Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hans Morsbach, the New Normal Medici, and Harper Court

posted by chicago pop

Local burger magnate Hans Morsbach has strong feelings on Harper Court. We shouldn't tear it down, he says, because it would be against Hyde Park's principles and ideals.

But when the demolition is going on in someone else's town, it doesn't seem to be a problem. Witness the soon-to-open new Medici Restaurant in Normal, Illinois.

Interior of New Medici, Normal, Illinois

The rendering above portrays the interior of the newest outpost of the Hans Morsbach empire, the beer-and-burger cash cow that will soon open in the hometown of Illinois State University. The building is all-new construction partly subsidized by the Town of Normal as part of a very ambitious and radical redesign of its central business district.

Morsbach is a prime beneficiary of a tear-down and subsidized redevelopment done according to explicit New Urbanist design principles. I've had coffee across the street from the new Medici, and it looks damn good. Too bad this is the exact opposite of what some Hyde Parkers, including Morsbach, want to do with our own dilapidated, low-traffic commercial district at Harper Court.

The plan for Normal, a product of the Chicago new urbanist and sustainable design firm Farr Associates, has entailed the demolition of wide swaths of the downtown area, including numerous buildings built over the last several decades. As with Hyde Park, a new Marriott hotel is slated as an anchor for the redevelopment, along with a children's museum, and a major municipal commitment to bring about an integrated streetfront design that recalls the commercial heyday of the town in the early 20th century.

Medici site, previous building

The image above is the nondescript 1980s era building that was demolished to make room for this, the new home of the Medici, Normal.

New Medici, October 2007

As you can see, the new building was erected with a facade that refers explicitly to the remaining historical buildings in the area. To guarantee this harmony of new and old facades and a pleasant sidewalk experience for pedestrians, the Town of Normal adopted a set of design stipulations, tied to grants and low-interest loans for facade and structural redevelopment. One example of this comprehensive new urbanist approach -- which required sidewalk-fronting facades, and historical decoration -- is the very pleasant building picture above, one of several that help to restore the downtown's historical integrity, charm, and walkability.

So what does Normal have to do with Harper Court, and Harper Court to do with Normal?

Let's ask Hans Morsbach, because he has some very specific ideas about what to do with Harper Court:

I strongly believe the answer to Harper Court's trouble lies in doing a better management job rather than tearing the place down. The rationale put forward for the redevelopment scheme is not credible, no matter how many consultants were engaged to gussy it up. (April 12, 2006)

Morsbach backs up this position by arguing that retail is declining in Hyde Park -- with the curious exception of his stretch of 57th Street -- and any redevelopment at Harper Court -- including a tear down and new construction -- would be fruitless.

Can we assume, as the backers of redevelopment do that a redone Harper Court, larger and more expensive, will somehow do a better job than the current incarnation? ... I seriously doubt that the veterinarian, the restaurants and other establishments will be better served by new and presumably more expensive retail space. More importantly, I doubt that these businesses will find it easy to survive the disruption the redevelopment project imposes on them.

So let's review:
  • Hans Morsbach's new restaurant in Normal, Illinois, is in a new building that takes the place of a previous retail establishment that was displaced and demolished. Numerous other long-standing businesses were also displaced, but Morsbach is obviously happy with the new, modern space: as he told the Maroon, "It's beautiful and it's huge."
  • The Normal Town Council, after watching their central business district decline for three decades, decided to turn it around. To do that, "consultants were engaged to gussy it up." Morsbach isn't complaining.
  • Morsbach obviously expects that "redevelopment [of downtown Normal] ... will somehow do a better job than the current incarnation," and that the redevelopment is better than "doing a better management job." Otherwise, he wouldn't have sunk his money into it. But when it comes to Harper Court, it's apparently better to stick with the status quo, despite the striking case of Toys Etcetera demonstrating that a small business can make money in Hyde Park, just not at Harper Court.
  • The most delicious irony is to be found in Morsbach's comparison of Harper Court redevelopment with a "Second Coming of Urban Renewal," when his new restaurant in Normal is a beneficiary of publicly subsidized demolition of major chunks of its downtown, including portions of entire city blocks, as shown below.

Mr. Morsbach seems to care a lot about principles when it comes to renewing Harper Court. But when Urban Renewal arrives in Normal, Illinois, it's a great business opportunity. Perhaps it's time for Mr. Morsbach follow the same business principles in his own neighborhood that he follows in someone else's.


Elizabeth Fama said...

Wow. Just wow. This is a fascinating post, Chicago Pop.

Aside from all of the important things you pointed out, a seemingly unimportant one struck me: did you notice how both the interior layout and exterior facade of the Normal Medici seem to be bigger, better, nicer, cleaner renditions of the Medici on 57th? Like he's trying to duplicate his success -- hmm, except that the Normal folks are getting something better.

LPB said...

I'd have to say that this Morsbach example is a new low in Hyde Park NIMBYism.

Why does Normal get the newer, better, more liveable, New Urbanist revitalization that adds to quality of life in the area? And not Hyde Park?!! Well, I guess HP residents have to thank folks like Hans More-bucks for that.

I'd have more respect for More-bucks if he were actually consistent in his "principles" and were as vocally opposed to the redevelopment of Normal as he apparently is to overhauling Harper Court.

As an aside, this is the kind of investigation and analysis that the Herald should be doing if it had even one iota of journalistic professionalism and integrity.

chicago pop said...

To Beth's point, that the new Normal Med is "bigger, better, nicer, cleaner", this is all obviously because it's NEW. That's what you get with NEW CONSTRUCTION.

Strangely, such new construction as will house the Medici in Normal is a relative rarity in Hyde Park, and is often quite vocally objected to by people like the owner of the Medici on 57th Street.

Morsbach has gone on record objecting to the two most promising commercial redevelopment projects currently in the pipeline in Hyde Park -- Drs Hospital and Harper Court, both of which could offer entrepreneurs the kind of NEW CONSTRUCTION that he is benefiting from in the tear-down project in Normal.

This is the most flagrant case of NIMBY-ism that has so far been presented on this blog.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Will his Medici in Normal IL displace an existing business? Or was the building that they tore down empty? (Sorry if you've explained this already.)

chicago pop said...

To Beth's question, No, the new Medici in Normal will not displace the business that stood in the location previously (Other Ports).

That business had closed in 2004. Morsbach went in on a deal with the business and property owner Bob Steinman to demolish that property and rebuild it as a 250-seat restaurant.

While this particular project involved no use of eminent domain and condemnation, the Town of Normal agreed to subsidize the Morsbach-Steinman redevelopment project to the tune of "up to 30 percent or $350,000 of the annual interest costs on their first mortgage, provide a $100,000 grant for life/safety work and a $15,000 facade improvement grant." (Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph, September 7, 2005).

So, while no business was displaced by the Medici, it received money from the Town of Normal that has actively condemned and displaced businesses and property owners in the area.

demathers said...

Hans is a typical statist:
Do as I say, NOT as I do.