WEST RIDGE — A group of West Ridge neighbors is criticizing plans to sell the former Northtown Library building, saying the process lacks transparency and poses ethical questions.
Plans to sell the Northtown library branch building at 6435 N. California Ave. to a Jewish social services group were announced by Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th) late last month, with the city set to formally review the proposed sale at Thursday’s Plan Commission meeting.
But the West Ridge Community Organization raised concerns about the sale process and asked the city to pump the brakes, and its wish was granted. The sale of the library branch building will be deferred from the Plan Commission’s Thursday agenda, a city spokesperson said Wednesday.
The neighbor group began raising red flags in February, when its members learned of the pending sale from other residents despite spending years trying to revive the former library facility, its members said.
One of the library building’s proposed future occupants is a group co-founded by Silverstein, raising more concerns about the sale process, the group members said.
“We find this process to be one that is inherently unfair and subjective,” seven members of the West Ridge Community Organization’s wrote in a letter to Silverstein.
West Ridge neighbors have been seeking uses for the library building since it was vacated in 2018. That’s when the neighborhood’s new library and affordable housing complex opened on Western Avenue.
A group of neighbors aimed to open an arts and cultural center in the library. More recently, the West Ridge Community Organization worked to connect parties interested in the building with city officials, with no success.
But after years trying to learn of the city’s intentions for the building, members of the West Ridge Community Organization heard nothing of its status. That was until February, when it learned from another neighborhood group that the library was in the process of being sold, said Evelyn Miks, chair of the community group.
Further digging unearthed a city memorandum from October showing the sale of the library building to the Jewish nonprofit was already in the works.
The group wrote Silverstein on Feb. 18 to “express our strong disappointment with the lack of transparency involved in the sale of this public building,” according to a copy of the letter sent to Block Club.
Silverstein publicly announced the proposed sale Feb. 28. The sale was placed on the Plan Commission’s Thursday meeting agenda by at least March 2.
“Nobody knew anything about this,” Miks said. “There should have been a community meeting. There was a total lack of communication.”
After receiving the offer to buy the library building, the city issued a request for proposals for others interested in buying the property. The March 31 deadline for proposal submissions would have been two weeks after the Plan Commission was to consider the sale.
“Prior to further consideration of the proposed purchase, the Department of Planning and Development desires to invite proposals from others interested in acquisition of the property,” the public notice reads.
A spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Development said the building sale item will be deferred from Thursday’s Plan Commission agenda while other proposals are being accepted. The sale could come in front of the Plan Commission in April.
Yachad Chicago has agreed to pay $400,000 for the library building. Under the proposal, Yachad would renovate the property and use it to house supportive services for Jewish people with developmental disabilities.
Yachad Chicago is the Skokie-based branch of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities.
A portion of the facility would be leased to Libenu, another organization that helps Jewish adults and children with developmental disabilities live fulfilling lives.
Libenu was co-founded by Silverstein, according to the organization’s website.
“The appearance is not good,” Miks said of the alderman’s ties to Libenu. “Combined with no real process and a lack of transparency, that’s not good.”
Silverstein said in an email that the Department of Planning and Development handles the sale of city-owned buildings and that she checked with the city’s ethics board regarding her relationship to Libenu.
“The offer is being handled by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, and they are following the standard process for sale of city-owned property,” Silverstein said. “With regards to Libenu, I have had multiple conversations with the Board of Ethics and was assured that there is no conflict of interest.”
The roughly 11,000-square-foot building at 6435 N. California Ave. served as the Northtown branch library from 1962 to 2018. The former branch has been empty since.
The library is listed as a city-owned surplus property available for sale. In 2020, the building was appraised at $750,000, according to city documents.
The building has been “deteriorating rapidly,” Silverstein said in her announcement of the pending sale. Yachad and Libenu will help turn the vacant building into a “community asset.”
“Now, we have an opportunity to use the old space in a way that will benefit the community,” she said in an email to constituents. “Yachad is a globally recognized leader in advocacy and would make a wonderful neighbor.”
The West Ridge Community Organization said it is not opposed to the groups seeking to buy the building and use it as a social services hub. Rather, it would like to see more community input on such matters.
“The good part is the building is going to get reused,” said Hillorie Morrison, a member of the group. “It’s this process of not knowing what is happening in your neighborhood that is frustrating.”
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