Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What the Tribune's Zoning Series Missed

posted by chicago pop

Short answer: Half the story.

Longer answer: The Chicago Tribune's zoning series missed the half of the story that corresponds to the half of the city known as the South Side.

To understand how this is so, all you have to do is to compare two photographs from different sections of the same newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.

The first photo, below, is taken from the last in a 5-piece investigation by the Tribune into zoning, development, and corruption, "Neighborhoods for Sale", which ran from January to August of 2008.


Berny Stone: If You Don't Like My Plan The Guy to My Right Will Sit on You
(Source: Chicago Tribune. Photo by Alex Garcia)

Here we see Alderman Bernard Stone (50th) defending the proposed development of a retirement home in his community at a testy meeting with constituents who, according to interviews given to the Trib, largely oppose the plan. Why? Because an old-folks home, full of people in wheelchairs who don't drive to work, will supposedly cause traffic congestion.

Compare this snapshot of an alderman at work in the illustration below, from an article that ran in the Tribune's business section last week (September 12, 2008).


Pat Dowell's Buffalo Park: There's Just More Room on the Sidewalks Down Here
(Source: Chicago Tribune. Photo by Terrence Antonio James)

Here we see a handsome photo of 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell posing before a vacant commercial building. If you didn't already know the story, you could be forgiven for thinking that maybe this person hopes to be the next Jerry Kleiner, that the article is from the Food section, and that the dump behind her is on its way to becoming the next Red Light.

Not so. Dowell has no plans other than glamor photo shoots for the fire hazard behind her. Someone else does, however, and this makes her mad. She wants to protect her ward's inventory of empty buildings from people who might tear them down and build something that would attract tenants, customers, and tax revenue.

These pictures represent two different realities. Neither of them alone does justice to the equally insane but distinctly different dynamics of neighborhood development in Chicago. This diversity is clear to readers who leaf through the various sections of the Tribune , but it's a point that is lost in the tight muckraking focus of the "Neighborhoods for Sale" series.

The argument of "Neighborhoods for Sale" is not surprising. It's such a familiar story, in fact, that I feel like it could have been written before any of the research was done. Chicago aldermen, the argument goes, are in the pockets of real estate developers, who run rampant over the city's meaningless zoning code and run circles around the ineffectual wonks in its Department of Planning. In no other American city do planning and development work like this.

The results, which we are all familiar with, are the conspicuously over-sized, architecturally out-of-context, and often poorly constructed residential monstrosities that have come to symbolize the go-go years of the 1990s on the city's North Side. Plus fat-cat developers and corrupt aldermen.

All very well.

But if you think this series will help you understand how things work on the Near South Side, you're wrong. Or maybe it will, if you turn it upside down and hold it in a mirror. Community groups in the Near South Side shoo away developers, and aldermen run scared of community groups that have spent 40 years perfecting the techniques of obstruction. When they're not posing proudly in front of empty buildings.

Take the situation in Hyde Park, Barack Obama's home, and my neighborhood.

Community groups -- the kind that the "Neighborhoods For Sale" authors argue are typically kept out of ward-level decision-making -- killed a painfully negotiated compromise plan for Federally-funded renovation of the shoreline around Promontory Point in 2005. They spooked Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th) into blocking demolition of an empty hospital to make way for a Marriott in 2007, and are prepared to vote the precinct dry to block it again in 2008.

A handful of neighbors scared a developer away from replacing a derelict church that has been empty and falling apart since at least 1999; and yet another small group of people leaned into Alderman Toni Preckwinkle when she made it known that she favored a mixed-use residential project on a stretch of 53rd Street, presently home to a vacant lot and a car wash.

And Alderman Pat Dowell is offended that a private party, the University of Chicago, wants to horn in on her hoard of vacant lots and empty buildings.

Dowell's 3rd Ward: Forever Open, Clear, and Free

The "Neighborhoods for Sale" series performed a useful service in detailing the abuses to which the current development process is prone in the city of Chicago. It did not issue an authoritative diagnosis of the problem. That would have required looking at those large portions of the city where the issue is not too much development, but too little, and where community input is less the solution, and more of the problem.

[This post also appears at Huffington Post Chicago]


David Farley said...

Not exactly on topic, but I finally got a look at the new speed bumps on Harper. Maybe it was the angle of the street, but that just does not look right. I've driven in areas of the north side and Atlanta that are speed bump heaven (although they're called "speed humps" down south - make up your own jokes) and I've never seen anything like that that. It looks like a corduroy road.

Anonymous said...

Does the South Side have a citywide monopoly on paranoia? I think that's pretty much what the antidevelopment stance (and much of the NIMBYism in general) is all about.

It's like an imagined "us vs them" scenario and the various demagogues and control freak aldermen do nothing to help it. On the other hand, I can see why they feel beholden to the various loudmouth malcontents, since they're the same people who will organize door to door campaigns to get the alderman voted out of office next election year. The worst part is that so many people simply won't do their own homework and decide for themselves if a particular project is good or not.

Richard Gill said...

Alderman Dowell's problem isn't with land banking. That's just a buzz term that can be made to sound "bad" in a political context. Her problem is that the U of C's purchase of 3rd Ward real estate wasn't her idea. Something good may now be about to happen in the ward, and she's not leading the charge. Gosh darn.

Dowell ought to be thanking the U of C, rather than spitting fire at them. Neither Dowell, her predecessor, nor any other buyers had stepped up to the plate to do anything constructive with all that vacant property. It was, de facto, land banked, anyway.

Dowell can still get in the game, get headlines, be credited with good development, and soothe her wounded pride, but she's going to have to sit down at the table with the U of C. Then maybe she can get her picture taken in front of something new.

chicago pop said...

I think Richard hits the nail on the head. The "land banking" issue is all political. The argument seems to be that a large buyer like the U of C might come in and take land off the market for long periods of time, delaying or preventing normal real estate development.

The problem with this argument is that much of the real estate in question is already effectively off the market -- and is empty, vacant, or delinquent -- and has been for long periods of time already. How is the U of C pre-empting the market, even if it sits on the land for 5 years? What buyers is it jumping ahead of? What precedents point to any movement at all on Garfield Blvd?

What tips me off that her posturing is a political bid to firm up support with old-line Tillman types is that Dowell's letter to the Herald spent so much time talking, not about Washington Park, but about Woodlawn, and not in the 21st century, but in the 1960s.

The two situations aren't comparable; it's just the recycled rhetoric of resentment from another age.

The U of C could certainly benefit from being diplomatic as possible, and perhaps even funding a planning study for the entire Garfield corridor, as was done for 53rd St.

Richard Gill said...

"The worst part is that so many people simply won't do their own homework and decide for themselves if a particular project is good or not."

Greg's comment, above, is true, even in Hyde Park, whose residents pride themselves on being independent-minded and thoughtful. Sadly, too many in Hyde Park, especially the "Hyde Park Establishment" types, are too easily herded by forceful talkers who can get them to do whatever seems pleasantly retrograde. "Yeah, I'm gonna sign that dry-precinct petition. That'll show 'em."

Elizabeth Fama said...

I honestly think that among sane Hyde Parkers there's also a dangerous blend of the drive and intellect to "help," but a lack of time and effort to research issues properly. I've seen the signatures on the dry-precinct petition, and many were friends of mine. I could picture them on their doorstep thinking, "I won't necessarily have to vote for this when the time comes," not realizing that their vote on that petition was MUCH more powerful than their vote in the booth. By my count, there was only a cushion of about 29 extra signatures that made that petition a "go," so (if I'm right about their motive, or lack thereof) those people have made a true error in judgment.

Richard Gill said...

Elizabeth is probably correct about many people's motives for signing such a petition: good intentions, but bad judgment. But it seems to me that, if someone comes to a person's door with a petition that's out of the blue, the logical response is, "No, thank you" or, "Let me check this out and I'll call you if I'm interested." The petition circulators exploit people's discomfort with saying no to someone, especially if they know the person.

On the other hand, this neighborhood has a bad (congenital?) case of wanting to defy change or development, just for the sake of defiance. That is not good.

Urban Domestic Goddess said...

Long-time listener, first-time caller, here. All this south side obstructionism and lack of development is the primary reason that I'm thinking of selling out and moving up north. I'm tired of seeing those vacant storefronts on 53rd street. I'm tired of not having a place in my neighborhood (North Kenwood) to hang out, such as a pub or coffee shop. I'm tired of having to use Peapod to get decent groceries. I'm tired of the piss-poor public transit, which I know isn't much better on the north side, but at least there you can step out of your house and have a reasonable chance of flagging down a cab if you're in a big hurry. I'm just tired. There's so much I love about HP-Kenwood, but I just can't take all the hassles any more. If/when the housing market bounces back, I'm cashing out and not looking back.

Zig and Lou said...

OK, that post bums me out. At this point I am so "all in" with our business venture, I will continue to plow through the crazy City nonsense even if if it means enjoying delicious beverages and consumables with Sam, our wives (the majority owners of the MarketCafe) as all of the moving trucks drive by our heading North as the NIMBYs pull the blinds on their front windows closed.

chicago pop said...

If/when the housing market bounces back, I'm cashing out and not looking back.

Well, that may be a while.

In any case, unfortunately, that's probably just what The Man Behind the Curtain wants. And the Vista Homes Politburo. All you new people, go away, we want to keep things like they were before.

They may outlast a few folks, but not us. Sorry, not going to happen!

Urban Domestic Goddess said...

I know--I'm weak. Y'all should revoke my Long-Time South Sider ID card. :-)

edj said...

Barring some unforseen event, my family is in for the long haul, but I understand UDG's frustration. I see a lot of good happening in the neighborhood.

All of the old failing institutions are falling apart. It looks like the Co-op's death certificate is about to be signed on October 19. The Hyde Park Neighborhood Club is about to be ushered out without much of a tussle, and there will be no more of those restricive institutions pulling the neighborhood back. With that petition, I think the petition may be the last gasp of the old guard. It shows how desperate they are.

I am hoping this atom bomb of a vote doesn't go off, but I think the backlash will be pretty hard on those dead-enders.

chicago pop said...

I think the backlash will be pretty hard on those dead-enders.

I think you're right.

David Farley said...

Exactly what backlash will ensue? Will miscreants receive the Famous Hyde Park Huffy Sneer when they're passed on the street? Will somebody be stared at very, very intently while ordering their latte in Istria? Will the Hyde Park Merry-Makers loiter menacingly on the corner of Harper and 57th, flicking their iPhones on and off?

bornatreese said...

I was just about to post a childish post about how boring Hyde Park is, but Urban Domestic Goddess took the words right out of my mouth and said them better. I have lived here since I started college 28 years ago and I have a few good reasons for being here right now, but I need to get out and see the real world more. I don't think the people of Andersonville, where I spent this evening, would trade their bustling retail and entertainment (including alcohol) district for plentiful parking (though they do have some intense speed bumps on the side streets).

Tom said...

WBEZ, Chicago NPR, did a feature today on Eight Forty-Eight, their morning news program, about the U of C's land buy in Washington Park. Overall it was pretty balanced with soundbites from Pat Dowell and the University representative as well as neighborhood people in Woodlawn and Washington Park.

The Woodlawn interviewees promoted University involvement in their neighborhood and said that the University had been a positive force overall. Of course Dowell gave her usual rant about the University and how they haven't involved the community (and implicitly her). The citizens of Washington Park that they interviewed were mainly encouraged that the University was buying land since this spot hasn't been developed otherwise. They're a bit uncertain about what will happen, but overall positive.

I thought the discussion was interesting and reasonably balanced considering what we usually have heard on this issue from other sources. I'm sure the whole thing will be up on WBEZ's website and it is definitely worth a listen.

chicago pop said...

Exactly what backlash will ensue?

The backlash has already begun. A "yes" vote on the local option would only intensify it, and make it more difficult for the Arch NIMBYs, many of whom either reside in this precinct or use it as their base, to accomplish anything else in the rest of the neighborhood.

A number of the key Point Saver demagogues reside in the 39th; Spicer is using the same constituency to block the Hotel that was used to block the Compromise Plan for Promontory Point.

Outside of the 39th and the Point, Spicer et al have gotten Jack. The Harper Court plans vetted by 20 people (more than the "alt plans" for DH) went down the toilet, no one cares. Preckwinkle gave Spicer a public spanking over McMobil, and Ungar doesn't know who he or any of the others are and doesn't care.

The neighborhood will transform around these guys while they rehearse their protests and petitions and bans in ever smaller circles.

If the 39th is voted dry, then Doctors Hospital will become a fitting mausoleum to the last, best thing that Hyde Park NIMBYs were able to accomplish: an empty, nondescript building with a driveway that makes a sweet ramp for kids with skateboards.

Urban Domestic Goddess said...

Bornatreese brings up a good example of a functioning urban neighborhood; Andersonville is livable, with quiet residential side streets, yet bustling with retail establishments. Evanston is another great example of how it's done right. A friend of mine lives there, and she can step out her door, go around the corner, and walk into a coffee shop, a pub, 5 restaurants of various price levels, and a few cute specialty shops. She's also very close to the trains, a bookstore, a grocery store, and a gym. Walking around there made me want to cry, because it drove home just how much I'm missing by living where I do. I keep hoping that things will get better, but I've been living in HP for 8 years and worked there for 6 years before that, and in those 14 years, I've seen very little progress. Maybe I just lack faith...

bornatreese said...

If you look at a map of the 39th precinct, compared with where the residents actually live, it seems like a perversion of democracy that that particular small group of people should be able to control the destiny of the much larger area. Maybe the next time I have lots of relatives in from out of town--for a bat mitzvah, actually-- I'll see if they can stay at one of the Victorians on Halloween Street.

Richard Gill said...

Take heart, udg, the tide has turned. This is due in part to this blog, which has helped Hyde Park's pro-change residents find a voice. Hyde Park Progress, established barely a year ago, wants to help awaken the neighborhood from a 50-year coma.

The moribund Hyde Park Co-op, which served as the mother ship of the old Hyde Park Establishment, is gone, replaced by a well-functioning for-profit grocer. That was a big, big change for the better. The rest won't happen overnight, but it will happen. Hyde Park will once again be (to use your words about Andersonville) a functioning urban neighborhood.

David Farley said...

C. Pop - ok, thanks. I was thinking along the lines that people were suggesting they would be voted out of some public office they never held to begin with.

Come to think of it, that's exactly what's happening.

edj said...

With regard to the backlash, what I meant was what c-pop ended up saying. At least I realized more of what I should have been thinking after I read his post. Right now, the petition is the Hyde Park equivalent of the Great and Powerful Oz saying, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

George said...

Is UofC thinking far enough into the future that it is acquiring land for the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum? The Bill Clinton edifice takes up about 3.5 acres (150,000 square feet) in a 28 acre park. A bit premature - election is still 19 days away and then eight years in the White House (the Republicans will still be knifing each other in 2012). I assume the Obama will be on the south side and near the University. Near public transportation, a major tourist attraction for the city of Chicago which can help revitalize the community. I can see it.