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Splashes Of Color — And A Library — Set A Chicago Affordable Housing Project Apart

The Independence Library and Apartments in Irving Park, Chicago

The Independence Library and Apartments doesn’t look like any other apartment building in Chicago. The facade is dotted with private balconies in vibrant shades of teal, pink and yellow. The main entrance doesn’t lead to a lobby with elevators — instead, visitors are greeted with a two-story light-filled public library, filled with bookshelves, a media center and brightly colored cushions that echo the balconies outside.

By integrating a library with four stories of subsidized units for seniors in the heart of Irving Park, the design from John Ronan Architects offers a fresh take on how cities can approach affordable housing. Independence has won numerous awards, including an ENR award for Office/Retail/Mixed-Use Project of the Year in 2019, and just a few weeks ago, a 2020 Library Building Award from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association.

But the project, which fully opened in September of last year, was not without its struggles. 

Both the Chicago Housing Authority and Evergreen Real Estate Group, the developer behind the project, wanted to build as quickly as possible to keep development costs down and deliver the housing to residents as quickly as possible. The Chicago city government was also eager to see the project come to fruition fast. Fortunately, Leopardo, the general contractor that rounded out the Independence Branch team, was no stranger to tight timelines.

“The project was extremely fast-tracked; portions of the design were still being modified to fit the budget as we broke ground,” said Leopardo Vice President Mike Mastin, who oversees the company’s multifamily and affordable housing practices. “We had to stay agile and make sure we planned for every single eventuality so we could keep the project moving at the pace we needed.”

Inside the Independence Library

For Mastin, the work ratcheted up immediately after Evergreen chose Leopardo for the project. At the time, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel saw the integration of libraries and apartments as a signature capstone for his administration, and he pushed to see at least the library portion of the building open under his watch. In order for that to happen, though, systems would have to be in place for the entire six-story building. That meant Leopardo had to build the entire shell and systems and put finishing touches on the library in under 12 months.

Logistics for the project presented another hurdle. The site is a triangular spit of land between Elston Avenue and Irving Park Road. That meant space for cranes and materials was constrained to the small area between the back of the building and the public alley.

To keep the project on track, Leopardo worked with Building Information Modeling software and instituted elements of LEAN construction, keeping subcontractors and suppliers accountable and engaged with the project to make sure they hit milestones at the right time. When one of the most critical subcontractors, a metal panel installation company, unexpectedly went out of business in early 2019, Leopardo adapted, Mastin said, and found another subcontractor immediately that still met the Minority- and Women-owned Business Enterprise regulations set forth by the city and CHA. 

Through weeks and months of meetings and constant communication between all of the interested parties, Mastin and his team never lost sight of the all-important bottom line for the project. 

“We were value engineering the whole time,” Mastin said. “We were able to find savings for Evergreen and CHA on the exterior enclosure, the interior library finishes as well as many of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.”

As the building’s concrete pedestal and four levels of structural steel rose up from the earth, focus shifted to making the library space safe for occupancy — by installing fully functional HVAC, egress and fire alarm systems — while work continued on the floors above. When a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Emanuel officially opened the library to the public in January 2019, Mastin said he stood back and appreciated just how special a project he was a part of.

“It’s a totally unique idea to marry a library and affordable housing in the same building,” he said. “So much attention went into the design, which is a testament to John Ronan. What a benefit for the residents, not just of the building, but the whole community, to have the amazing library space on the ground floor.”

The second floor of the Independence Library

Mastin said that many of the valuable lessons learned on the Independence project have been beneficial for the other affordable housing projects that Leopardo is working on, including another project with Evergreen, a 193-unit affordable senior housing facility under construction on the north side of Chicago. 

Leopardo is also preparing to break ground on an affordable housing project along Sheffield Avenue in Lincoln Park, in cooperation with CHA and PIRHL Developers. The project includes the renovation of two existing 11-story buildings and the construction of a new six-story building for a total of 485 units. To minimize disruption to residents, Mastin said, Leopardo will renovate two floors at a time over the next three years, moving residents into new units as they are completed.

Above all, Mastin said, affordable housing projects are gratifying because they represent a massive team effort.

“I’m so proud of the way all the entities involved in the project came together,” he said. “From the design team and John Ronan, to Evergreen, Chicago Libraries and the city of Chicago, CHA to the multiple neighborhood groups and aldermen involved, [that] this wonderful diverse group [was] able to overcome challenges and reach our end goal is an amazing feat.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Leopardo. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.