Thursday, January 10, 2008

53rd St. Visioning Results

posted by chicago pop

Now that the polling results from last December's 53rd Street Visioning Meeting have been passed around, I wanted to post some reflections on the event, originally posted as a comment on the blog shortly after the meeting, but now worth posting up front.

So here is my take on the meeting, with some of the more important numbers -- above all, the tallies showing support for mid-rise development on 53rd, and lack of support for building height restrictions anywhere in the corridor.

Co-blogger Peter Rossi and I both want to stress the positive significance of this result for possible development on 53rd and at McMobil. It means that if NIMBYs start making noise about opposing mid-rises, representing "the community," and standing in front of a vast troop of neighbors who oppose building for greater residential density on the 53rd Street corridor, a big red caca flag should pop up in your head.

There have been, as yet, no good reasons advanced as to why buildings 4 stories and taller should not be put up anywhere from Woodlawn to the Lake on 53rd St.

Here's the report:

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.

For some contrast, take a look at the picture of the Co-Op Board meeting in the December 12, 2007 Herald for just the opposite demographic. The workshop representation was almost the exact inverse of what usually passes -- with much smaller numbers -- for "the community."

Demographic Diversity of Co-Op Board (from the Hyde Park Herald, December 12, 2007)

The NIMBYs were vastly outnumbered at the 53rd Street meeting. The most controversial vote, and this only moderately so, was the final one (which one heckler felt was "railroaded") asking if people would approve of a mid-rise "somewhere" on 53rd, not specifying where.

The results were favorable, with 63% answering Yes and 26% No. That's almost the same split as we saw with the vote to close the Co-Op, and suggests that good sense has not decamped from the neighborhood along with good retail.

A different measure of the same sentiment was taken by a separate vote, and makes it just as clear that most folks there did not oppose a mid-rise on 53rd, or at McMobil in particular.

The category "height limitations," meaning a cap on how high a building can go, 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. Height limitations are not a majority concern. A well designed mid-rise building at McMobil, I believe, could win most people over.

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%).

I decided to drive the issue home in a post immediately following the meeting because there is an increased awareness of the site, and because not everyone now reading the blog may have read the earlier posts dealing with what may happen at McMobil.

It was also clear at the time that the Spicer Dream Machine was revving up a PR drive to limit the height of whatever gets built at McMobil, all while beginning to display the trappings of a pro-density self-transformation. The latter is bogus.

Despite not having been able to advance a single substantiated or objective reason to oppose anything taller than 3-4 stories at the McMobil site, which sits within clear view of buildings just as tall or taller, Jack Spicer has signed a petition and written 2 letters to the Herald on behalf of folks who resist adding population to Hyde Park. Spicer's most recent letter on the subject is a case in point: his a priori claim for wanting height limitations is that mid-rise buildings are "oversized, monolithic projects that dwarf their neighbors and bring congestion and boredom." (Herald, December 12, 2007)

The terms in the quotation above are all subjective, lack specific referents, and have no bearing to any existing plan for the site. They embody numerous tacit assumptions, and have more to do with phobias about density inside the NIMBY mind, than what can be built outside of it.

For change to happen in Hyde Park, we need more households and more people. That means making the buildings for them. The results of the 53rd Street Visioning Workshop demonstrated that Hyde Parkers understand this and are willing to see it happen.


Elizabeth Fama said...

We've had a lot of comments from readers discussing the politics of Hyde Park community activism over the months, and one post that opened the floor for a full-blown discussion about it, but this post gets to the heart of the question: how do we accurately represent the opinions of the community? A further question, much more hot-button, is "How much should the community's opinion count?" And maybe the answer changes when we're talking about projects that use public vs. private monies, projects that are on private or public property, etc.

The 53rd Street Vision vote appears to have had a nice cross-section of the community, and large numbers of participants, both of which are good. But here's an even touchier question: what happens when the public has bad taste, or is misinformed before voting, or just doesn't know what's good for it? (And, who decides that a vote did end up having a nice cross-section of the community?) As an illustration, was former 5th ward alderman Barbara Holt justified in some "benevolent dictator" sense in putting a decorative fountain in front of Bixler Playlot without engaging in protracted negotiations with the nearby residents?

I don't have formed opinions on these questions, I'd just like to hear what others have to say...

SR said...

The possibility that most of your neighbors might be wrong about something is just one of the acceptable hazards of democracy, I think. You can try to change their minds, suck it up, or go somewhere else.

The problem in Hyde Park is that "the community" tends to be whichever 20 or 30 people are willing to show up at all the meetings and make the most noise. Who ever knows if they represent majority opinion in the neighborhood or not? Last night I found myself thinking, wouldn't it be nice if the neighborhood could somehow elect the "community representatives" who go to all of these meetings? And then I realized that that's supposedly what we elect aldermen for.

I think aldermen probably never really know whether meeting-goers represent most constituents or not. But they do know who is shouting at them right now, and who has organized others to send emails and letters to elected officials, etc.

Elizabeth Fama said...

SR, there seem to be two things necessary to "hear the voice of the community": one is that you have to somehow educate voters about the issues and alternatives (people were unsuccessfully educated about the Point plans, for example), and the other is that you have to persuade them to voice their opinions. The public meetings are a problem because of selection bias; you will necessarily exclude people who just can't stomach public meetings (or really can't make it to them).

At the 53rd Street Vision meeting, I believe the participants were educated on the spot, and voting took place on the spot. However, I know that Irene Sherr and others personally spent hundreds of hours (collectively maybe thousands) drumming up customers to that event.

Even if you could educate people properly about an issue, E-mail and phone-call votes to the aldermen may not have the same weight as a meeting like the 53rd Street meeting, because of organized campaigns by the 20 or 30 loud-mouths.

Democracy is indeed messy and, it turns out, labor-intensive.

Pskosey said...

thanks for turning me onto your blog Beth. I think you raise some great points about community process and informed decision making. One of the ways to get around the "squeaky wheel" is to do the kind of group voting that CMAP facilitated at the 53rd street sessions. This process allows the group consensus to be highlighted, not the indiovidual opinions of the one who shouts the loudest. I’ll look forward to reading later posts and providing my two cents.