartments and the townhouses on Grenshaw Street, this phase of the development will meet the goal of one-third CHA, one-third affordable, and one-third market rate housing in Roosevelt Square. That mix abides by a consent decree approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 in a landmark desegregation case.

More than 3,000 families once lived in ABLA; 1,050 had valid leases when the demolitions began in the 1990s. Officials promised residents replacement housing.

“This development will better this community,” said Karen Phelan, one of the founders of a new group named Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association (LICNA). She told the commissioners to “Please allow additional input,” however.

Another LICNA member, Doug Bartels, said, “give the community a chance to hear why some decisions were made.”

“Our community has a proven success rate of integrated, mixed income,” said Mary Beth Howard, a fifth generation area resident also with LICNA, as she urged “community input.”

“No one speaks against the library,” just the housing, Ervin said. He believes the building as a whole is something long needed to restart the redevelopment. “A large swath of vacant land hurts the businesses,” he said. “I continue to see businesses on Taylor Street decline and close, and I believe this particular development would give that strip the shot in the arm it so desperately needs.”

Opponents said the seven story building is too high to blend into the neighborhood. Others object to the modern design. Loss of parking for businesses and residents also is a major concern.

“It is not a highrise,” Ervin said as he hosted the Aug. 3 meeting.

Officials held two community meetings this summer to present plans for the new library and apartments. The building would replace the current Chicago Public Library Roosevelt Branch at 1101 W. Taylor and be double its size.

Complaints mirrored those at two earlier meetings; amid those meetings was one that formed LICNA.

Crime concerns

Some local residents have expressed concerns about an increase in crime if there is an increase in low-income residents in the area, but having CHA residents does not mean an increase in crime, Ervin said, noting, “Poor does not equate crime.”

All tenants older than 18 will be required to have jobs, said Related Midwest’s Sandberg. There will be a management office and full-time manager on site.

If residents are not working, they must be enrolled in school or be in a “self-sufficiency program,” Related Midwest’s Michael McKenna said at an Aug. 14 meeting in the Jane Addams Community Resource Center for CHA residents.

Dennis O’Neill, executive director of Connecting4Communities, said reducing the number of low-income housing units in Roosevelt Square, set at 1,048, is virtually impossible legally. It would be an “exceedingly expensive case.” He noted that 1,048 is one-third of the original number of units in the ABLA housing project and represents only the valid leases in the late-1990s, when the demolition plans began.

In terms of appearance, Chicago Public Library assistant commissioner Andrea Telli said the architecture will reflect the neighborhood “absolutely.” Lee said it was possible the project would incorporate a mural or some of the concrete animals that were at the Jane Addams Homes into the décor.

“How many of you like this “monstrous building on Taylor Street?” asked Ron Kelly at an Aug. 3 meeting. About 100 people who filled the community room at St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church responded with loud objections.

“It is not monstrous,” said architect Brian Lee, who led the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill design team. He noted the architect reduced the height of the Taylor frontage, scaling back the upper floors from the sidewalk. The library will be occupy the first floor, with apartments on the six upper floors.

Parking issue

The apartments will have 26 parking spaces north of the building, the library nine spaces. The current library has eight. Telli said the nearby Chinatown Library branch has nothing but street parking.

To remedy loss of a gravel parking lot at the site, which can hold more than 50 cars and sees frequent use by Taylor Street restaurant customers, planners said they will open a new lot of equal size on the southwest corner of Taylor and Racine Avenue, at least temporarily. Also, Ada will become one way going north and be restricted to parkers with Zone 5 stickers. LICNA
members quipped that restaurant valet parking staff would need bus passes to move cars to and from the restaurants and lot.

Laurene Hynson, owner of Sweet Maple Café across the street from the parking lot, said, building on the lot now used for parking is “not well thought out.” She said the lot is used by at least 95% of her customers, plus employees and tenants in apartments above the restaurant. “Everybody uses it.”

“It is certainly crucial for my business and I imagine for other businesses as well,” Hynson said. A lot at Racine will not be as useful, particularly in the winter when no one shovels the sidewalks, she said.

Ashland apartments

The first meeting on June 29, also at St. Basil, was held by Ervin and also brought numerous complaints about plans for two 19-story rental apartment buildings on Ashland Avenue north of Taylor Street and criticism of the high prices—$650,000 to $850,000—for the 50 new townhouses in Roosevelt Square. Those criticisms had faded by the second meeting, as neighbors consider the deal to be done.

One local resident, Rachelle Cirrintana, turned her attention to the library, arguing for postponing the zoning change. “The building looks like a ‘60s version of the cement structures that were designed for the University of Illinois at Chicago,” she said. “It looks very cold in brick and needs to have a bit more character.” The parking lot idea for Racine and Taylor “is just ludicrous. That should be developed into a beautiful storefront for clothing or shopping such as a Trader Joe’s just as an example.”

Officials named Shelley Hughes the new head librarian for the Roosevelt Branch, a post vacant since late last year.