Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Word on 53rd: Don't be Jack

posted by chicago pop


You may remember this ill-fated and short-lived ad campaign run by the CTA a few years ago to discourage vandalism. We don't know if they want it anymore, but we think it might be usefully recycled here in Hyde Park, where "being Jack" is starting to get a bit wearisome, among other places on troubled 53rd St.

You may also remember the late-summer outbreak of classic NIMBY-ism that centered on what to do with the vacant lot at 53rd and Kenwood, the McMobil site. As we detailed in a post of September 19, a group of neighbors petitioned Alderman Preckwinkle with a list of restrictions they felt should be applied to any future development. This included building at variance with Chicago City Code by raising the number of off-street residential parking spaces per unit to 1.5 from 1.1.

The petition also called for a restriction on the height of the building to 4 stories, so as to not breach an unspecified level of "population density," although the site sits immediately to the south of a 6-story building at 5220 S. Kenwood, and is down the street from an 8 story building at 5254 S. Dorchester. This would mean fewer units in the development, which would make each individual unit more expensive.

The petitioners supported these demands with assertions that a larger building with less parking for fewer cars, as originally proposed, would increase congestion, threaten children, block light, and impose other ills for which they could provide no empirical evidence based on concrete site studies or comparable examples.

It turns out that Alderman Preckwinkle agrees with us. It's not hard to see why. The South Side is not the North Side. Given the geography of her ward, she recognizes that the problems north of 47th are not that different from the problems south of 47th: lack of critical mass, too small of a market area to attract retail, support small business, and provide the larger population of solid homes that underlie high-achieving schools. In this context, blocking much-needed development in neighborhoods that have been stagnant for decades seems like the height of lunacy.

But that's just what Jack Spicer is doing with this project.

Jack Spicer obviously doesn't like being told what to do. That comes across pretty clearly in his letter to the Herald (October 31, 2007) in reference to a closed-door meeting between Preckwinkle and the signees of the above-mentioned petition.

At the meeting, the Alderman told us her zoning change would benefit the whole neighborhood, not just a few isolated neighbors. She instructed us to learn to accept change.


That last part was the part Jack didn't like. Here's why.

Whereas Jack has no problem changing the zoning to allow for more parking, he seems offended that a building taller than 4 stories could be allowed there, even though several similar buildings exist within blocks and it would allow for the sale of more affordable units. But, rather than addressing the issues of parking or affordable housing, he makes a different case, that "This "planned development" zoning change would be unilateral and outside of our community's planning history."

How would allowing a building taller than 4 stories, behind one that is 6, and steps away from one that is 8, be "outside of our community's planning history?"

...there are only two buildings on the street taller than four stories is the Versailles at Dorchester Avenue and the Hyde Park Bank building ... They are both more than seventy five years old and zoning law, for good reason, has not allowed tall buildings on 53rd Street since 1957.


What that "good reason" is, is not specified, and there are plenty of things in the '57 code that would freak Jack out if he were held to them -- like its projection of a population of 5 million people living within City limits.

But most interesting given Jack's historical bent is the argument that nearby tall buildings are no precedent because they are so old. We wish he were so easily relieved of attachment to the past in the case of Doctors Hospital; we may remind him of that when it comes in handy.

But what gets to the heart of the matter is the attitude towards development, which speaks for itself. An "outsized" building (no definition of "outsized" being given) "benefits only two individuals [the property owner and the developer]" and "takes public value and transfers it to a private property owner without compensation to the public."

With an attitude like this towards developers, it's no wonder we all have to do our shopping half-an-hour away. What is the public value that is being transferred, and how is a private property owner who provides homes for people to live in, new residents to walk, shop, eat, fill the street and pay taxes in the neighborhood, equate to a lack of compensation to the public?

Jack makes a lot of hay about the sanctity of zoning, but ignores it when it comes to parking; he pays a lot of attention to the history of Doctors Hospital, but ignores historical precedent when it applies to 53rd Street. Distracted by a contempt for developers, he ignores the multiple benefits of greater density and having more households living in the neighborhood.

If you're tired of driving everywhere to do your shopping, you'll agree that it's time to Stop Being Jack.

Death and Transfiguration (of a Hyde Park Streetcorner)

posted by chicago pop

A tone poem in four images, the final of which (transfiguration) still awaits:


I. Largo



II. Allegro molto agitato


III. Meno mosso




IV. Moderato.

"Now, from the infinite reaches of heaven, a mighty sound of triumph rings forth, bringing the sought after transfiguraiton...."

Monday, October 29, 2007

(Not So) Hidden Hyde Park Treasure

posted by Elizabeth Fama

poster from the Music Department's Halloween Concert: Haunted.

I had almost nineteen years to discover the University's annual Halloween Concert -- nineteen years of raising children (and counting). I meant to go every year, really I did. From the description it looked pretty interesting. But to make it to the 7 PM performance you have to get dinner on the table early; and the 9 PM performance is too late for pathetic me, so we somehow missed it every year.

Well this weekend we went, and it's not to be missed. Make sure you go next year. Take your kids, and wear your costumes. It's raucous, it's wild, it's massively attended (to the point of fire code violations), and the music is great.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Who You Gonna Call?

posted by Elizabeth Fama

Put down your pick axes, pick up the phone!


Just so it doesn't get lost in the comments, here's the contact information for the 4th and 5th ward aldermen, in case you want to call or write to them to request that they remove the sculpture on 55th Street near Harper:

Leslie Hairston: 773-324-5555, lhairston@cityofchicago.org
Toni Preckwinkle: 773-536-8103, tpreckwinkle@cityofchicago.org

If there's something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?
YOUR ALDERMAN!

If there's something weird
and it don't look good
Who ya gonna call?
YOUR ALDERMAN!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Hyde Park Anti-Progress

posted by Elizabeth Fama

Ahh...the 55th Street and Lake Park repaving project is nearly complete: the street is shiny and black, waiting for fresh lines and a new median; the construction barricades are down; the Metra underpass has free-flowing lanes again...



But, hey! What happened? Why is this still here?!


I thought we all agreed that it needed to be hauled out for garbage pick-up? And isn't this the perfect opportunity to do it -- when the crews are preparing to build a fresh median anyway?


So I thought I'd call the appropriate alderman to ask for its removal. But observe the crazy maps of the 4th and 5th wards:


At first I thought the sculpture was halfway between the two wards, but now I think it might be in that little "bump out" that's in Ms. Hairston's domain. Neither office is open on a Saturday, so the burning question will have to wait until Monday.

But maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe the two aldermen would have a stronger voice than one alone.

"Ms. Preckwinkle and Ms. Hairston, tear down this sculpture."


Don't make us get our hammers and chisels out, like the Berlin Wall. Just do the right thing.

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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hans Morsbach: "I am an old fart"

posted by chicago pop

In an interview with Dan Lambert of the Chicago Maroon (October 23, 2007), Hans Morsbach declares, "I am an old fart."

We're glad he's the one who said it.

Turns out, it's revealed in the interview that the Medici, fabled local business and graffiti backdrop, is about to become -- *GASP* -- a chain! (Actually, it was a chain for a while already, before it closed its location on Surf between Sheridan and Broadway a few years ago). Hyde Park's most prominent local businessman is replicating his success and perpetuating the global spread of corporate monoculture.

The Medici's new space will be a veritable beer hall for the more festive student body of Illinois State University in downstate Normal, where Morsbach hopes to propagate the elevated values that make Hyde Park distinct: "The main reason is economics. We can have liquor, and it is in a good location close to Illinois State University."

Helping undergrads get sloshed close to their dorms so they don't have to drive is truly admirable, but even better is being able to cash in on coed inebriation. "It's in a community where they appreciate me."

Everyone likes to be appreciated, especially when "the main reason is economics." Too bad that reason rarely applies in Hyde Park, at least outside of the Medici.

The interview ranges widely, and explains how the Medici became a retail outlet for various politically-branded forestry products from somewhere up north. But for the true Hyde Park political junkie, the blurb on Morsbach's involvement in the Save the Point Campaign is not to be missed. We'll quote it in full.

I am a troublemaker. I think some issues are just important to me, like Save the Point. I was very emotional about it. I was shocked that the University would side with destroying the limestone ambiance of the point; I still don't understand why they did it. I was also shocked that the city, the University, and a lot of the conservative Hyde Parkers were fighting the issue, which has tremendous popularity with many people. And I think we won the battle.


This statement is truly worthy of a Medici garbage pizza. It's a little bit of everything all messed up.

Take, for example, the idea that the "Hyde Parkers ... fighting the issue" were conservative. Now, being conservative by definition means not wanting change. So, wanting to keep the original (dangerous and decrepit) limestone, as Morsbach did, is the true conservative position. In contrast, wanting to change the revetments is not conservative. Wanting to change the revetments in accordance with modern standards of accessibility, safety, and durability, is a progressive position, and that was not Morsbach's position.

But businessmen can't be expected to be semantically fastidious, nor particularly astute analysts of local politics. Nor should we expect them to be historians, it turns out. Looking back on the outcome of the Point battle, Morsbach states "I think we won the battle." However, this comment seems to resemble a number of other rather satisfied remarks made in the interview -- "I'm proud to say my book is the bestselling one on forestry on Amazon"*(see below for fact-check) -- leading one to wonder if it's not a bit exaggerated.

And just what does it mean in Morsbach-speak to "win a battle?" It's clear that, on this Point, Hans is emotional about the issue; and that may in fact have been the problem. It's also clear that if any victories were had, they were Pyrhhic, on the order of the "strategic hamlet" strategy of pacifying the Viet Cong. To "save" the Point, we had to let it fall apart and watch funding disappear, which is how it remains. Some victory.

One garbage pizza, please!

*[On Morsbach's allegedly top-selling lumberjack tome, we'll quote one attentive reader: "As of noon today [Thurs. Oct. 25, 2007], it looks like Morsbach's "Commonsense Forestry" is actually #26 in the Forests & Forestry category for Amazon sales. Hmmm, that puts 25 other forestry books ahead of Mr. Morsbach's." (See comment section.) Feel free to check for yourself.]

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Doctor's Hospital: A Photo Tour

posted by Peter Rossi

The University of Chicago proposes to build two Marriott hotels on the site of the former "Doctor's Hospital" on Stony Island Avenue between 59th and 57th streets.

One of the arguments against the University's proposal was that it is important to preserve the abandoned hospital buildings. None of the advocates have explained why the Doctor's Hospital is an important piece of architecture. The advocates have not cited any unique or distinctive architectural features. They have not made the argument that the architects were especially well known or that these buildings represent important buildings in the history of architecture.

The Doctor's Hospital is one of more than 100 similar utilitarian structures built before WW II. This is no Robie House.
Since the "preservationists" can't tell us why these buildings are worth preserving (their argument is simply that the buildings are "old"), we must judge for ourselves as to whether or not these buildings have any aesthetic value. Below are some recent photos and commentary.

Main Entrance


Reminds you a bit of something you might find in East Berlin. It has that wonderful ugly institutional look like a state mental hospital.

Activists take note: the portico is of more recent origin than the main structure. "Restoration" might include removal of this structure to expose the facade and its truly unimaginative features.



North Wing

Reminds me of a pillbox in the Siegfried line.


South Wing

Note the blank expanse of brick in the center with the small shield and "swags" in the top center.

The most absurd argument made against the proposal is that the hotels would cause "congestion." This property is located directly across from a public park!! It will take a lot to fill up this street.


"Congestion" on Stony Island Avenue

Herald's Chicken: A Change in Policy

posted by Peter Rossi


Hyde Park Herald Editor, Lucianno Lombardy, announced a change in the paper's long-standing policy of placing editorials on all pages of the newspaper. Starting with this week's issue (October 17, 2007), editorializing will be confined to the editorial page.

"In the past, we felt it necessary to infuse our stories with liberal editorializing," explained Lombardy. "We had an obligation to our NIMBY readership to keep the banner of protest flying."

"However, recent Blog developments have caused us to reconsider our policy. We are subject to close scrutiny -- we just can't get away with murder anymore." Lombardy also cited declining readership due to recent increases in the Hyde Park mortality rate.

Lombardy pointed to the long standing Herald practice of manufacturing misleading headlines. As an example, he cited the headline on the page one story on the Point, "Congress moves closer to funding Point study." "This headline loosely conveys the truth. Before our change in policy, we would have written "Congress approves limestone for the Point." Mr. Lombardy hastened to add --- "We still must have our fun. The headline is still misleading as no funding is made available by the Water Resources Development Act mentioned in the article -- this requires an appropriations bill."

Herald headline writer, Jack Hyde, was disciplined by the paper for his work on the lead headline "Co-op Launches Board Search." While true, the essence of the story is that the Co-op is in deep financial trouble, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and has a negative equity. "We regret this mistake. Our staff is used to the old ways. It will take us some time to teach our dogs new tricks."

For those who are nostalgic for the Herald of the past, the editorial page still provides incoherent ramblings on current issues. Mr. Lombardy is particularly proud of this week's "Hospital Talks Must Include Residents."

"We understand that many in the community will wonder why we want to keep an ugly, mediocre building and keep jobs and a badly needed hotel out of our community. This is why we chose to confuse the issue by dragging out our favorite paranoid conspiracy theory- lack of community involvement. We like to contradict our own news coverage of community meetings on the Hospital. We are counting on the Alderman folding like she did on the Point."

Lombardy is considering a change in the paper's policy on letters to the editor. "In the past, we censored letters that represented views contrary to the NIMBY point of view. We were particularly vigilant about letters which indicated how widespread support is for progress in our community. We are giving serious thought to allowing different points of view. This might increase readership, but we still aren't sure."

However, Mr. Lombardy promises to keep the "Jack B. Nimby and Hans More-bucks" policy of allowing these writers unlimited space. "We have our traditions, we aren't giving up on all of them yet."

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Keystone Co-op: Co-op Board Members Wanted, No Experience Necessary

posted by Peter Rossi

The Keystone Co-op looks to fill five vacancies on its Board of Directors, disclosed Board Chair, G. Blueberry. Recognizing the challenges facing new Board members, Mr. Blueberry stressed "no experience is necessary for Board membership. The only qualification is that you once were a Co-op shopper."

Barely solvent, the Co-op faces severe cash flow problems due to lease payments for the now shuttered satellite store at 2122 N. Clark Street. "Our parent company, White Star Grocers, is demanding that we pay 90,000 smackers a month or they will blast us," Mr. Blueberry added.

Mr. Blueberry stressed that the Co-op has an "angel" benefactor in Chicago University at the Golden Rectangle. The university has extended an indefinite grace period on rent payments for the chain's anchor store. "Without the financial malfeasance of this great institution, we couldn't stay open a day longer," said Mr. Blueberry.

Breaking with tradition, new board members will receive compensation. Mr. Blueberry promised new Board members will be treated to a shopping "spree" in the produce department at the end of each weekend.

While no experience is required, some skills will be useful as a Board member, according to Mr. Blueberry:

  • experience in re-arranging deck chairs
  • tolerance for strong fish smells
  • total ignorance of Generally Accepted Accounting Standards
  • a strong "strike" mentality, including an appreciation of Ben Shahn's art
  • customer alienation skills ("unlike most retailers, we at the Co-op get to piss-off the customer more than once" explained Mr. Blueberry)

"We are looking for visionaries who can see beyond the mundane problem of providing quality products at good prices. We want those who are committed to the abstract ideal of buying cooperatives and who are deeply suspicious of the free market."

Hyde Park Treasures

posted by Elizabeth Fama

...a continuing photo series.

#5. The tennis courts at the Quadrangle Club.

Just imagine: Har-Tru clay, an idyllic setting, and friendly people. If you love tennis, you should be playing here.

You don't have to be rich to join -- membership at the QC is cheaper than a health club.

You don't have to be affiliated with the University of Chicago to join.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Keystone Co-Op #4: How Come We're Not Moving?

posted by deep throat




[deep throat left this comment in a previous discussion, and we decided to reproduce it in full here.]

RE the rent situation on 47th Street: though the Co-Op owes $90,000 per month to Certified on that space, it is not clear whether the Co-Op has been able to keep up on those payments, or some portion thereof. And, if there is back-rent due, where is it sitting on the balance sheet? I've noted that there is $960,000 lumped into "other current liabilities" as of the end of FY 2006. Maybe this contains some of the back rent that the Co-Op hasn't been able to pay. However, I doubt the FY 2006 numbers have captured an accurate picture of how much the Co-Op owes its landlords based on President Poueymirou's comments at the annual meeting. He pointed out that the Co-Op's main creditors in that year were vendors (which likely includes Certified). In FY 2007, he contends the mix of creditors has changed (even though the absolute level of debt hasn't shifted materially) such that half is owed to vendors and the other half is owed to landlords (Certified and the University?).

Then, there is the on-going lease commitment on 47th Street that the Co-Op is locked into through FY 2023. That's another 16 years of $1 million in annual rent. There is absolutely no evidence of this liability on the balance sheet because the financial statements only require the Co-Op to recognize a single year's rent expense in each fiscal year.

Yes, it does seem to me that there's a viable business in the 55th Street store. But, whether the new general manager can revive that business and churn out enough profits to satisfy the Co-Op's creditors in a timely manner remains to be seen. In situations of financial distress, time is really the name of the game. The entity will try to bargain for enough time to shed the sink holes and polish up the remaining healthy businesses.

Based on Treasurer Lowenthal's financial report at the annual meeting, it looks like even the 55th Street store has trailed industry benchmarks for the last few years. For example, revenue growth from that store has essentially been flat from FY 2003 through FY 2007. (This was shown in bar chart form, so I don't have actual figures yet).

Just for perspective, supermarket sales typically grow in line with GDP -- unless there have been some changes in the local trading area, like an increase in population. So, we would expect the Co-Op's sales to grow about 2% a year, and we'd throw in another 1% in food inflation (though we expect food inflation to be higher this calendar year thanks to higher feed prices and a worldwide surge in demand for dairy). So, in the absence of any big change in population or nearby competitors, we should be seeing the 55th Street store rack up sales growth in the neighborhood of 3% annually. At the very least, I would have expected to see some modest bump in 55th Street sales in FY 2005 when the 47th Street store closed and shoppers would have shifted to the original location.

We've heard from Neo, the Peapod Guy, that Peapod's business in Hyde Park has increased significantly. So, I would surmise that Peapod is grabbing more share of the Hyde Park stomach.

Elizabeth raises some really good questions about why Certified would put up with this situation or why it hasn't forced the Co-Op into bankruptcy. From what I can tell, there are a lot of intertwining relationships between the two entities. The Co-Op owns some of Certified's common stock, but it also owes Certified over $1 million in notes payable (long-term debt) at the end of FY 2005. Please keep in mind that this LT debt is separate from the $1 million in annual rent the Co-Op owes Certified on 47th Street.

It is sort of a neat little cycle: The Co-Op sells Certified's products, and then sends most of its profits back to Certified in the form of rent, repayment on debt, and payment for inventory.

Certified may have come to the conclusion that it is better off working out some sort of more lenient repayment plan with the Co-Op, than kicking it to the ground.

Then there is also a brothers-in-arms dynamic because Certified itself is a co-operative organization (which is why the Co-Op owns shares). Certified may be willing to cut the Co-Op some more slack in the name of solidarity, even if it takes longer to receive payment.

If it makes people feel any better, I'm lost with the Co-Op's murky financials. And I pick apart financial statements to diagnose companies for a living. This is some of the worst disclosure I've ever run across. The Co-Op is not a privately-held entity where financial conditions can be kept quiet -- it is accountable to its 22,000 members who have an ownership stake in the business.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Keystone Co-Op #3: Dissecting the Debacle

posted by deep throat

Having attended the Co-Op's annual member meeting on Sunday, I have to say that it was heartening to see that the severity of the organization's financial distress has finally begun to penetrate the outer-most layers of the membership. While this dawning realization does not diminish the serious financial issues, at least more members are getting a clue.

I am still in the process of sorting through the historical financial statements, and the very poor disclosure has substantially hampered my efforts. I've got plenty of questions about where the Co-Op is classifying its rent expense, where its liability in back rent payments to the University shows up on the balance sheet, what its debt covenants are, which ones the Co-Op has violated and the ensuing penalties, specific detail on payroll expense, sales/marketing expense, and interest expense, among others. Let's hope the audited financial statements for fiscal year 2007, which should be available after 11/10/2007, will provide a much clear picture of what's going on with the Co-Op.

There has been some disagreement on this blog about just how profitable or unprofitable the Co-Op is. On the one hand, the Co-Op reported net income of $809,299 in fiscal 2006 from continuing operations, which basically means the 55th Street and 53rd Street stores. The audited financial statements did not disclose net income by individual store, so I cannot find any evidence of the $1 million in profits that has been mentioned on the blog before. (If anyone does have knowledge of where I can find these numbers in the audited financial statements, then please point me in the right direction!)

Now, any credit or equity analyst worth his/her salt can tell you that net income is easily manipulated through the various accounting rules. For example, the Co-Op has classified the 47th Street store as a "discontinued operation" back in fiscal 2005, so the on-going and significant rent obligation on that space is not part of the calculation to arrive at last year's $809,299 profit. Unfortunately, just because the Co-Op has discontinued operations doesn't mean it can also discontinue rent payments to Certified. If you disregard the discontinued operations and solely focus the continuing operations of the Co-Op (the 55th Street store), yes it is profitable. However, I would argue that it is simplistic to look at the 55th Street store in isolation. The money-suck originating from the 47th Street store has been sitting in discontinued operations from FY 2005 through FY 2007, and the first three months of FY 2008 – and it doesn't look like this will change any time soon based on President Poueymirou's comments at the Annual Meeting. For this reason, it would be irresponsible to ignore the discontinued operations sink hole when evaluating the financial health of the Co-Op. If you count all the on-going obligations associated with discontinued operations, then the Co-Op is clearly in the red. Obviously, the $809,299 in earnings last year is just a profit on paper – otherwise, it would show up as cash on the balance sheet, as a positive contribution to retained earnings (which drives membership equity toward positive numbers), and the Co-Op should be issuing a nice dividend check to its members.

One key number that seemed to bring the situation home to members at the annual meeting is the Co-Op's negative shareholders equity. For those who aren't accountants, shareholders equity (membership equity, in the case of the Co-Op) can also be thought of as the Co-Op's net worth, or tangible book value. Technically, it is calculated by taking total assets minus total liabilities -- $4,823, 219 in assets - $6,496,066 in liabilities, which leaves -$1,672,847 in membership equity (based on the FY 2006 balance sheet). In this case, since it is negative, that essentially means that the value of the Co-Op's assets have fallen below the value of the liabilities used to obtain those assets. This is analogous to the situation that some homeowners find themselves in, after having bought their homes at the top of the market and taken out big mortgages to finance the deal, but now struggling to pay on a mortgage that exceeds the market value of their home as the housing market dips. Based on the Co-Op's operating performance over the last few years, I am expecting membership equity has slipped further into the red in FY 2007.

Because it's so easy to manipulate the calculation of net income, I prefer to look at the statement of cash flows, where it is generally harder to sweep ugly things under the rug and you can get a better picture of what cash is coming in and going out. Leeway in accounting rules can create paper profits (and provide false reassurance), but its only cash that counts when the music stops because that's how you pay off your obligations and secure what you need to continue operating. The Co-Op generated $296,000 in cash from operations in fiscal 2006 – which is considerably smaller than the $809,299 in profits from continuing operations. This is a major red flag to me. In well-managed entities, cash flow from operations typically exceeds net income, and importantly, growth in cash flow exceeds growth in net income. Since I have not yet received 2003-2004 or 2007 financial statements, I can't comment on the growth trend, but clearly, cash flow from operations is trailing net income in absolute numbers.

Humor me with one last calculation that can provide insight into the financial health of this organization – the cash burn rate. The Co-Op burned through $13,016 each month of fiscal 2006 ($295,971 cash flow from operations - $77,159 in capital expenditure - $375,000 in debt paid off during the year/12 months) = -$13,016). Ideally, this number should be positive, which would indicate the entity is generating net cash and can shoulder investments necessary to improve the business. But, in the Co-Op's case, it's in negative territory, which means the entity is spending $13,016 more than it is generating in cash. In general, unless this condition is corrected, the Co-Op will not be able to pay debts when due, including the upcoming $529,711 portion of long-term debt that must be paid in fiscal 2008.

Since the Co-Op is already insolvent, a discussion of the nuts and bolts of bankruptcy might be helpful in the next installment.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Urban Density & Climate Change

posted by chicago pop

Have a neighbor who cringes at the word "density?" Urban planners are always looking for ways to make the concept more appealing to people, especially given the negative connotations associated with early 20th-century slums, immigrant tenements, and everything that Post-War suburbia was supposed to transcend. Visuals are one way around the problem, whether a photograph of a well-liked and dense urban neighborhood, or, as here, a colorful illustration.

So, in honor of Al Gore's 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work promoting awareness of climate change, a few very pretty maps illustrating the comparatively mitigating effects of high density urban settlement patterns on greenhouse gas emissions. Courtesy of Chicago's very own Center for Neighborhood Technology, it turns out, not too surprisingly, that city living -- as opposed to the suburban alternative -- is a much more efficient way of life, and generates fewer CO2 emissions per household. Compared to the suburban alternative, it's good for the planet.

Here are two contrasting maps illustrating auto-generated CO2 emissions for the city of Chicago. In the classical view, to the left, cities are shown to emit more aggregate emissions per square mile. If we take the measure of auto-generated CO2 at the household level, however, a very different picture emerges.



The older, denser areas of Chicago emit far less CO2 per household, chiefly due to lower automobile usage. The reverse relation holds in further out, suburban areas, where lower household densities generate greater amounts of greenhouse gas.

The same relation is found in places one might not expect, like Los Angeles, which is becoming increasingly dense overall, and especially in certain areas.


Or here, San Francisco:


It's useful to keep in mind that this has nothing to do with parks or parklands, and that the 19th century notion of parks -- famously expressed by Olmsted -- as the "lungs of the city" here plays no role. Their value in a city is of a different measure, and is important, but does not diminish the importance of urban density as a more highly efficient mode of life.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Keystone Co-Op #2: Extent of Financial Disaster Revealed (Again)

posted by chicago pop with deep throat



By the end of Sunday afternoon's Annual Meeting of the Hyde Park Co-Op Society, the membership had started to get it: they may lose their money. And the Co-Op as an ongoing business. And the community that bought into it. All of it. Because, if the Co-Op declares bankruptcy -- which could happen as soon as any of its many creditors smells blood in the water -- they're out of luck. The only thing keeping the doors open at this shop is a set of very lenient vendors and landlords.

Several members wondered why it had taken this long for a Co-Op Board to outline the gravity of the situation in plain terms, suggesting that previous Boards had been less than forthcoming. A few of them even chided the Board for not publicly putting all options -- including bankruptcy -- on the table. Some of their current accounting practices strike us here at HPP as "aggressive," as we'll explain below -- meaning that they put the best legally possible face on what seems to be a very tenuous financial situation.

Optimists will argue that the 55th Street store just needs to be made to sing, and then the Co-Op will pay down its obligations. Take one look at the magnitude of the abyss that has opened up on 55th Street, however, and you may change your mind:

$3,900,000 Negative Equity

This is the amount the Co-Op is in the hole. Between interest payments and rent expense, the Co-Op is in an extremely precarious situation. If vendors or big landlords demand payment, the Co-Op could hit a liquidity crisis. In other words, they wouldn't be able to pay their bills. Unless someone fronts them money, the only alternative at that point would be bankruptcy.

$18,000,000 [estimated] future obligation on 47th Street rent to 2025 that does not show up on the Co-Op balance sheet

As with a lot of information pertaining to the financial health of the Co-Op, this number is nowhere plainly indicated. We've had to get at it from nuggets buried in different issues of the Evergreen -- another reason why some shareholders are upset with what they feel is a lack of forthrightness and transparency.

This number represents our estimate of the 25-year lease (there are 3 different sources suggesting the lease ends in 2023, 2025, and 2029), assuming a start-date of 2000 for the 47th Street store, and that the Co-Op owes Certified Grocers a rent of $1,000,000/year.

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles do not require that this not-so-hidden liability show up on the balance sheet. As it is, the Co-Op only shows one year of rent as its liability at 47th Street, each year. If the Co-Op is serious about transparency, the total amount of this liability ought to be clearly visible in its financial statements.

How long are members willing to wait while management tries to lease out the 47th Street location? They've been trying for 2 years now. Membership is starting to get a clue, and is rushing to cash out shares. The Co-Op currently owes more to members withdrawing shares than it is taking in from new shareholders. From September, 2006 through to June, 2007, Co-Op members withdrew $39,710.41 worth of shares. For that same time period, net membership transactions -- new shares bought versus old shares cashed out -- ran to -$30,286.27.

This is a rush on the bank. A new tenant for 47th Street is nowhere in sight. Operations at the 55th Street store are a black hole. The Co-Op is a store that can no longer, despite the belief of some of its remaining members, function as a true cooperative buying in bulk and selling at a discount. The organization owes it to Hyde Parkers to make all the numbers public and put all the options on the table.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Keystone Co-Op: New Feature!

posted by chicago pop



In preparation for the upcoming annual meeting of the Hyde Park Co-Op this Sunday, we thought it would be appropriate to roll out our latest feature: Keystone Co-Op! Offering you comic relief in the form of occasional reports on just how bad it really, really is. Even some of the Board members can't believe it, and neither will you!

After going round and round in various discussions about the abysmal state of neighborhood grocery shopping, we found ourselves coming up against the same few statements: the Coop earns $1 million a year, the only problem is the dumb quarter-century lease we signed on 47th Street (which costs $90,000 a month); the produce is lame (because the Co-Op's key vendor canceled some produce shipments); the service is less than stellar (a whooooole separate story, folks); and the prices are high (they don't have buying power so they pay more, and charge you more). Opinions as to why all of this is so are many, of course, and passions run high; and we're not even including all the juicy tidbits we've come across.

But what is really going on inside this organization? Well, the truth is, nobody really knows, and the lack of transparency is a point of contention even within the organization. But, with the help of some professional financial analysis of the Co-Op's business performance, from a source we'll call DEEP THROAT, and a stack of the Co-Op's publicly accessible Evergreen newsletters, we're here to help cut through the spin of exactly how this business loses so much money.

Here's just a taste of this season's hit comedy sketches:

  • The buzz from management is that the Co-Op earns $1,000,000 in net income a year. In fact, it's $809,299. More importantly, the Co-Op's cash flow for fiscal 2006 is only $296,000. This is the actual money they have to pay their bills -- which is why they can't -- and it's the figure that analysts look at to assess the health of a business entity. It's harder to manipulate than net income.
  • The Co-Op has 3 or 4 people who are supposed to scan for discrepancies in accounting and receipts. None of them noticed when a senior cashier at the former 53rd St. store was processing refunds of $250 to $350 to herself -- basically emptying the cash register -- each day she worked. The Co-Op has not revealed the total amount embezzled.
  • When the Co-Op installed a new, "state of the art" front-end system in October, 2006, it marked the first time in over 3 years that all 12 of the cash registers were operational in the 55th Street store.
  • Because "the ownership database is so corrupted," Co-Op management and the Board have no idea what percentage of members are active shoppers, and what percentage of shoppers are members.
And, because you should always save the best for last, the following:
  • The "original disks for the accounting software were destroyed during a cleaning operation." Did someone put them in the dishwasher?
So there's our teaser. Stick around. There will be more!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Harper Court Torpedo Factory!

posted by chicago pop


Proposed Harper Court Torpedo Factory

[T]he converted torpedo factory in Alexandria, Va. ... [has] demonstrated the success of art colonies on a national basis. -- Charlotte Des Jardins


Every now and then, you hear something about a ham radio operator who picks up the transmission of a radio show or television episode from 1955 -- an Eisenhower speech, or an episode of The Twilight Zone -- that had been bouncing around the stratosphere for half a century before it crackled to life in some hobbyist's basement.

That's kind of what it felt like to read the letter from Charlotte Des Jardins in The Hyde Park Herald (October 10, 2007). Though we usually get plenty of signals from Planet NIMBY, this one had to be coming from an object far, far beyond the NIMBY belt -- a transmission lost in space, a time capsule of sorts, a relic from another age, from the dark moon Urban Renewal.

How else to explain the insistence in this letter that times hadn't changed, that there was still some kind of mission for Harper Court to fill, and it was pretty much the same idealistic and impractical vision that inaugurated the institution's construction in 1965? Advocates of Harper Court usually state their case by reciting the origins of the project as a community effort to house artisans and small businesses displaced by urban clearance, though it failed to accomplish this initially, and has had only patchy success ever since, as we argued in a previous post.

While the advocates of Harper Court see Jacobean tragedy -- with betrayals, double-crossing acronyms, and sordid revelations, -- in the decision to try to sell the property two years ago, the rest of us wonder why we don't just get on with it.

How long would you wait, after all, to fix something if it isn't working? A few days? A week or two? Maybe six months? In the case of Harper Court, it's taken decades for the accumulated failure of the institution to become manifest.

Perhaps a review of some of the things that haven't worked out in the meantime would help give us some perspective. Does anyone want any of these back?

The Vietnam War (1959-1975)
The Robert Taylor Homes (1962-1987)
The Soviet Union (1917-1991)

Unlike these great and failed episodes of human history, Harper Court is still with us. When something isn't working, like a war, or a housing project, or a communist country, you stand a really good chance of doing better if you just wipe the whole slate clean and start with something new. That's what should be done here.

But let's look at the letter's argument itself. The opening paragraph reveals a paradoxical complacency -- nothing gets built here, and why would we want it to? -- with the state of affairs in the neighborhood, a curious fatalism, not only about the ability of Hyde Park to attract development, but even about its desirability. Is this a future-oriented vision?

Do we really need another high rise in Hyde Park? Is there really a rush of developers to build a high rise at 53rd Street/Cornell Avenue [currently being demolished to make way for a developer to build a high rise! -- ed.] and 53rd Street/Kenwood Avenue -- two sites that have been empty for years? So, why are plans to build a high-rise in Harper Court proceeding, when there are other neighborhood properties that have been vacant for years?


The first sentence would imply that we have a glut of high-rises in the neighborhood, which is difficult to demonstrate. The presence of vacant lots or empty buildings -- one of which is currently being cleared for development -- is put forward as a sort of fatalist argument for letting thing be -- because nothing has changed in the past.

But then when things do change, that's an even better argument for leaving Harper Court alone.

The demolition of Harper Court does not make sense, especially at this time when major portions of 53rd Street are being improved by maintaining their original character [which differs radically from that of Harper Court -- ed.]


So because nothing is changing (i.e., vacant lots) we shouldn't redevelop Harper Court, and because things are changing (i.e., 53rd Street/Harper building) we shouldn't redevelop Harper Court.

The weakest argument of the letter is the suggestion that a renewed Harper Court could somehow accomplish what it has failed to do since the beginning: become the home to a community of artists and artisans. Hyde Park is already home to two flourishing artistic communities, and neither of them have anything to do with Harper Court: the Hyde Park Art Center, and the Experimental Station at Blackstone and 61st Street. If the artists who come to Hyde Park are setting up shop elsewhere, what does that tell you?

Harper Court Torpedo Factory Signage

Obviously, that you need a torpedo factory. Like the one in Alexandria, Virginia, with its 72,000 square feet of space, overlooking the Potomac River, with plentiful natural light, and constructed with slightly more durability than a Brady Bunch-era rec room.

Harper Court can be an ongoing conduit for the marketing of art in its multiple forms. Several models in other parts of the country -- notably the converted torpedo factory in Alexandria, Va. -- have demonstrated the success of art colonies on a national basis.

The analogies with Harper Court are overwhelming. All it takes is a major municipal grant to tear down Harper Court, built an old torpedo factory, and then convert it to gallery space for the artists who come to the 57th Street Art Fair.

One thing is for sure about Hyde Parkers: they took Daniel Burnham seriously when he advised "make no little plans."

On the Pavement: Chant

posted by chicago pop



Chic Asian Tapas? We're all over it.

And when was the last time there was a cool premier opening in the neighborhood that didn't have to do with a new edition of Shakespeare from the U of C press? Anyway, the tall cover charge goes to a good cause, for those of you with tots: the HPNC's before/after school program. And it also gets you an advance taste of what may be the bleeding edge of 53rd Street's makeover, brought to you by the owners of Hyde Park's own Noodles, etc.

We're hoping for a bit more of an adult vibe than on 57th, and creative pan-asian/fusion that hasn't been watered down in the wok. Keep an eye out; this one may wind up over on the list of Things We Like.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Local Notables Shill for Outside Lobby

posted by chicago pop

Is Hyde Park outsourcing its activism?

Such would seem to be the case, based on the document I have before me, signed by 5 local notables and requesting recipients to call Leslie Hairston and ask her to block the University's proposed hotel project at the site of Doctors Hospital.

Why?

Chiefly on account of the troubled track record of labor relations at White Lodging, the hotel management company. The letter came in an envelope with a return address "Local 1" on Van Buren Street. The stamp and mailing were paid for by Unite Here! a union representing industrial, textile, and service workers.

Now, the fact that a number of respected and senior neighborhood folks signed this letter, each likely recruited on the basis of presumed "thought leadership," does not lessen the fact that the letter is moderately incoherent, and comes across as hijacking a local issue for the benefit an outside interest group.

I'm not against unions. What I am against is something that is unique to the history of labor: building a movement by driving jobs away. Historically, labor has organized and fought over jobs that already exist. The fight was often between the folks that had jobs, and the ones who wanted them. But first you needed to have jobs. That's how you get leverage in a union -- you start by being able to sit down on the shop floor.

With this strategy, on the other hand, the union has no leverage. It doesn't even have a potential source of new recruits. It has nothing, and leaves the 5th and surrounding wards with deep reservoirs of poverty and no more jobs than they started with. But it does have publicity, and can lend it to a few cranky people who are worried about loosing their views of the Lake. Neighborhood politics make strange bedfellows -- high-rise dwellers with lake views and single family home owners on one side, together with chamber maids and busboys on the other. Do you smell a marriage of convenience?

The Spice Girls and Boys were probably right not to tackle the University head-on with this one, because they would surely lose, just like Unite Here! is going to lose with this campaign. Hairston voted against the Big Box Ordinance in 2006, stating clearly that her constituents would rather she bring some jobs to her ward, even low-wage ones, rather than none at all. That stance probably hasn't changed.

So whose "community" is being lobbied here? Folks interested in what the ever-shifting and opportunistic "community" thinks in this case should reflect on Hairston's statement of why she voted against the Big Box Ordinance:

"I will vote the way my community told me to vote last night,” she said. “And they told me to vote no. "

That community, the one that wants jobs and currently doesn't have enough, must not be the same community as the one this letter was sent to, with the high-profile signatories, who so earnestly want to protect the jobs that the other community doesn't have.

But let's move on to the clumsy attempts to splice this union campaign onto the trunk of local grievances. "Our message is simple: Respect our neighborhood, respect our values, respect the workers."

Translation: respect our entitlement to park for free in front of our house; respect our obstruction of every project that would bring property-tax paying businesses into the school district; and respect the workers who I would rather not make noise and disturb me in my back yard.

In the end, this petition, while highlighting labor issues that are legitimate, hooks them up to a boilerplate set of NIMBY gripes that have much less to do with labor than with middle class dyspepsia. The hotel will benefit the neighborhood in many, many ways, but it will be a change, and change is what NIMBYs are allergic to, even if it benefits the rest of us.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Development Beat: Prospects for Retail on Cottage Grove and in Hyde Park

posted by chicago pop

That's just a tease, of course; no one expects Target on Cottage Grove within the next 6 months, 6 years, and some may say we need to wait 6 decades. After all, it took 30 years for Grand Boulevard to lose 52,000 people, about as much time as it took Hyde Park to lose a comparable number.

But there are signs of positive change. As we highlighted back in August, Alderman Preckwinkle is helping to bring an exciting mixed-use development to the corner of Cottage Grove and 47th. And an estimated 10,000 folks are expected to move into the area as it continues to attract middle-class home buyers, and as 3,600 new mixed-income units come on line by 2010 as part of the Chicago Housing Authority's "great transformation."

Some changes, in the right circumstances, can be bracing. Look at Evanston, which only a few years ago had a rather torpid downtown area with little-to-no advantage taken of its excellent and centralized transit infrastructure. It now has a booming downtown commercial district, high-rise residential clustered around METRA and "L" stations, and a combination of local and national, large and small-scale retail. All while preserving its historic, single-family neighborhoods. This took forethought, planning, and a commitment to change.

Similar transformations, though more limited, have occurred around rail hubs in Arlington Heights, and Palatine, both on METRA lines.

Hyde Park is indeed a different species, not being a distinct municipality, cut up into several different political jurisdictions, and like everyone else subject to byzantine City bureaucracy. But it does have a METRA line with multiple stations, and good bus service, and, as many readers of this blog have commented, a fair amount of pent-up demand.

So what's the deal?

A few factors are mentioned in a 2005 interview with Hank Webber, VP of Community Affairs at the U of C: prevalence of relatively small spaces discourages larger retailers, as does the suspicion that a local store would lose out to competition from the Loop, or the growing commercial strip along Roosevelt Road. From a demographic perspective, Hyde Park's high student population is viewed as more or less equivalent to an impoverished community like Grand Boulevard, with 25,000 people living below poverty. Though aggregate buying power is there, both neighborhoods have to work hard to convince retailers that they are viable markets.

A 2005 Urban Lands workshop on redevelopment in Grand Boulevard highlighted Cottage Grove as a key element in any revitalization. One crucial factor: there is land available. Public transportation, as well as under-utilized road capacity, make the area ripe for future commercial development as the local population grows and average household incomes rise. Hyde Park doesn't have this kind of real estate to offer, but it would only benefit from the development of a neighboring community that did.

While Hyde Park will most likely have to piggy-back off of neighboring communities for large scale retail, it's not too soon to think about how to improve the climate for smaller businesses. The participants at the above-mentioned workshop agree that, in any of the lakefront, South Side neighborhoods, there is a shortage of small retail space, but building it out is an expensive proposition that will require subsidy (from TIF funds, for example), and a commitment to providing top grade retail space in a mixed-use project.

We all know that a few of those are set to come on line, or are in the planning stages, and how important they therefore are to advancing Hyde Park to its small retail "tipping point."

"The most important thing a community can do is to set the table," remarked a local developer at the 2005 workshop. The deck is stacked against a lot of South Side neighborhoods, for historical, racial, and other reasons. But this is all the more reason to make it attractive for the small retailer to locate here by building the best quality and most plentiful new space that can be provided, whether in the ground level of a new hotel, the street level of a new residential tower, or by upgrading and expanding existing properties.

Hyde Park Treasures

posted by Elizabeth Fama

...a continuing photo series.


#4. The Museum of Science and Industry.

The chick hatchery, the U-505, the genetics exhibit, the whispering gallery, the foucault pendulum, the train set, the fairy castle, the walk-through heart...I even like Yesterday's Main Street.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Herald's Chicken: Comatose Man Revived in Park

Late Wednesday, a comatose man was found and revived in Nichol's Park, Hyde Park Progress has learned.

According to a passerby, the man was sitting on a park bench, reading the October 3rd edition of the Hyde Park Herald. "He was reading the page one story about the building at the University that got the BOMB award for cleanest toilets. His eyes started to glaze over and he slumped forward."

The passerby became concerned and approached the man. "I suggested that he try page two. The headline about the HP-KFC book sale record briefly revived him. But, alas, he found out that there was no record set (books collected were merely higher than last year). He slipped away."

Alarmed, our model citizen called 911. One of Chicago's finest responded within 3 hours and quickly found a solution. After giving the man a ticket for loitering, the policeman took a Sun-Times from under his arm and helped the man find Jay Mariotti's column.

Hyde Park Herald publisher Bertram Sagacity is concerned. "This opens us for potential law suits from sleepy Hyde Parkers. I rarely read the rag myself; I prefer to count the money I make from the printing of the New York Times. Once in a great while, when my prescription for Ambien runs out, I glance at the paper."

Herald editor, Lucianno Lombardy, takes exception to the contention that the recent issue of the Herald is soporific. "We try our best to fabricate the most exciting community news."

EDITOR'S NOTE: be careful, it's dangerous out there!

Secret Identities, Part Deux

"I feel like I'm getting further away from it,*" readers were heard to cry, after the last Secret Identities post. Yet Chicago Pop remains elusive. So here's another image of Rossi, Fama, and C-Pop: kick-ass, and ready to train Dumbledore's Army in the difficult anti-nimby spell.




*(Lifted directly from the "Rural Juror" episode of 30 Rock.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Marooning the Herald

posted by chicago pop

The Hyde Park Herald has been around for a while -- "Loco Since 1882," you know -- but there's another long-standing paper in the neighborhood, only ten years younger than the Herald. It's called the Chicago Maroon. It's been around since 1892, it's published by students, it's free, and it frequently displays the traits of a real newspaper, like exploring more than one side to any given issue.

A few things give this away. We'll begin with the most self-serving of them. A front-page Maroon headline (Friday, September 28, 2007) on the activist cause célèbre of Harper Court cites this blog in reference to the existence of neighborhood opinion in favor of Harper Court's redevelopment. While it's nice to get some exposure in the Main Stream Media, it's also reassuring that the reporters at the Maroon have the instinct to go look for opinions contrary to those of "community leaders."

"Advocates of sale argue Harper Court's mission statement is outdated, impractical," reads the second headline on the page 10 continuation of the piece.

Some Hyde Park residents now argue that the original mission of Harper Court is outdated. Hyde Park Progress, a blog created by an anonymous resident of the neighborhood and employee of the University, provides a forum for residents hoping to encourage economic development.

“[Harper Court] is as much a product—in the very design and layout of the buildings—of a ’60s worldview as the urban renewal programs against which it was a response. Those who are attached to Harper Court are in love with its mission and blind to the empirical fact that the site and the institution have not met their own goals nor met the pressing and changing needs of the community,” said the author, adding that it looks more like a “ski lodge in Aspen” than a part of Hyde Park’s distinctive architecture.

In response to a different entry on the same blog, a reader wrote, “I am thinking of opening a buggy whip & typewriter repair shop in Harper Court myself,” implying that the shops in Harper Court are outdated and not worth saving.

The Main Stream Media knows that the blogosphere is something they have to keep an eye on, because it's where ideas and opinions show up before they hit the radar of a given cultural establishment. The Maroon figured this out; we'll tip you off in advance and let you know that the Tribune has as well. But alas, the Herald is left quoting the same cadre of folks, over and over again, sort of like the reporters that kept going to Libby and Cheney and Perle in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

In another refreshing piece, we learn a few things about student preferences for grocery shopping, such as "Hyde Park Produce's popularity," demonstrated by the fact that "it was consistently cited as a favorite by every student interviewed." A few students like the Co-op for the reasons you're supposed to have for liking the Co-op, like that community feeling thing. But a few others rave about Peapod, and some even talk about shopping in the South Loop. Has the Herald ever gone out and plumbed opinion like this?

The same is true of the headline article on one of our favorite topics, Doctors Hospital, the creepy place that neighborhood antiquarians think would make a charming veneer for a modern hotel, because, to quote Jack Spicer, the building "served the community for a long time." (For a sharp statement of the contrary position, see the Maroon op-ed here.)

But is Jack Spicer the end of the story? Not quite, and none less than the owner of Powell's, Brad Jones, sees the obstructionist position on Doctors Hospital as emblematic of the Post-Point resistance to all change whatsoever:
This is the problem of Hyde Park -- things don't get done. It's important to look at peripheral issues, but sometimes we look at those to the detriment of the whole project. A hotel would be a great economic engine for Hyde Park.
Of course it would. In fact, it would mean more business for Powell's, one of Hyde Park's most famous independent businesses. Who doesn't want that? Somehow or another, Powell's -- which has consumed a good portion of my life's savings over the years -- didn't make it onto our original list of Good Things. It's there now. And so is the Chicago Maroon.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Hyde Park Treasures

...a continuing photo series.




#3. Botany Pond

You're not a Hyde Park lifer until you've fallen in...twice (second time was during this photo shoot; and I'm here to tell you the south end is deeper than the north end).