13-story, 105 Units, Mixed-Use. Completed 2002.
This blog began with a bit of overheard conversation, so it seems appropriate to continue the tradition.
Back in the day, nearly a decade ago, I was living in a flat in Hyde Park's doppelganger neighborhood -- Rogers Park -- and working up in Evanston. Across the hall was a colleague who was doing the same. We both confronted Evanston just moments before it began its transformation. "It's a nice town, but it's just kind of boring," said my neighbor, shortly before moving to Wicker Park.
As most people know, Evanston has reinvented itself. The interesting thing is that what happened in Evanston could happen in Hyde Park.
Now that the Harper Court parcel is finally up for redevelopment, there is potential to develop these assets in a way that helps reverse decades of relative decline in Hyde Park's struggling commercial district. Just like what happened in Evanston.
As of 2005, the benefits of Evanston's approach were measurable. Downtown Evanston has increased the total number of retailers in its central district by 27% since 1997, boosted total retail sales by 11.2% between 2000 and 2003, has added to the housing stock while keeping its parking requirements lower than surrounding suburbs.
As a result of increased business activity, Evanston has been able to lower its taxes to levels not seen since 1971. Though similar values would not accrue directly to Hyde Park, they are indicative of the improved health of the local economy, some portion of which would be captured by the 53rd Street TIF, and, when this expires, by the local school districts.
Evanston as Example of Smart Growth
The Evanston build-out is considered by progressive urban planners, such as those who prepared the EPA report from which much of the data below is taken,* to be a model of successful smart-growth, transit-oriented development (TOD). It is now a case-study used to demonstrate a few things about how to redevelop urban centers around a commercial district well-served by transit -- exactly the situation that describes Hyde Park's Harper Court and east 53rd Street.
- It is possible to add density to a district without significantly increasing traffic congestion. This is possible when:
- Full advantage is taken of existing transit infrastructure by placing density within walking distance of transit stations, or using innovative transportation solutions to link to transit from further away.
- Entertainment and a 24/7 district are the anchors of "downtown" redevelopment.
- A successful project will be market-driven and demonstrate close cooperation between multiple actors -- municipal authorities, citizen's groups, master developers, Federal and State funding and regulatory agencies, and merchants. And perhaps most importantly:
- There is a market for walkable, high-density urban environments. The long-term trends are shifting towards this type of real estate, despite the current market downturn.**
Federally Funded and Completed in 1994
Evanston, a fairly affluent inner-ring suburb, nonetheless had to deal with a dying commercial core and rising taxes well into the 1990s. It was able to revive its downtown and improve its financial standing by leveraging its urban assets -- multi-modal transit access, a safe and vibrant 24 hour district supported by high residential density -- to effectively compete with low-density, low-tax suburban municipalities.
Evanston as A Model for Hyde Park: Parallels and Limits
There are a few very large differences between Hyde Park and Evanston that should be noted at the outset. Hyde Park is not a municipality with the power to collect taxes, issue bonds, and fund major public goods like the new Evanston Public Library. And unlike Evanston, Hyde Park is not a gateway to a string of wealthy northern suburbs, but is surrounded by considerably poorer neighborhoods.
But there are real parallels that make it worthwhile to look closely at how Evanston was able to turn itself around, and ask if the same strategies could be replicated in Hyde Park. The parallels can be grouped into the categories of disadvantages and advantages.
Like Evanston, Hyde Park proper has relatively few large lots open for development. This offers a strong incentive to develop for density, to build up where it is difficult to build out. Like Evanston, Hyde Park is moderately isolated from major expressways and airports (unlike certain suburban localities), has suffered from population loss and stagnation, and has experienced severe erosion of its commercial center.
On the positive side, both communities are attractively situated on the shore of Lake Michigan, which has historically been a zone of higher-density development. Both lie at comparable distances from downtown Chicago (Hyde Park is 2 miles closer). Both communities are known for their diversity, though Hyde Park is considerably smaller (Evanston has 74,000 residents to Hyde Park's roughly 50,000). Both communities are well served by north-south heavy rail lines. Although Hyde Park has no CTA rail link within its borders, it does have several heavily used bus routes, and more convenient access to Lake Shore Drive.
Evanston and Hyde Park, of course, both host major private universities, both of which play large supporting roles in the local economies, and both neighborhoods are known for their charming architecture, walkable layout, and notable historic districts.
Finally, although Hyde Park is a city neighborhood and not a revenue-gathering municipality, it is conceivable that the revenue-gathering 53rd Street TIF District, at the direction of a focused and determined 4th Ward alderman, and with the active support and foresight of Chicago planning agencies, could help spark, finance, and manage the multiple partnerships that any significant development centered on Harper Court will require.
Making Room for the Market, Nudging Smart Growth
Planning for Evanston's downtown renaissance spanned two decades. It drew upon multiple funding sources, and required consistent leadership and community commitment over time. It required accommodation to some conventional market realities, such as the construction of a large and subsidized parking garage for out-of-town visitors, and the use of subsidies to encourage emerging market trends, such as the preference for walkable living environments with easy access to public transportation.
All of this could stand as a model for the redevelopment of Hyde Park's Harper Court.
Further, the example of Evanston should immediately put to rest an either-or vision of development in Hyde Park that argues for either absolute community or absolute market control of what goes on. As for the market, it must certainly "lead" as it did in Evanston and the evolution of the eventual retail and service mix.
But markets are most effective when the goods, services, and instruments of exchange have all been standardized, and investors know exactly what they are getting. The real estate market, for example, knows very well how to finance and build suburban shopping malls and suburban subdivisions. It has much less familiarity with inner-city, mixed-used, transit-oriented projects, and therefore needs encouragement.
On the other side of the either-or, the fear that the University will control development for its own purposes should also be put to rest. The days of Urban Renewal and large Federal block grants administered by the University are gone. The University itself does not have the expertise to pull off urban mixed-use development that is transit oriented, although it is an essential player. Likewise, the "community" alone, however represented, will need to compromise and work together with market-driven actors who need to make a profit.
In urban redevelopment, partnerships are the name of the game. No one actor can go it alone. That means making yourself attractive to at least some developers. We'll see if, given the conspiratorial world-view of many more vocal old timers, this is something that can happen in Hyde Park.
**See survey of relevant market research in Christopher B. Leinberger, The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream, Chapter 5.