Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Word on 53rd: Put a Mid-Rise at McMobil

posted by chicago pop

In the aftermath of what, by all accounts, including my own, was a smashingly successful community meeting on the future of the 53rd Street TIF District, it seems like a good time to revisit our favorite little stretch of 53rd.

Side Face of a 6-Story Building Behind McMobil Lot
(5220 S. Kenwood)

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, it will come as no surprise to you what we think should happen at the McMobil site on 53rd and Kenwood. We want to see a mixed-use, mid-rise building put right there. Like the buildings of similar height just yards away. Not surprisingly, a group of folks want a building here which allows for more cars, fewer and therefore more expensive units, with none of these preferences based on substantiated arguments as to why a bigger building would be worse.

Mid-Rise, 8-Story Versailles a Block Away from McMobil Site
(5254 S. Dorchester)

In previous posts, we've gone over the reasons why we think a mixed-use mid-rise is a good idea, and in fact fits with the character of the neighborhood. The alpha and omega of this issue -- something which goes against the very core of the NIMBY soul -- is that Hyde Park needs more people. We've gone over the demographics here, and made it clear that the decline in neighborhood retail is linked to the decline in neighborhood population, and not just here but throughout the South Side.

We've also pointed out the research demonstrating that, as household density goes up, auto ownership goes down. That means fewer people actually chose to own cars. That's good for congestion. And the environment. And when retailers decide to locate nearby concentrations of shoppers, that means fewer trips by car are necessary. If NIMBYs don't want a building here, congestion is not going to be a convincing bogeyman.

Hyde Park is in fact full of such buildings, sprinkled liberally among low-rise structures. This is the case on 53rd as well, and a building here would in no way depart from the historic texture or precedent of the street or the neighborhood.

Here are a few examples of other mid-rise buildings amid low-rise housing. Does anyone have any complaints about these towers near the intersection of 56th and Kenwood? Can anyone argue that they contribute to congestion on 56th Street?

Residential Mid- and High-Rise Buildings at Intersection of 56th & Kenwood

After the 53rd Street community visioning meeting this past Saturday, I sense that people are starting to realize this, that the Old-Timer resistance to change may be ebbing. Hyde Park needs more people. It needs new people. And it needs new, modern housing to hold them in sufficient numbers to make streets busier and safer.

When you get a chance to build new housing on a major artery of the neighborhood, if you don't try to match what the neighborhood historically supported, you're perpetuating the suburbanization of the inner city that was the vision of Urban Renewal. It's something a lot of NIMBYs still cling to.

A lot of holes have been ripped into the neighborhood in the last 50 years, and the NIMBY crowd has grown accustomed to them. They like their vacant lots, dead space in public parks, empty streets with anemic urban densities, and marginal retail amenities. And they especially like their free street parking.

But none of those things are fundamentally good for the neighborhood. And there is as yet no good reason that has been offered as to why an 8-10 story building shouldn't go on this spot.

When we get a chance to fill one of those holes, and turn some of these things around, we should make the most of it, and in a big way.


Richard Gill said...

I agree with Chicago Pop that the tide is turning in favor of more density and development. I wasn't at the community meeting Saturday, but understand it was well attended beyond expectations. I was told that, although there were a few NIMBY shouts of "railroad" and accusations that the meeting was really convened by a McMobil site development cabal in disguise, the NIMBYs by no means had a controlling voice.

Given the apparent broad interest reflected at, and generated by, the meeting, it's important that the McMobil development be kept in perspective. McMobil is a major item, and it may prove to be a big catalyst for other changes, but it is just one of many elements in the 53rd Street corridor. Excessive emphasis on McMobil will just give the NIMBYs ammunition.

With regard to McMobil, perhaps it should be considered in conjunction with the now-empty 53rd & Cornell site. The two buildings would bracket the corridor and could work together as engines of change. Comments?

Peter Rossi said...

Well, there are those who pay lip service as pro-density and pro-development so that they can "help create the guidelines..."

See Jack Spicer's letter in this week's Herald.

Of course, Mr. Spicer is against a mid-rise at this location as it doesn't meet his personal guidelines laid out in another one of his sermon-like letters to the editor about a month ago.

Hmm, it's oh so convenient that Mr. Neo-Density (apologies to the Peapod driver) can't actually bring himself to support any actual development in a public forum.

I hope the 53rd Street forum was a success but I fear that this will degenerate into another of example of people against change asserting property rights for something that should be left pretty much in private hands.

Great Photos, Chicago Pop!

chicago pop said...

Richard, that's a pretty good description of the meeting.

A few things were remarkable about the crowd: about 25% of those in attendance were African-American. About the same amount were under 40. There were also a few families with small children. Those are good numbers for any community meeting in this part of town and that time of day. (Take a look at the picture of the Co-Op Board meeting in today's Herald for just the opposite demographic.)

The NIMBYs were vastly outnumbered. Leaving aside the mildly controversial final vote (which one heckler felt was "railroaded") asking if people would approve of a mid-rise "somewhere" on 53rd (63% Yes/26% No), a different measure makes it just as clear that most folks there were not on the Spice-mobile.

Asked what buildings should look like on 53rd, the top 3 responses were "Mixture of historical and well designed modern buildings" (44%); "mixed use" (40.6%); and "underground and off-street parking" (21.7%).

The category "height limitations," which is the linchpin of opposition to a mid-rise at McMobil, pulled in only 8.3% in the first round and 13.2% in the second. It is not a majority concern. A well designed mid-rise building at that location, I believe, could win most people over.

I decided to drive the issue home with this post -- after having covered it earlier this summer -- because there is increased awareness of the site, and because not everyone now reading the blog may have read the earlier posts dealing with McMobil.

It is also clear that the Spicer Dream Machine is revving up a PR drive while also displaying the trappings of a pro-density self-transformation. The latter is bogus. He has signed a petition and written 2 letters to the Herald on behalf of a group that has not been able to advance a single verifiable and objective reason to oppose anything taller than 3-4 stories. Today's letter is a case in point: his a priori claim for wanting height limitations is that a mid-rise would be "oversized, monolithic projects that dwarf their neighbors and bring congestion and boredom."

These are all entirely subjective terms that have no bearing to any existing plan for the site, embody numerous tacit assumptions, and have more to do with a phobia in Jack Spicer's head than with the possibilities of what may be built outside of it.

SR said...

The NIMBYs were vastly outnumbered.

That was my feeling at the November TIF meeting also. A few naysayers, but mostly people who were pretty excited about this new retail development the U of C is planning for the old theater building. (One of the many misstatements of fact in the December Evergreen was a complaint that the University has done "nothing" to develop that site, whereas in fact they have obviously been working very hard on this for a long time now, and are currently in the process of getting permits for the renovation IIRC).

The U of C rep also presented at the TIF meeting the results of a retail study the University had commissioned, basically looking at what kinds of numbers retailers look at when choosing locations. It demonstrated pretty clearly that Hyde Park doesn't have high enough density with high enough incomes to be attractive to most retailers. I don't know if they've published it anywhere; I couldn't find it posted to the U of C website though I might not have looked in the right place.

Famac said...

What's planned in the theatre?

SR said...

The building is going to be completely gutted and rehabbed; there will be a bunch of little stores in the front along 53rd street, then probably a restaurant on the ground floor in the front along Harper and offices on the top floors.

They were pretty closed-mouthed about which businesses exactly (except they did name one that had already signed on for the 2nd-floor office space, which unfortunately I've already completely forgotten), I think because they haven't actually closed the deals yet. But it's going to be higher end fashion (not designer exactly but boutique, was the impression I got) plus restaurants. It sounded like they're meant to be nicer type restaurants also rather than chain, but again, no names.

You can see a drawing of the planned rehab here along with a short write-up about it.

From what the U of C rep said, it sounds like they hired these particular developers because they have some kind of reputation for being creative about drumming up retail and thinking about revitalization of areas, etc. The developer's rep had a sort of "if we build it they will come" attitude about putting high-end shops on that block, which seemed kind of shot down by the U of C's own retail study presented later in the meeting. It will be interesting to see what happens, certainly.

I didn't mean to completely change the subject, btw :-). Just pointing out that the U of C has an actual Hyde Park-specific study of the density/retail issue that might come in handy if they've published it somewhere.

SR said...

Looking at it again, though, the current plans shown at the TIF meeting look a bit different from those at the link I posted; the awnings are gone in the latest version for one thing. I can't seem to find a more recent drawing online, though.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I agree with Peter Rossi that I have a definite unease about holding community meetings to assess opinions regarding aesthetics, use, and engineering of private property. There's the principle (that it's private property, and we should let the market decide) and there's the practical (determining whether the participants fully represent the voice of the community).

On the other hand, I do think Hyde Park has developed some sort of reputation among developers for being "difficult," and I suppose a meeting to dispell that rumor has some value.

Chicago Pop, in what way did the organizers say the meeting results would be used?

chicago pop said...

Unfortunately, any unease about constraints on the use of private property was pretty much hung out to dry in the Euclid v. Ambler Supreme Court decision of 1926, which declared zoning constitutional. The recent Chicago City Code rewrite of 2004 was also done on the basis of extensive neighborhood input, not all of which I agree with.

That is to say, there are often limits on what private property owners can do with their private property. Unless you go to Houston which has no zoning, or don't mind steel mills polluting next door.

But I'm digressing: based on the community meetings I've attended in Hyde Park, I think this one was by far and away a model for the future. You need community input for big projects, long-range planning, etc. That's understood by now (whereas it wasn't circa 1960). The question is, how do you do it.

You can let a bunch of people walk into a room, set up a mike, and watch it degenerate into mobocracy, which is what Establishment types thrive on.

Or, as was done in this meeting, you can structure it so that information on key issues is collected and sorted in a focused and efficient way, and then used to make propositions that are voted on anonymously. Then you walk away with some sense of what that group wants, thinks, and feels.

The information that the planning folks took away (like the numbers I mentioned above) are going to be used for a big, big visioning thing at the Department of Planning that is exploring ways to develop HP as a "hub" for redevelopment on the South Side, with some metrics to shoot for by 2040.

Basically, they are toying with the idea of making Hyde Park a major destination, and then trying to build on this to the benefit of the South Side. Sort of like what we want to do here at HPP. As one of the few somewhat active commercial streets south of the Loop, 53rd is an important piece of this.

chicago pop said...

SR, thanks for bringing up the retail market study. I'm going to try to see if we can get out hands on it.

It's all good -- the Harper Ct. project is part of 53rd and gets back to Richard Gill's initial point -- which I neglected -- that we need to think about the 53rd TIF district as a whole.

I can't wait to see that project go online. It's going to be awesome.

chicago pop said...

Just for clarification on the subject of private property on 53rd, what was at issue in the visioning meeting was essentially how the public wanted TIF funds put to use going forward. That's public money. So there's some legitimate grounds for public input.

Ben said...

I recently stumbled upon this site. I have to say that I am relieved to see that there are other people in the neighborhood who see the need for some positive change in Hyde Park. Before seeing this site, I was getting all of my Hyde Park development updates from, try not to laugh, the Herald each Wednesday. I was under the assumption that most people in the neighborhood were anti-development. I always wondered why people were so interested in holding on to the empty lots and the boarded up buildings. I've had several arguments with HPers about this, and I am always told the same thing, "an empty lot is better than the alternative." The alternative being the creation of a home for someone to live in, or a shop for someone to work in or patronize. Much worse than an empty lot.

I've only been in HP for a relatively short time (1 and a half years), and I've seen things move at a snail's pace. Meanwhile, I've seen the South Loop continue to explode with residences and retail. I know that we don't have the same real estate as the South Loop, but we still have a great deal going for us: namely proximity to the lake, downtown, and the University. I can only hope that the tide is turning. Really it's only a matter of time. Development always wins out. Money speaks louder than a few preservationists. The city does realize that the South Side is an untapped resource for highly sought-after real estate. Before too long, this will catch up to HP.

I'm curious about where you get your information? Also, I don't think that I've seen anyhting about this yet, does anyone know when we will actually be able to dine at Kleiner's Harper Court restaurant?

Thanks for having this blog. It gives me hope where I previously thought there might not be any.

Peter Rossi said...

chicago pop makes an excellent point re the constrast between the aging "save the co-op" folks and the younger people who want to make positive progress in our community.

Peter Rossi said...

That, of course, is not to say that there aren't open-minded "older" folks.

I'm a member of the Woodstock generation who thinks that Hyde Park is dangerously close to become a dead end

chicago pop said...

Ben writes: I've had several arguments with HPers about this, and I am always told the same thing, "an empty lot is better than the alternative."

Wonder what the folks in Woodlawn would think about this kind of statement? Reminds me of Woody Allen's line: "Why would anyone want to bring a child into this horrible world?"

Where do we get our information, Ben asks? From all over the place. Published and online sources, attendance at meetings and events, personal contacts, leads from journalists or various professionals, research reports and white papers, random things falling from the sky, books, the Tribune, carrier pigeons, the works.

chicago pop said...

re: Harper Theater rehab: there will ... offices on the top floors.

So many people have told me that HP is starved for office space; this is a step in the right direction. I can think of a number of small start-ups, primarily consultants, who had to move out of the area because they couldn't get the square footage to set up shop anywhere in HP. Like we've seen with retail. More available office space would be great because it could house a lot of the high-skill, high-wage employment that draws from the pool of UofC and GSB grads but is not directly related to the University. Like Cambridge, Ma., or Palo Alto.

New office space in Harper Theater is a drop in the bucket in terms of what is needed, probably, but is a start.

Famac said...

You aren't a meber of the Woostock Generation, Rossi - more like the Partridge Family Generation.

Peter Rossi said...

to famac-

actually a bunch of my buddies went to Woodstock. The best I can claim is a live Jimi Hendrik concert.

Peter Rossi said...

to ben-

welcome to the site. Plesae encourage your friends to read and contribute.

speak out where ever possible against these folks who want to consign Hyde Park to a premature death.

You are right! the contrast between HP and the south from the loop to 22nd street is striking.

The Herald is pathetic excuse for a newspaper that will soon go the way of the Co-Op.

chicago pop said...

An elf left this little holiday ditty in my mailbox. I thought it deserved re-gifting.

They tore down McD's
And put up a Christmas tree lot
With a trailer, a fence
And a holiday fun spot
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They tore down McD's
And put up a Christmas tree lot

Happy holidays!!!

ssnow said...

I think neighborhoods can begin to thrive when people start to visit and spend their money. I am afraid for many people, Hyde Park begins and ends at the Museum of Science and Industry.

In my experience there is not much commercial enterprise which would cause someone to visit Hyde Park. We have few destination restaurants, music venues, galleries or stores.

So I agree TIFF, the Alderman and of course the University should try to encourage this type of development. In other words something new, good and at least slightly unique might be better than pleading with established chains to come to 53rd Street.

Did your 1st trip to Buck Town involve the Gap, TGIFriday's or a new independent restaurant, gallery, or band?

bornatreese said...

People who visit MSI don't even realize that there IS a Hyde Park. How can they, with the Do Not Enter traffic sign at 57th St?

Tim said...

SR, "It demonstrated pretty clearly that Hyde Park doesn't have high enough density with high enough incomes to be attractive to most retailers."

This is probably true, and more density and higher incomes will likely boost Hyde Park retail, but I also remember a U of C spokesperson once saying that they made a point of making sure prospective retailers thought about the fact that students may have more disposable income than their incomes would indicate. So, when looking at the numbers, keep that factor in mind.