Questions linger as Chinatown Library plans emerge
10/17/2012 10:00 PM
When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a slew of projects in South Loop and surrounding neighborhoods during a Sept. 28 press conference, one item caught Chinatown residents by surprise.
Emanuel announced the construction of the new Chinatown branch library using $12 million in funding from 24th/Michigan TIF. The plans to relocate the library have been discussed for years, but this was the first time the city has committed any money to the project.
At the time, Emanuel did not elaborate on the plans. Nor did he mention anything about the previously floated proposal to move the library to the upper floors of a proposed mixed-use development at the southwest corner of Archer and Wentworth avenues.
No new details emerged until the two weeks later. On Oct. 11 the Chicago Public Library facilities committee announced it had scrapped plans to relocate the library to the Archer/Wentworth development.
Instead, it would build a stand-alone library somewhere near the development using the TIF funding. And while the location has not been finalized, it is clear that it would be near the intersection, somewhere along the rerouted Wentworth Avenue. Construction would begin in late 2013.
The Chinatown community has been lobbying for a new library for well over a decade. The current neighborhood branch library is one of the smaller spaces in the Chicago Public Library system. As Chinatown continued to grow and the city’s Chinese-American population continued to increase, the constraints of the current location became increasingly apparent.
The current space is located inside a retail building, and Chicago Public Library leases it from the building owner. That limits the city’s ability to expand and makes it much harder to complete infrastructure and technology upgrades.
“[It’s] the major reason why we want to move from this site,” said Chicago Public Library spokeswoman Ruth Lednicer. “We can’t expand, we can’t add anything.”
In late June, Windfall Group USA, a Cleveland-based developer, announced its intention to buy a parcel on the southwest corner of Archer and Wentworth and use it to build a five-story mixed-use development.
According to a Crain’s Chicago Business report, the development would have food court and a supermarket the first floor, retail condominiums on the second and third floors and a new Chinatown branch library on the fourth and part of the filth floor.
But Lednicer told the Chicago Journal that the possibility of moving to Archer/Wentworth development was still on the table.
“We’re looking at a number of options,” she said. “We haven’t officially signed on to anything. We were in conversation with the developer. We are also looking what are other options we have available.”
Ald. Danny Solis (25th), on the other hand, told the Chicago Journal that the new library branch would indeed be a stand-alone location. However, he declined to elaborate on where it would be located.
“It will be near where the [Archer/Wentworth development] has been proposal,” said Solis. “There are options, but I’m can’t discuss them yet.”
Theresa Mah, the policy consultant at the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, attended the Chicago Public Library facilities committee meeting. She said that the committee didn’t share any specific locations. However, she explained that the new location would be tied into another infrastructure project
“I think that location is contingent on the reconfiguration of Wentworth Avenue,” said Mah. “Chicago Department of Transportation will configure Wentworth Avenue. It would continue across Cermak [Road] without turns.”
Today, Wentworth Avenue is offset at Cermak Road. The street starts just south of 16th Street and continues south until it reaches Cermak Road. But in order to continue south of Cermak Road, motorists and bikers have to make two 90-degree turns — west and then south. The resulting blind spots and the complex system of signals can lead to traffic accidents.
In an interview with the Grid Chicago blog, Solis said that straightening the 90-degree intersections in his ward is his long-term goal. He commented that it is a challenging process, because it would require the city to take possession of some private property.
Any attempt to rearrange Wentworth Avenue would probably require the demolition of the building on the northwest corner of Cermak and Wentworth.
The manager of Three Happiness restaurant, which is housed in the building, told the Chicago Journal that he hasn’t heard anything about the Wentworth straightening project, through official channels or otherwise.
Because the project is still in design stages, Solis declined to discuss what the project would ultimately look like and whether or not any existing buildings would be affected.
Whatever shape the plans would ultimately take, this marks the first time the city has made any firm financial commitment to moving the branch library. And for Mah, at least, that in itself is worth celebrating.
“We’re excited that we’ll be getting funds for the construction of the new library,” she said.