Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Herald's Chicken: Translating NIMBY Speak

posted by Peter Rossi

This week's edition of the Herald (7/30/08) contains a classic example of NIMBY-speak -  the letter entitled "Come Out to Doctor's Hospital Meeting."  This letter is difficult to decipher without a Rational-NIMBY dictionary.  For the benefit of our readers, I will attempt a translation.

The letter starts with a hollow appeal for readers to come to yet another public meeting on the fate of the Doctor's Hospital.  I say hollow as the author does not provide the meeting's location.  I'm told the address is posted inside the shuttered offices of the HP Historical Society, but this is just a rumor.  

Next comes an assertion that there are "important concerns ... expressed by the community."   While not an outright misrepresentation, the author hopes to convince the reader that the entire community agrees with what is little more than just his own opinion.  This tactic also absolves the author of any responsibility if the eventual (and likely) outcome is that the Doctor's Hospital remains abandoned.

Had enough?  Please read on. I haven't even got to the juicy parts!

What do you suppose is the first "concern?"  "Diminished" parking and "Congestion."  This is classic Hyde Park NIMBY dialect.  Doctor's Hospital is located on a virtually abandoned stretch of Stony Island Blvd.  The author is well aware of how preposterous the congestion attack is for anyone familiar with the DH site.  So instead of giving the exact location, he casts wider aspersions, referring to the "southeast corner" of our neighborhood.   "Congestion" is the HP NIMBY rallying cry.  It sounds so much less selfish than admitting that you want to keep the public parking space in front of your house for your own use.

Number 2 is also an out-dated classic.  The hotel proposed by the property's owner, The University of Chicago,  has "excessive height and bulk."   You would think the U wants to build a replica of the Merchandise Mart on the spot instead of a hotel.  Who is the arbiter of what constitutes "excessive?" -- why the author, of course.  

Number 3 is the claim that what is proposed is of "mediocre quality."  Not only do our local NIMBYs assert control of all development in our neighborhood but somehow view themselves as having a superior aesthetic sense.

The University unwittingly threw a bone to the NIMBYs by involving White Lodging in the project.  Generic "congestion" and "excessive height" statements can now be accompanied by claims of "questionable labor practices."  Our local NIMBYs,  who have done more than any other neighborhood group to harm and exclude people of modest income, now claim to be the friend of the working man.  

It is interesting that our "preservationist" author leaves concerns about "demolishing" the "historic" Doctor's Hospital to number 5.  "Historic" is NIMBY for "old."  

NIMBY-speak likes to invoke the worst images of change, so our author can't resist the D-word.  Fellow NIMBYS, they want to DEMOLISH the existing building.  Chicago is the most architecturally significant city in the world because its citizens understand that buildings can and should be torn down if needed.* 

If your back is against the wall and change might happen,  the garden variety NIMBY thinks -- "how can we delay progress indefinitely?  I've got it, let's study it!"  We need a comprehensive "development plan" for the three blocks on Stony Island from 56 to 59th, proclaims our scribe.

The next paragraph is a masterpiece of inconsistency.  "Whether one is for or against a new hotel, these issues need to be resolved."  Sounds very reasonable (but didn't he just say we needed to study it forever?).  As you read further, however,  the polemic takes over. The issue must be resolved "in favor of ... traditional character and ... future best interests."   This is very clear.  There is no tenable position in favor of the hotel proposal, as it can't possibly keep "traditional character" alive in HP.

Next we have a longish paragraph the gist of which is  -- hey, we NIMBYs designed a great plan for the site that keeps the DH building.  What's more, you folks who want the new hotel are just plain dumb -- don't you know that you can get a tax break for "preserving" the old building? This is a classic NIMBY tactic -- hope that the reader won't do his homework and will tell his friends -- those preservationist types have already figured it out and it will be cheaper!  

It is true that some of our NIMBY friends consulted an architecture firm but no one really knows what transpired.  Details are very hard to come by.  As for the tax credit argument, I believe that Representative Chicken Little has proposed a tax break for buildings constructed of solid gold.  Using our author's peculiar logic, this means that gold buildings would be cheaper than brick.

Instead of a real alternative, we have people who merely claim to have an alternative.  I would believe our local NIMBYs if they found someone willing to plunk down the $20 million+ that any proposal (with or without the D-word) will require.  The only real alternative they have proposed is to continue to have an abandoned building on prime HP  real estate.

The author loses restraint altogether in the last paragraph.  First, the author reminds the Alderman (Leslie Hairston) of her awesome powers to stop any significant development.  The sentence serves a dual purpose -  insult the Alderman (doesn't she know her powers?) and remind would-be NIMBYs that all they need to do is pressure the Alderman.

The last sentence is a threat directed squarely at the Alderman.  You better play ball and "exercise leadership" on "behalf of the community."  For exercise leadership, translate that to "do as I say."  For community, translate that to "me."  

Let's understand this letter for what it is.  There is no on-going development in our community (Solstice and Village Center are merely plans at this point).  The only construction of any significance takes place on the U of C campus.  This NIMBY author wants our neighborhood to stay that way -- a backwater.  We can't afford this unless we want our community to die.

*The Chicago Fire, firm bedrock and cheap land also played a role.


Peter Rossi said...

Those who oppose NIMBY points of view get their letters to the Herald rejected or edited without their permission.

This author apparently has the inside track at the Herald (the editor was once a tenant of his). Even his typos get published without inspection. If you read the letter, Alderman Hairston represents the fighting 95th ward.

Peter Rossi said...

There is an eerie similarity between the tactics employed in this letter and the Point.

1. Oppose change without an alternative
2. Invoke "preservation" and "historic" significance without justification.
3. Restrict input to small and non-representative community meetings
4. Practice selective omission and misrepresentation whenever possible.
5. Claim to represent the community with no mandate.
6. Call for studies as a delaying tactic.
7. Impose your personal preferences and tastes on others

Beth, did I leave anything out?

chicago pop said...

Another masterful analysis of NIMBY-speak from Peter Rossi.

As I was reminded by deep throat, this letter is awfully similar to one that the same author wrote a little less than a year ago.

Not much has changed from then to now, which is hardly surprising, given that mental fossilization is a local specialty.

Too bad for NIMBY-mob that White Lodging has told them to chuck their alternative plan.

Now Hairston has to make a decision: whether to block the project again primarily on the basis of questionable and vague aesthetic/historical objections, or to approve it and give the neighborhood what it needs -- a business-class hotel that provides more jobs, people, and business on a major artery at an accessible location at the site of an empty building.

Hairston voted against the City's Big Box Ordinance, so if she concedes the union complaint against White Lodging she'll look like an idiot. And if she's smart, she'll realize that the University has lost patience for Jack Spicer's antics now that Webber is gone.

Hairston should follow Preckwinkle's example and tell Spicer to go jump in the Lake.

Stephen said...

Is anyone intending on being present at the meeting?

chicago pop said...

I think a very important point that Peter touches on has not been duly appreciated: the "alternative plan" allegedly presented on behalf of the "community" has been neither seen, nor approved, nor discussed, by anyone in the "community".

So based on very limited "community" input, an outside organization delivered an alternative plan which has been subject to even less "community" review.

Claiming to represent the "community" in Hyde Park has become the equivalent of politicians claiming to be "patriotic."

And you know what Thomas Paine said about that.

chicago pop said...

I think Richard Gill is going, and maybe Peter Rossi.

EdJ said...

I was very amused by the "Counting Our Chickens" story/ contest on page one regarding where the Barack Obama Presidential Library should be built.

First off, kudos to them for reference to Herald's Chicken in naming the contest.

Of course, one person said Doctors' Hospital "with its dramatic entrance and classical architecture" that "lends appropriate gravitas" to the materials it would house.

That one must have been submitted by John McCain.

Then, there is the person who gave the perfect NIMBY answer "Boston where he went to law school. There is too much traffic in Hyde Park already."

You just can't make this stuff up.

chicago pop said...


I think the solution to Hyde Park's traffic problem is a joint one-child family planning policy on the Chinese model, enacted jointly by the 4th and 5th wards, together with mandatory sterilization of all new residents on arrival so as to limit potential growth in residential density and competition for free parking on Harper Avenue.

Richard Gill said...

Yes, I plan to be at the meeting. Come to the meeting and speak up.

chicago pop said...

Here's the press release (from political consultant Delmarie Cobb's PR firm "The Publicity Works") on the August 5 Drs Hospital meeting:

Fifth Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston has scheduled a public meeting on the status of the former Doctor’s Hospital for 6:00 p.m. Tuesday, August 5, in the auditorium of
Bret Harte Elementary School, 1556 E. 56th St. The University of Chicago purchased the structure, located on Stony Island Avenue between 57th and 59th Streets, and is working with White Lodging, which proposes developing hotel
accommodations at the site.

“It’s been a year since the developer unveiled their original concept to the public,” Hairston said. “The community expressed serious concerns about reservation,
how the project visually ‘fits’ in the environment, labor practices, and overall degree of dialogue with local stakeholders.”

Hairston said she the university and White Lodging kept the lines of
communication open. “I am pleased to say they listened and even reviewed an alternative design submitted by preservation advocates. We are now at a place
where we can talk about how they took our issues into consideration, or why they believe something might not be feasible. It’s an on-going negotiation, and I encourage anyone interested to attend, ask questions and give honest feedback about what they hear.”

LPB said...

I was particularly struck by Spicer's argument #2 that an excessively tall hotel would block "fresh air movement." That's a new NIMBY complaint that I haven't run into before.

Having lived nearby high-rises over the last 13 years, I'd say that tall buildings *enhance* the fresh air movement by creating wind tunnels.

Note: I'm sure some NIMBY will soon creatively use "avoidance of wind tunnels" as another reason why new tall buildings shouldn't be developed.

By the way, happy birthday to HPP!

EdJ said...

I probably won't be able to make the meeting, but I will probably send an e-mail to Leslie Hairston in advance. Any suggestions on points we should make?

chicago pop said...

Edj: Here's what I would point out -- others will surely be able to add different flavors:

I would remind Hairston that her own constituents asked her to vote AGAINST the Big Box ordinance in 2006 because they told her they want jobs.

Presumably, they still do. A new hotel will bring them.

In the Woodlawn neighborhood of the 5th Ward, according to the 2000 US Census, 34.6% of families live below the Federal poverty level.

In neighboring South Shore, 24% of families live below the poverty level.

In Woodlawn, 48% of single-female households with children are living in poverty.

We need a functioning, mid-market, well-maintained and viable hotel to provide jobs to local people, and services to those who visit them.

We do not need more obstruction in the interests of a privileged few.

EdJ said...

Some other issues to address:

It's all about location, location, location.

The University of Chicago Hospital is a world class institution with people from around the region, the country and the world. We need a hotel where family members can stay that's close to the hospital. If you have any association with the hospital at all, you understand how important it is for families to be near the hospital, particularly for parents when their children are receiving care. They have enough to worry about without having to go back and forth long distances for a decent hotel. Talk to nurses at the hospital.

The University is a world-class institution. It needs a hotel and meeting/convention center conveniently located so that its faculty and staff can interact with visiting scholars/faculty. Faculty tell me how embarrassing it is to have to put of potential recruits or visitors outside the neighborhood. It really reflects badly on Hyde Park to not have a good hotel here.

The hotel will bring a good deal of walking traffic to the stores and restaurants on 57th, 55th and 53rd Street. One thing about conference goers is that they generally do not want to drive to a restaurant and do not want to have to eat at the hotel.

There is no better location in Hyde Park to meet all of these different needs.

Richard Gill said...

You've just gotta read the Hyde Park article, by Ron Grossman, in the Metro section of the Aug. 3 Tribune. It plays on every neighborhood stereotype and myth. How many NIMBYs will go ballistic over Richard Epstein's deadpan comment that the neighborhood has too many parks, and that the Midway should be offered to real estate developers?

gogomama said...

If the development of the DH site goes south, and White Lodging declines to build the hotel, I wouldn't be surprised. But I wouldn't blame it all on the locals. See the July 31 New York Times article, "Terrible Timing for a Hotel Boom," which reveals that the hotel boom of 2007 may have been overdone. In three months, 327 U.S. hotel construction projects have been cancelled because of declining occupancy and reduced financing from I-banks, which have problems of their own. Air travel costs are rising, and service is being cut. Result is low occupancy rates. Oops.
The university and the hospital both really need this hotel, but when one ponders projected occupancy rates in summer (flat as a flapjack), then it's possible this deal might not go through after all. Neighborhood development is tied to a larger economy, after all. The NIMBYs may well be used as an excuse, in the event that White Lodging tries to back out in what has become an unpleasant time for the hotel industry.
Twice a day I walk past the empty lot at 53rd and the Metra tracks and I wonder if that project is EVER going to break ground. I suspect the problem there may be financing, not NIMBYs.

LPB said...

Gogomama makes a really good point -- the current credit lockdown is making it difficult for anyone (even good credit risks) to get financing, and those who manage to wrangle financing will likely end up paying more than two years ago. As much as I'd like to see the DH site put to good use, maybe the stars just aren't aligned at this moment.

In the mean time, I saw last week that a bunch of teenage boys were making good use of the DH driveway for skateboard and rollerblade tricks.