Roosevelt Square library/housing mix riles local community
October 6, 2017

Photo by Troy Heinzeroth
LICNA board member Regina Scannicchio (right) extends a handshake to Mary Baggett, president of the ABLA Local Advisory Council, as the two agree to work together on Roosevelt Square issues at a September 18 meeting.

By Susan S. Stevens and Pat Butler

Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) officials, representatives of redeveloper Related Midwest, and Alderman Jason Ervin (28th Ward) on Sept. 18 discussed plans for a new community library with several floors of public housing included in the building, parking issues, and a requirement for 1,085 units of CHA housing to replace some of the 3,596 public housing apartments lost in the area since 2000 when the CHA began its Plan for Transformation.

The discussion occurred at a community meeting called by the Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association (LICNA) at the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. About 270 people attended. The meeting covered issues related to CHA land in the area now known as Roosevelt Square.

Current plans call for a new Taylor Street library at Taylor and Ada Streets to replace the existing Roosevelt Library on Taylor Street. The new library would feature a disproportionate number of low-income housing units upstairs. The seven-story structure would be built on CHA land that formerly housed the ABLA Homes public housing project.

The 73 units above the library will be 37% CHA, 28% affordable, and 7% market rate.

The inclusion of what they feel is a high percentage public housing has caused some community residents to protest.

Another point of contention is that the library and housing will be built on land currently used as parking for local businesses. Developers plan a new lot at the southwest corner of Taylor and Racine to replace it, but opponents contend this lot is too far from the businesses that currently use the lot. They are also concerned that the new lot will eventually be designated for additional housing, leaving the community with no future parking for area businesses. Ada Street also will become part of Zone 5, with parking limited to local residents.

Parking at the new library building also is a concern, with only 26 parking spaces allotted for residents and only nine for the library.

Objections raised

Despite strong objections from a majority of people at the meeting, the CHA, Ervin, and Related Midwest did not offer any modifications to the plan. According to the CHA’s Plan for Transformation of 2000, the goal of housing on CHA land should be one-third CHA, one-third affordable, and one-third market rate. Related Midwest and the CHA did not respond to Gazette Chicago inquiries concerning the plan and the mix of CHA, affordable, and market rate housing.

Officials feel that 50 market-rate townhouses on Grenshaw Street scheduled to be built next year will help balance the income-level percentage formula in Roosevelt Square, but some feel the Grenshaw houses are too far away to be included as part of the formula. The CHA’s 2015 Master plan calls for 32% CHA, 25% affordable, and 43% market rate.

Funding for the $46 million library and apartments will be 75% federal, 19% TIF (tax-increment financing), and 6% “other”—a category yet to be defined.

The meeting took an even more contentious turn when during an audience question-and-answer session Mary Baggett, president of the ABLA Local Advisory Council, spoke loudly about a lack of inclusiveness in meeting scheduling and decision-making. Baggett, who is African American, and other African American CHA residents said they were not invited to previous LICNA meetings.

“You are talking like it’s not our community,” Baggett said. “You are talking about Italians only; you are not speaking for us. You don’t know anything about us.”

LICNA board member Regina Scannicchio agreed that Baggett should be heard, saying “We have the same problem,” and invited her to join the LICNA board. Baggett accepted. They shook hands and agreed to work together.

Power diluted

In an interview later with Gazette Chicago, Baggett said she fully intended to take her seat on the board at the next LICNA meeting, scheduled for Sept. 27 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, and she did so at that meeting. She agrees with other LICNA leaders that community power is diluted by having it represented by three aldermen—Ervin, Danny Solis (25th), and Patrick D. Thompson (11th). “We have never been separated” before, Baggett said.

LICNA leaders agree the area should have a single alderman.

Baggett also said the community has other issues to deal with such as schools and crime.

Baggett is a life-long resident of ABLA and is completing her first year as president of the ABLA Local Advisory Council. LICNA, formed over the summer, had few African Americans at previous meetings and no African American board members before Baggett.

The height and appearance of the building also have been points of contention, but were not addressed because the scheduled duration of the meeting had run out after the argument about inclusion.

Ervin was the only alderman who attended the meeting. Solis and Thompson had been invited but did not attend.

A CHA map shows the master plan for land use in Roosevelt Square, with the new library planned for the corner of Ada and Taylor Streets.

Subsequent meeting

LICNA held a subsequent meeting on Sept. 27 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii School, at which Scannicchio told the group and community attendees that if they were going to ask the CHA any questions, they had to make those questions very specific, requiring specific answers.

She noted at the group “wanted to get a master plan from the CHA on the planned housing as well as the public library that would be going on the first floor of the CHA housing,” but that the group “has about 20 questions” that CHA officials “didn’t answer.”

Scannicchio told the meeting, “Make your questions specific. If you give someone, especially someone from a governmental agency, a broad question, they’ll find a way to swim through it without giving a specific answer. Be specific in the event we actually do get to submit questions to the CHA or the developer.”

She was heartened that neighborhood residents were so concerned “that we were able to get 270 people out to that [Sept. 18] meeting,” Scannicchio said, noting that that proved “we are so much stronger than they [the CHA] thought we were,” despite the organization being only “a little more than 65 days old.”

Area resident Jeff Krause said at the Sept. 27 meeting that he was disappointed with the CHA at the Sept. 18 meeting. “We asked CHA what they saw as success” for the proposed project “five to ten years down the line,” Krause said. “The answer they gave us was ‘getting the court order fulfilled,’ which meant getting the right percentage of CHA residents, affordable housing residents, and market rate residents in the development.”

However, Krause added, “It said nothing about the quality of life in that neighborhood, nothing about the quality of the schools or the crime rate. I think we need to reach out to the mayor and anyone else who will listen. We were talking about improving people’s lives and they completely ignored that.”

Solis attended the Sept. 27 meeting and acknowledged that there are parking problems in the Taylor Street area. He also noted that the ward he represents also covers the West Loop and the South Loop, and parking problems there have not stopped business from booming. Solis agreed, however, that the City, the community, and the businesses should address Taylor Street-related parking issues.

One audience member noted that the late community activist Oscar D’Angelo worked to keep the community clean, and that the appearance of the community has suffered since D’Angelo’s passing. Solis said he would send letters to local businesses asking them to work to keep the areas in front of the businesses cleaner.

“The problems aren’t just confined to the planned Roosevelt Square project,” said 25-year ABLA resident Betty Sharp, who said since she moved in, “nothing has improved. When I come home, the street lights are out. There’s nowhere to go for service. I would welcome some assistance from anybody and everybody to change that.”

Little Italy

At the Sept. 27 meeting, several residents even raised questions about calling the community “Little Italy” as there are so many nationalities in the area.

“Does ‘Little Italy’ include the ABLA Homes?” asked Natalie Schmidt. A LICNA board member responded, “The ABLA Homes are part of our area,” adding that there are not Italian-Americans living there.

Board member Karen Phelan emphasized that “you don’t have to be Italian to live here. It’s just what this community is called.”

Scannicchio agreed, noting that “Chicago is a city of many neighborhoods and labels have stuck over the years. You don’t have to be Italian to live here. It’s just a name; labels stick. You don’t find only Asians in Chinatown anymore, or only Greeks in Greektown.”

Editor’s note: William S. Bike, Marcia Burns, and Angela Holtzman contributed to this article.