BACK OF THE YARDS — Debate continues over where the new Back of the Yards library branch should be built — years after initial funding was secured.
Project leaders and local officials pitched an idea to put a nearly 16,000-square-foot, two-story branch into a development at 4630 S. Ashland Ave. But several neighbors have pushed back and continued advocating for an independent building.
During a community meeting Monday night, residents were still divided over where the library should be located and whether it should be its own building.
The neighborhood’s library has been inside Back of the Yards College Prep Academy, 2111 W. 47th St., since the school opened in 2013. It was touted as a major upgrade, since the previous public library had been inside a strip mall on Damen Avenue.
But residents have questioned for years why their neighborhood doesn’t have its own freestanding, quality public library branch. Parents said sharing the library with the high school makes access difficult — especially during the day during the school year — and it doesn’t meet the needs of the community.
Southwest Side parents and local leaders have advocated for a separate library building for years. In 2020, state Rep. Theresa Mah secured $15 million in state funding for capital projects to fund the library, but project officials have struggled to finalize a location.
Library officials were hoping to have a site selected in the fall, but the community input process has been long, said Patrick Molloy, director of government and public affairs with the library.
Molloy said more than a dozen sites have been considered for the library branch, but many have been taken off the list for several reasons. The development site is the most viable option for now, but no final decision has been made, he said.
Residents have said a central location is the most important factor to them, with the second being that it’s around retail, Molloy said. There hasn’t been another viable option for a standalone library in such a central area as the development, he said.
The location needs to have room for about 16,000 square feet, include space for parking, be near public transit and not disrupt existing businesses, Molloy said.
Designs shared at Tuesday’s meeting only showed one floor of what would be a two-story space. Drawings presented in previous community meetings include a 9,823-square-foot space on the first floor and a 4,281-square-foot library mezzanine on the second floor.
Craig Chico, president and CEO of Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council who is spearheading the project with Park Row Development, said Thursday said those renderings were outdated. Developers are committed to making the library 16,000 square feet, Chico said.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), whose ward covers part of Back of the Yards, said at the meeting he supports the library branch being built within the development and wants the community to “stop arguing and start doing.”
This library is “‘something we can give to the next generation of Back of the Yards residents and be a model for other neighborhoods,” he said.
Several residents said they want the library to be in the Ashland Avenue development, saying it ticks the boxes with its central location, being accessible by public transit and being near retail.
“There is an overwhelming need for more resources for children and students in the community,” said the director of a day care near Ashland Avenue and 48th Street. “I do support the library in this site.”
A group called Luchando por la Biblioteca, made up of mothers who fought fiercely for the $15 million in state funding, has been the most vocal proponent for a standalone library.
Sharing the library at the school has been a problem, so the members don’t want to repeat the same issue by putting the library in the development, where there will be housing, they’ve said.
“I want to see my community beautified, beautiful. But as a mother, I need more open spaces in this community, more safe spaces where we can bring our kids,” group member Consuelo Martinez said.
Some have pointed to a shooting last year in the housing complex above the Little Italy library branch, which left a police officer critically wounded and the block closed for several hours, as an example of why housing and the library should not be mixed.
Others said they think putting the library in a high-traffic retail corridor would make it safer.
Officials said they will continue gathering community input.
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