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Stunning Library-CHA Complex Is As Innovative As Promised

 Independence Branch Library Renderings
Independence Branch Library Renderings
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IRVING PARK — When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans for a series of mixed-use buildings that would combine public libraries with affordable housing, he vowed the designs would be anything but cookie-cutter.

John Ronan Architects delivered on that promise for the proposed Independence Branch Library, set to rise up at 4022 N. Elston Ave.

Conceptual renderings for the six-story building — a two-story, 16,000-square-foot library, with four floors of affordable apartments for seniors above — were recently unveiled at a community meeting and met with overwhelming praise.

Walls of glass will bathe the library in natural light and the apartments break the mold of institutional-looking public housing.

Neighbors' biggest concern about the project? That it won't come to fruition.

The Independence Branch Library has waited more than 130 years for a building to call its own, but now that construction of a permanent home for the branch has been approved, the race is on to break ground post haste.

Why the sudden rush?

The building is being financed through an arrangement with the Chicago Housing Authority and relies on funding from federal sources and tax credits.

With a federal tax reform proposal being considered in D.C. and budgets for all federal agencies in doubt, library supporters wondered: Is the money still there?

The short answer: At the moment, yes.

The question was raised at a recent community meeting held to provide neighbors with greater detail about the proposed building which will be built at 4022 N. Elston Ave.

David Block of Evergreen Real Estate Group, which is overseeing the building's development and eventually will manage the housing component, attempted to reassure concerned neighbors.

The project is on a fast track, he said, and any changes at the federal level aren't likely to take effect in time to derail funding.

"We feel confident these are a 'go,' but now is the time to get this done before the door slams shut," Block said.

Construction could start by the end of 2017, with the library and housing open by the end of 2018, he said.

Here's a look at what's at stake.

The Library

All renderings are preliminary and subject to change. [John Ronan Architects]


John Ronan, whose architecture firm won a design competition for the library commission, presented a preliminary look at the building.

The library's bright and airy feel owes much to the first floor's open plan and a double-height wall of glass, or clerestory, in technical terms.

Services and materials for the library's youngest users will be housed on the ground floor. Amenities will include play areas, cozy seating, group study tables, and low and moveable shelving, according to Andrea Telli, Chicago Public Library's chief of neighborhood branches.

A community room, also located on the first floor, will have flexible seating options and a separate entrance for use outside regular library hours.

Among the interesting design elements: A stairwell leading to the second floor can double as theater seating during lectures or other special events.

Adult services and a YouMedia center for teens will take up the bulk of the L-shaped second floor.

Telli promised "ample data and power connections," which aren't always available in older libraries.

A park-like area off the second floor is actually the "roof" to a parking structure, which will have 16 spaces for library patrons and 17 for the housing residents.

Though reaction to the library's design — double the space of the branch's rented digs, which suffered smoke damage in a 2015 fire — was overwhelming positive, neighbors had a few concerns and complaints.

One supporter urged Telli to incorporate quiet space for teens and others were dubious that 16 spaces would be enough parking.

"I know parking is a huge commodity across the city," said Telli, who noted that one spot per 1,000 square feet is the city's typical standard for libraries.

Affordable Housing for Seniors

[John Ronan Architects]

Stacked on top of the library, and set back from the street, will be four floors containing a total of 44 affordable apartments for independent seniors (no assisted living). Each floor will have 11 apartments: nine one-bedroom units and two two-bedroom units.

Though the library and housing will share an entry "courtyard," access to and from the apartments will be via a separate doorway.

Each apartment will have its own recessed balcony, and while the colors depicted in the building's renderings aren't set in stone, they will indeed be painted in different hues, Ronan said.

"The idea is to get away from the repetition of public housing, for people to be able to point and say, 'That's my home,'" he explained.

Block, of Evergreen Real Estate Group, outlined the leasing process for the apartments. 

Residents must be 62 years or older and the name of everyone who lives in the unit must be on the lease. So no "grand-families," he said.

Any overnight guests must be registered with Evergreen, and individuals will be permitted a maximum of 20 nights per year. 

Thirty of the units will be occupied by CHA-qualified tenants, drawn from a site-specific waiting list that CHA will compile closer to the opening date. Rent for CHA tenants will be 30 percent of their income.

The other 14 units will be occupied by individuals who apply through Evergreen. Income requirements would range from $27,650 on the low end for a single-person household and $37,920 on the high end for a two-person household. Rents would be $570 to $741 for one-bedroom units and $601 to $894 for two-bedrooms.

Each applicant will be subject to criminal background and credit checks. Drug convictions, felonies or domestic violence would be automatic "nos," according to Block.

The inclusion of affordable senior housing was universally lauded — dubbed a "double jackpot" by one neighbor — but an attendee at the meeting did broach the question of whether the project was a "bait and switch."

"Are we going to end up with a Cabrini-Green?" he asked.

Block explained that there are binding restrictions on the building, which has been approved as a planned development, meaning any deviations from what's been set forth would require a zoning change and community approval.

"What you see is what you're going to get," Block said.

[John Ronan Architects]