Margaret Laurino and Brian Bannon
Margaret Laurino and Brian Bannon Credit: Brian Jackson and Al Podgorski/Chicago Sun-Times

Residents of Albany Park say they were blindsided by news last spring that their Chicago Public Library branch, on the corner of Foster and Kimball, would soon be closing.

Word started to get around in late April, after a group that meets there attempted to reserve its usual space and was told it wouldn’t be possible.

A week or two later, a notice appeared in a front window advising that the doors would close June 9 for the most surprising of reasons: the Chicago Public Library, which can’t afford to stay open during the weekend and evening hours when most people could get to it, is about to demolish this still-serviceable 49-year-old structure and build a brand-new one on the same spot.

The project will leave Albany Park without a branch for the duration of the two-year construction period, and will also take down 20 affordable-housing units next door. It’s billed at $15 million.

That’s a big bite for a system so strapped it’s had to fire most of the folks who shelve its books, but in the wonderland of Chicago TIF financing, it’s what happens. Mayor Emanuel’s request for TIF funds for the project last fall—and the City Council’s approval—flew under the radar of regular library users like Pam Kane, a member of the branch’s Friends of the Library organization and a librarian herself. The Friends had no inkling of the plan until it was “a done deal” and the closing was just weeks away, Kane says. No interim library had been arranged; area kids would be left without a valued “safe haven” just as schools shut down for the summer.

Neighbors quickly gathered 200 signatures on a petition demanding information and community input, and on May 24 Alderman Margaret Laurino held a public meeting at which new CPL commissioner Brian Bannon and the city’s public building commission director, Erin Cabonargi, presented their plans and took comments. The branch closing was put off to September 1.

Last week the alderman hosted a standing-room-only follow-up meeting with the same cast of characters in the existing library, a 10,000-square-foot, one-story masonry box that’s shabby but sturdy. Cabonargi explained a couple of modifications made after the first meeting (sound breaks, covered bike racks), and Bannon announced to the crowd that “we have a big vision here.”

The big vision doesn’t include distinctive design, however: the new building will be another one-story adaptation of CPL’s institutional-barn (and echo chamber) prototype, a bland near-clone of the Richard M. Daley and Little Village branches opened last year. It’ll be 6,000 square feet larger than the existing library, with a raised roof over a big central computer hub, quaintly referred to as a reading room.

The grand vision also excludes temporary quarters for the two-year construction period, now the main focus of public concern. At last week’s meeting a Committee to Save and Improve the Albany Park Library presented another 700 signatures on petitions demanding “full uninterrupted library services in the neighborhood at one location.” But, said Bannon of a budget that includes $800,000 for architectural tweaks to a cookie-cutter plan and $1 million to the building commission for project management, “We don’t have funds for that.”

The new building’s scheduled to open in summer 2014. In the meantime, Laurino says, Albany Park CPL patrons can register by September 1 to use the library at Northeastern Illinois University. No one under the age of 18 is allowed to check out books, and those under 15 must be accompanied by a parent, but never mind: there will also be programs at North Park College University and the Albany Park Community Center. And the bookmobile will come around.

“We’re talking past each other,” committee member Joyce Good said during a heated question-and-answer period. “You’re talking terrazzo floors, and we’re talking books and staff.”