Chinatown library looks to escape bind
New library building close to moving forward at Archer and Wentworth
04/11/2012 10:00 PM
After years packed to the gills as the busiest neighborhood library in Chicago, Chinatown’s local branch seems close to getting a big upgrade.
A six-story mixed use building at the southwest corner of Archer and Wentworth avenues is close to breaking ground, the developer said this week, with plans for an 18,000 square foot library on the fourth floor. The library will have its own entrance and signage.
Led by developer See Wong, the project recently got zoning approval from Ald. Danny Solis (25th) in exchange for agreeing to reserve a floor of space in the building for the library.
The new library would replace the storefront site at 2353 S. Wentworth, which opened in 1972. It’s the busiest community library in Chicago, outpaced only by the city’s two regional libraries and downtown’s Harold Washington Library in terms of visitors, according to 2011 statistics.
On top of that, the current building is sorely undersized, according to Theresa Mah, who’s been working on the library through the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community.
“It isn’t adequate for the community’s needs. It’s one of the heaviest used branches, but we saw that there were people waiting for long periods of time for the computers, and there weren’t enough seats, and there were people sitting on the floor,” she said. “There’s a growing population, it’s in a densely populated area, and it’s an area where people congregate.”
One of the reasons the library is so much more popular in the Chinese community, she said, is because native Chinese speakers feel much more comfortable in a building that caters directly to them, and offers resources they might not find elsewhere in the city.
“People feel comfortable being in that community.
If they’re not comfortable speaking English, they can still get somebody else who’s in line to translate,” Mah said. “It’s in an environment that people feel comfortable in navigating.”
C.W. Chan, the head of the coalition, said that they wanted the library to be south of Cermak Road, closer to the heart of Chinatown, but properties are already too dense in that area that it would have been nigh-impossible to pull together enough property for a bigger library.
“In the heart of Chinatown, there really was no piece of land that would serve that purpose,” he said. “There was some concern from the local schools about crossing traffic to get to the new building.”
Nevertheless, the new location is simply the easiest route to getting a new library in the near future, so they’re moving forward with it.
Wong, the developer, said the project, which will also include a three-story indoor mall and two floors of offices or residential units, is almost ready to go. At this point, he’s waiting for the neighboring supermarket’s lease on a parking lot to expire this October. The new building will be built on the current parking lot. If everything goes smoothly, he hopes to have financing ready to start building the project in spring 2013.
The library still has to get funding for its portion of the new building, and it’s unclear how it’ll pay for the space.
Wong said he’s given library officials three options: the opportunity to buy the space outright, lease it, or lease it with an option to buy later.
What will happen is unclear at this point. While the library’s former commissioner, Mary Dempsey, was on board with the project, library spokeswoman Ruth Lednicer said new commissioner Brian Bannon hasn’t had a chance to review every project yet.
“It’s been slowed down a bit by the transition,” Lednicer said. “The new commissioner is just entering his fourth week, and he’s still being advised about all the projects in the offing.”