Chicago Finds a Way to Improve Public Housing: Libraries
By Michael Kimmelman
The New York Times
May 15, 2019
Photo courtesy Tom Harris / SOM
The Chicago Housing Authority has completed three new public housing projects that combine affordable housing units with public branch library locations. They are small, consisting only of a few dozen apartments each, but are distinctive and striking, and perhaps more importantly, integrated into healthy neighborhoods so that they might thrive.
The three new housing projects partner the Chicago Housing Authority with the Chicago Public Library system and two private developers— Evergreen Real Estate Group and Related Companies. In 2016, a city-run architecture competition attracted submissions from 32 local firms. Among the three winners was CED alumni Brian Lee (B.A. Arch, '76), who also built the new branch library in Chinatown, now a neighborhood linchpin and landmark.
This latest venture to create healthy neighborhoods was spearheaded by outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel. According to Emmanuel, people don’t only need affordable apartments. Healthy neighborhoods are not simply collections of houses. They also require things like decent transit, parks, stores, playgrounds and libraries. To this end, the outgoing mayor undertook multiple projects, including extending the city’s subway system and network of bike lanes, and creating new parks, such as La Villita which replaced a former Superfund site.
Co-locating public housing with public libraries was partly strategic: the library helped sway community groups resistant to public housing in their neighborhoods. But branch libraries are also indispensable and bustling neighborhood centers, a space for neighborhood residents to gather and belong. They build and support a healthy community, providing common ground in a city siloed by race and class.
Branch libraries also provide numerous public programs, offering music lessons, employment advice, citizenship training, entrepreneurship classes, and English-as-a-second-language instruction. In a city where one in three Chicagoans lacks ready access to high-speed internet, branch libraries are also reliable locations for computers and free broadband access.
Lee’s latest project, Taylor Street Apartments and Little Italy Branch Library, encountered fierce community resistance. Compromises with the community included reducing the size of the apartment tower and stepping back its mass from the street.
The $41 million project includes 73 apartments, seven of them market-rate. At seven stories, clad in Aztec-brick and chestnut-colored panels, the building at once stands out from but also echoes aspects of the neighborhood. There are two floors with glassed-in, single-loaded corridors, the sort of perk you mostly find in high-end residential developments. A double-height library, with a curtain wall and bright orange acoustic baffles, anchors the street.
For more information about the other design projects, read the article in full, here.