Independence Library and Apartments
John Ronan Architects
Chicago, United States
John Ronan FAIA
Thornton Tomasetti, dbHMS, Terra Engineering, Shiner Acoustics
David Block, Director of Development, Evergreen Real Estate Group
This hybrid library/affordable housing project in Chicago combines a 16,000 square foot branch library with a 44-unit affordable apartment complex for seniors. The two-story library element is slid forward on the site to the street to foreground its public nature, while the residential block, which hovers above, is set back from the street, creating an entry courtyard to both the residential building and the library.
The two-story library supports reading and learning areas for all age groups, as well as a large community multi-purpose room which supports public lectures, gatherings and events; the community room can be entered directly from the street for use when the library is closed. The second floor of the library extends out over the covered parking to form a park-like garden space serving as an outdoor amenity space for residents as well as use by library patrons.
In a conscious departure from Chicago’s post-war housing blocks which “warehoused” the poor, a special design effort was made by the Architect to speak to the individual and create a building that feels like a “home” rather than “housing.” All apartments feature brightly colored balconies recessed into the façade which speak to individuality amidst the collective, enabling residents to identify their home from the street in a conscious attempt to transcend the brutal pragmatism which has characterized Chicago’s past efforts in the area of social housing. Doorways in the hall are color-coded to the balconies, both to animate the hallway and to help seniors identify their apartment.
The idea and commission came from the (former) Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel. The project was won through an invited design competition in the Spring of 2017. The project is a Public-Private Partnership project, involving the Mayor’s Office, The Chicago Housing Authority and the Chicago Public Library in partnership with a private affordable housing developer. The entities came together to solve a pressing problem in Chicago—the lack of affordable housing and public space. The combining of a public library and affordable housing was achieved through an innovative financing model in which the affordable housing was financed through the federal government (HUD), generating tax credits which were used to build the library. The Architect proposed the second-level garden terrace as a shared outdoor amenity for the library and apartments, thus the neighborhood received a new library, park, and much-needed affordable housing.
The design period included a rigorous community engagement process and involved numerous city agencies (Office of the Mayor, Department of Planning & Development, Chicago Public Library, Chicago Housing Authority) and four aldermanic offices (the project site is located at the intersection of four aldermanic wards). The project schedule was very compressed—nine months for design and fourteen months for construction (due to funding requirements and election cycles). Thus, the Architect needed to work very closely with the Developer and Construction Manager to meet both the strict budget and schedule constraints. The project came in on time and on budget.
The building was designed with a hybrid concrete/steel structure to allow the Library to open five months before the residential portion was completed, to get the community into a new library as soon as possible. The library is a reinforced concrete and the apartments are steel braced-frame structure; this separation allowed construction work to be performed simultaneously below and above. Other time-saving measures were the polished precast concrete façade (erected in one day), and the exterior envelope strategy: insulated aluminum backer panel cladding allowed the building to be enclosed quickly so that work could continue through Chicago’s cold weather months, allowing the exterior “rain screen” cladding to be installed the following Spring.
All 44 apartments are affordable for individuals at or below 60% of Area Median Income. 30 of the 1-bedroom units receive rental assistance from Chicago Housing Authority through RAD Project Based Vouchers, which ensure those residents pay no more than 30% of their income in rent. The project employed an innovative financing structure with both Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, Illinois state Donation Tax Credits from the Chicago Housing Authority’s donation of the land, and ComEd Energy Efficient Affordable Housing funds.
The project has been embraced by the community and the apartments are fully leased. The library has been enormously successful, filled with neighborhood children and their families; its community room hosts a wide variety of programs at all hours of the day. The project has spurred redevelopment of vacant and underutilized properties in the surrounding neighborhood.