Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow Dogs and Bear Rolls

Holiday greetings from the Abominable Snowdog (distant relation pictured above), who advises all to just roll with it, and enjoy the Chicago winter for what it offers: big waves on the lake, good sledding, and powder that's great to do figure-eights in!

HPP will be hibernating until the first week of 2009; a comment or two may be moderated in the meantime, if anyone bothers to check in.

Meanwhile, keep a log on the fire, a light on out front, and some biscuits in the pantry.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sit Down Sushi: Bright Spot on East 53rd Street

posted by chicago pop

53rd Street west of about Kenwood on a wintry Sunday evening is a desolate, almost spooky place. So when the four of us found ourselves at a table near the window of The Sit Down Cafe and Sushi Bar at around 7PM, watching the restaurant slowly fill to about two-thirds capacity, I experienced a "wow" moment.

The restaurant begins with an enormous geographical advantage: it's not on 55th Street, and therefore runs no risk of guilt-by-association with any of the bottom-feeder operations between Lake Park and Hyde Park Boulevards.

But it's a bit off the beaten path for some; Third World Cafe across the street, a minor hub of caffeinated intellectual activity during waking hours, is usually by then dark and in hibernation.

A few blocks east is a bleak gas station and a vacant lot Christmas tree vendor who happened to have sold a tree to Obama that afternoon, according to HuffPo Chicago and a stylist at Japanese Spa Zen; and directly across from Sit Down is the stretch of unexplainable blackness that is Nichols Park's truly uninviting 53rd Street facade.

So if this place can pull people in on a Sunday night in mid-December, they may just be able to make the long haul. We'll be back to help them out.

The four of us were roundly satisfied with our meals, which sampled only the Japanese side of the eclectic menu. Not mind-blowing as at some of the higher-end spots on the North Side, but better than many run-of-the-mill sushi places on Clark Street in Lakeview. Overall, our experience of The Sit down was of decent and solid food, in a welcoming and pleasant decor that is still novel for most Hyde Park eateries.

Dining Partner #1 summed it up nicely: "They've got the block and tackle down." The service was friendly, competent, and attentive, the sushi chefs greeted us as soon as we walked in the door, and we were checked on twice by someone who must have been owner Salvatore Pappalito.

The sushi, according to Dining Parnter #2, a veteran of some time in Japan, was "fresh, tasty, well-prepared," and he recommends the seared Tuna Tataki.

Speaking on behalf of Dining Partner #4, myself, I began with a bowl of miso soup, one of the primary comfort foods of all humanity, and it hit the spot. I followed this with a few maki, specifically the wonderfully named Smoky Bear, and an ebi tempura roll. Both were quite savory, with the Smoky Bear coming as close as a roll can to fish candy. Depending on the restaurant, an extravagant roll like this can drown out sour or unfresh fish, with the cream cheese filling and sweet unagi sauce hiding any untoward fishiness.

But the yellow tail and mackerel sushi held their own beside the rolls, assuring us that there was no sushi sleight of hand going on behind the counter. A bowl of complimentary pickled octopus was a nice touch.

I admit that when I first learned that The Sit Down would be serving sushi together with pizza and hummus, I was a bit fearful that this might be a sort of culinary hedge-fund -- and we all know how those are doing these days. They tend to go under the banner of "American Restaurant," or "European Dining," serving everything from gyros and Persian kabobs to Italian pizza, spaghetti, and American steaks while being good at cooking none of them.

None of us strayed from the waters of Japan this time, but word of mouth so far supports Dining Parnter #3's claim that the Italian-style, thin crust pizza is "super thin and super delicious!"

We'll have more on that and the sandwiches in Part 2.


The Sit Down Cafe & Sushi Bar
1312 E. 53rd Street Chicago

Menu for Two:

Miso Soup
Steamed White Rice
Smoky Bear Roll
Ebi Tempura Roll

Green Tea
Mackeral Sushi
Spicy Crab Roll
Negihama Roll

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Harper Theater: Historically Significant?

posted by Elizabeth Fama

In the last few days, HPP reader "BWChicago" brought up the issue of the historic significance of the Hyde Park Movie Theater (see the comments on Chicago Pop's previous post). He mentioned that the Joffrey Ballet and Second City played there when it was called Harper Theater. He was the first person I've heard articulate reasons he thought the building had some historic merit, and it raised the level of the discussion in the comment section about demolition versus restoration.

San Nicola in Carcere, Rome

I really admire old objects and art, but I'm not a zealous preservationist yet. For instance, one of my favorite buildings in Rome is San Nicola in Carcere, which was built in the 6th Century on the ruins of three ancient temples, using the columns of the temples for one of its walls. It also has a jutting medieval prison tower (back from its days as a jail), and a 19th Century facade stuck on the front. Until the recent tourism era, Italians thought nothing of tearing down and rebuilding to suit current tastes and egos, or heck, just building sopra (on top of). I'm not sure that's such a bad model.

For an average person like me, then, a building in Hyde Park can have historic significance because (a) experts agree it's important architecturally, or (b) something important happened there, or (c) both. With regard to (a) BWChicago argued that the theater is probably nicer than any new structure that will be built there, which time will tell. With regard to (b), there was that Joffrey Ballet and Second City information he provided.

I did some cyber research on Harper Theater, and this is what I could find about its significance:

1) It was built as a vaudeville theater in 1913. (Vaudeville is cool.)

2) In 1995 the City of Chicago finished a 12-year inventory of all structures built before 1940 (the Chicago Historic Resources Survey). Even my house was evaluated (it's "too altered for architectural or historical significance," humph). Harper Theater is one of 9,600 properties listed as "orange" in their ranking system, meaning "possesses potentially significant architectural or historical features."

3) Landmarks Illinois -- which is a private (not state-run) preservation organization -- listed the theater on its 2008-2009 watch-list of endangered properties, after the University's deal with a developer fell through.

4) Bruce Sagan (publisher of the Hyde Park Herald) and his wife, Judith, bought the theater in 1964 to host the annual "Harper Theater Dance Festival." In November of 1965, the Joffrey Ballet -- which a year before had been forced to disband (for contractual reasons) -- staged a one-week comeback at Harper Theater with new dancers and new choreography, putting the corps back on the national radar. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater also participated in the Festival at some point.

From the Newberry Library's Inventory of Judith and Bruce Sagan Papers, 1965-1986:

Founders of the Harper Theater Dance Festival, Bruce and Judith Sagan met while students at the University of Chicago. Bruce Sagan, a publisher of local newspapers, bought the Harper Theater business block in Hyde Park and in 1964 he and Judith renovated the theater in order to present a cross-section of top dance companies, some of them new to Chicago audiences. The festivals provided a full week of performance opportunities at a time when most touring companies were subjected to one-and two-night stands while on the road. Although including both ethnic and classic dance at the beginning, the festivals soon specialized as a showcase for the best contemporary and experimental dance companies in the country, such as Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais and Paul Taylor.

By the third season, Bruce Sagan gave up his active involvement in the dance festivals and Judith Sagan became sole producer. In 1971 the festival, now the Harper Dance Foundation, moved to downtown Chicago to the Civic Theater and then to the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall between 1971 and 1975. After 1975, the foundation became dormant, but was reactivated in 1979 to bring the Paul Taylor Dancers back to the Civic Theater.

5) BWChicago also stresses the fact that Second City played at Harper Theater, but the only reference I could find was relatively insignificant, in an obituary about Byrne Pivens:

Married in 1954, the Pivens left Chicago in 1955 to work and study in New York, but they returned here in 1967 to appear in the short-lived Second City Repertory Company at the old Harper Theater in Hyde Park.

In fact, the two true ancestor groups of Second City -- Playwrights Theater Club and subsequently The Compass Players -- played in bars on 55th Street (University Tap and Compass Tavern) that both fell to urban renewal. The Bee Hive, a highly influential jazz club, was also razed (among other music venues).

So while we debate the significance of Hyde Park Movie Theater, I say that we also dig up the foundations of those bars and clubs on 55th, and -- like Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome -- we build new taverns and a nightlife right on top of them. What better way to honor the past?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NIMBY's Corner: Morsbach Keeps Apologizing; Spicer Makes Up More Stuff

posted by chicago pop

If anyone wonders why the same names keep popping up again and again on this blog, there's a simple reason: the same few names keep out-gassing in the Herald like crabby spouses, or mucking around elsewhere leaving monkey wrenches conspicuously dangling about.

It's sort of like Blagojevich: we didn't ask for his behavior, but he just keeps doing crazy stuff and getting media attention for it.

So, to come back to our long-time HPP favorite, the Janus-faced Hans Morsbach, defender of the neighborhood and of high principles.

If ever there has been reason to quote Shakespeare on the blog, it is with reference to his latest letter on the Doctors Hospital vote -- in which he defends -- one more time -- his position. Note to Hans: me thinks thou dost protest too much.

Yes, it's been over a month, and Hans is still apologizing for the dumb decision he encouraged his neighbors to take and that most of the rest of the neighborhood is ticked off about. If it really had been the right thing to do, I don't think we would have had this blizzard of propaganda in the aftermath.

Taking the best interests of the neighborhood to heart, Morsbach issues this rejoinder to White Lodging's Bruce White:

I did not know of the extent of your philanthropic intentions and how they affect me. Do you
suggest that knowing that the University Medical Center receives a large donation will make a bigger impact on my life than looking every day at an ugly building, or give you license to tear down a landmark? ... Do you think that when your employees park on Harper Avenue that I think that is the cost of progress?

[Emphasis on personal pronouns added by the editor.]

So Hans is clearly not concerned about himself, and this comes through, as it also came through the referendum.

To satisfy the literary critics among us, I'll point out that it's unclear what "ugly building" Morsbach is referring to, as the Doctors Hospital is certainly no beauty, something which Morsbach himself confessed in an earlier letter in the summer of 2007. ("I have never paid much attention to the architectural merit of the hospital..." Herald LTE, July 18, 2007).

And of course, Doctors Hospital does not have landmark status, as Morsbach claims. But when you're out-gassing to the Herald, little details like that tend to escape out the blowhole.

On the note of factual inaccuracy, especially with regard to claims of things not falling apart and it just generally being OK that entropy and the second law of thermodynamics have become the governing principles of Hyde Park development, Mr. Jack Spicer makes the claim in today's Herald that the troubled Herald Building on 53rd and Harper is "a very solid building and in very good condition." ("HPHS seeks landmark status for 53rd and Harper," Kate Hawley, Herald, Wednesday December 10, 2008).

Now, the Herald Building that fronts 53rd has been vacant since spring of 2008, but even before that we have it from a variety of sources that it was falling apart.

For example, we learn from the October 11, 2006 Herald, that the company once interested in renovating the Harper Theater ran up against the problem of the building's advanced deterioration and the costs that fixing it would have entailed.

The building and its interior also need extensive repair and renovation," [the Herald told us, going on to quote the local art house theater chain Classic Cinemas (owner of the Tivoli in Downers Grove)], "Typically when you have an existing shell, a rough number [for renovation] is about $1 million per screen." ... In 2002, renovation cost estimates for the 1,200-seat theater building and its attachments were approximately $10 million.

Repairing the Harper Theater, in 2002, would have cost about 10x more than usual for a theater of its vintage. That seems like a decent index of the structure's dilapidation.

The article continues with a quote from Irene Sherr: "The theater now has deteriorated even further. They [Classic Cinemas] felt it was in terrible shape then and basically you had to rebuild the theater behind keeping the facade."

These statements from 2006 seem to corroborate the University's appraisal in this week's Herald, that "the building is in rough shape -- so bad it may not last another winter. In recent weeks, it has been surrounded with scaffolding, a measure to protect pedestrians from falling debris."

Makes sense. So what is Spicer's position on the scaffolding protecting pedestrians?

From the Herald, again: "He ... said the university doesn't have a permit for the sidewalk scaffolding."

Apart from this curious aversion to public safety measures, that's the second time Spicer is wrong, in one article. Kate Hawley actually checks this fact (bravo!), and tells us that a "valid permit is on file through February 15."

Perhaps the Hyde Park Historical Society, instead of scoffing at scaffolding, should ask its members to take time off work in order to hand out hard hats to all passers by?

(Fine Photograph of Herald Building on 53rd, with Large Brick Mass of Harper Theater Looming In Background, and Deteriorating Antiballistic Radar Platform Above. Credit: Shahzad Ahsan, Chicago Maroon)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Third-Party Review and other Sugar Plums

posted by Peter Rossi

Our local NIMBYs burst with "community" pride as they relate how the they halted City plans to repair the crumbling Point revetment and restore the landscaping. As of January 17, 2009, it will be eight years since the first community meeting on the Point. The "community task force" has dissolved and shut down their stale web site. The Chicago Park District has shelved the project, awaiting the "Third Party Review." Park District officials are understandably gun-shy of the review process which has the nominal support of a congressman and the President-elect.

At HPP, we have tried to do a little reporting on the fate of our community treasure. Our own Elizabeth Fama called up Mr. Foxall who will be in charge of the Third Party Review, if it ever gets funded and off the ground. Her conversation reveals a disturbing naivete of Mr. Foxall about the history and use of the Point, engineering design constraints, and funding. But there is one thing that Mr. Foxall is very clear about: the Third Party Review is in limbo.

How can any real progress be made on the Point? Let's review the facts. The shoreline revetment program is funded by a combination of Federal (via Army Corps), State, City (department of environment), and CPD funds. In the late 90s, the Feds appropriated approximately $250 million for the entire shoreline project. At the time, this was supposed to fund about 65 per cent of the costs. The balance was to contributed mostly by the City and CPD. The project has proceeded in sections. As each section is completed, funds are drawn down from the Federal appropriation and matched with local support. It should be emphasized that there is no "line" in the Federal budget that supports this project. The Federal portion has be allocated by the Army Corps on an on-going basis.

A check with Rob Rejman, who is the project manager at the CPD, confirms that the shoreline project is nearing completion. Only the Point and Morgan Shoals (between 47-53rd) portions have no completed designs. All other sections have been completed or in the construction/bidding phase.

The funds for the Point must then be appropriated at some future date and depend critically on the continued availability of the Federal and local contributions. The Compromise Plan we have supported (and currently the only viable plan) would cost about $24 million. The CPD has also promised to restore the Caldwell landscaping at a cost of 1.5 million. No one knows the fate of this promise and the funding for landscaping. In the meantime, the revetment crumbles into the lake and a few ragged scrubs and trees cling to a barren landscape.

In order for some real progress to be made on the Point revetment, the following events must occur:
  1. Funds for the Third Party Review must be appropriated. The legislation authorizing the review does not specify an amount nor compel the Army Corps to allocate these funds.
  2. The review process must start and reach a design that meets engineering and aesthetic standards (min 6 months). It is entirely possible that the Third Party Review may fail to reach a design that is acceptable to all involved.
  3. If step 2) results in a design acceptable to all parties, the design must be approved by the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency (2- 6 months). This is required by the so-called Memorandum of Agreement (see E. Fama's post for details).
  4. The design must be completed to what is known as the 80 per cent point. The Third Party Review will not produce a design but only some guidelines. Completion of the actual design must be done by architects and engineers here in Chicago (6-12 mos).
  5. At the 80 per cent completion point, the design could be let for bids (6 mos).
  6. It has been estimated that construction would take a minimum of 2.5 years.
The most optimistic scenario has the Third Party Review initiated in 2009. This means that the earliest we could expect results (completion of steps 2-6) would be in 2014. Perhaps, some of our local NIMBYs, including the Hyde Park Sermonist, can use their personal influence with God to speed this up.

What disturbs me the most is not the prospect of more than 10 years of unnecessary delays, but, rather, the very real possibility that nothing will get done.

Mr. Foxall is already on record as stating that he would like to use materials similar (in color and texture) to what is already there. He doesn't like the color of concrete. It is not clear what he thinks of tinted concrete, but he should be aware that no one has yet figured out how to make a structure that would meet Army Corps standards for a 50+ year life with limestone structural elements. Anyone who has studied this project in detail knows that you need a concrete core and steel pilings. You can't apply limestone veneer, either. Some pipe dreams will be conjured up at his soiree but should get a big laugh from the engineers at the Army Corps.

If Mr. Foxall's group does succeed where all others have failed, there is the little problem of cost. Unless his design costs <= $24 million, it can't be built. We are now in the most severe recession since the early 1980s and, perhaps, since the 1930s. There is the very real possibility that the CPD and City contributions for the Point will not be available when the dust clears.

In any event, it seems likely that the restoration of the Caldwell landscaping will be a casualty of the long and unnecessary delays. This would be the ultimate irony as the Caldwell landscaping is the one truly historic aspect of the Point that could be restored. Funds for this must come from the CPD alone and are not strictly part of the shoreline project. The so-called community task force has done their level best to alienate Park District officials and the landscaping plan was an act of good faith by the CPD that has not been reciprocated.

Finally, there is nothing about the Foxall process that can insure that the needs of the users of the Point be heard. I fear that water access will be lost in the hub bub.

The most likely outcome is more of the same: eight more years of nothing.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Conversation about Promontory Point with Horace Foxall

posted by Elizabeth Fama

An excavator adjusts drainage and installs stone toe at 57th Street Beach, 11/13/08.

It's frustrating that the only news we hear about Promontory Point is from the Hyde Park Herald, because the articles are often replete with inaccuracies, and the information in them is doled out to reporters almost exclusively by the "Save the Point" group.

So I sent an e-mail to Horace H. Foxall, Jr. -- the Seattle Army Corps architect who will be in charge of former-Senator Obama's "third-party review" -- to see what the real status of the Point is. I was surprised and delighted that he took the time to phone me on November 17 for a long conversation. From that talk, I can indeed confirm Don Lamb's impression (Herald, June 25, 2008) that Mr. Foxall seems to be a "super, super guy" -- a super guy with a worthy resume who is, for the moment, not as informed as I'd hoped about this project, its history, and what the Army Corps and community have already endured to create the perfectly satisfactory Compromise Plan. I'm sure Mr. Foxall will tool up, but in the meantime we'll waste gobs of time, gobs of money, and we'll risk the safety of anyone who spends time on the revetment -- all before one piece of heavy machinery is delivered to the site.

"Nothing much is happening on the third-party review."

Mr. Foxall said there is no authorization for him to proceed. He was asked by Obama's office to write up a "Scope of Project," describing how his team will come up with a design alternative, which he did. Obama's staff sent this through the proper government channels, where it's stalled, waiting for money. Here's the holdup: "continuing resolutions" have passed in D.C., but not the real budget. This means that only projects that were already funded and in place under the last budget receive money. Once the new budget is passed, Mr. Foxall guesses that the money for his third-party review will be appropriated in the Civil Works Budget, under the Rivers and Harbors Act.

"Figure out the players and get together in one room."

We've heard from the "Save the Point" group that Mr. Foxall plans to have an unusually inclusive charette (a collaborative design session), and he confirmed this. He intends to "invite all the players to roll up their sleeves, and ask each other what we're trying to achieve." He wants to divide the area into smaller square-foot sections and ask at each location, "What activities would we like to see there?" When I asked him to clarify whether he meant recreational activities or construction activities he said, "Both." Among the players he mentioned: the City, the Illinois Historic Agency, local historic agencies, preservationists, and community members." I said, "Can someone from our blog come?" and he said, "Everyone who has a stake in this can come."

"The Army Corps proposed an engineering design, not a cultural or historical one."

Mr. Foxall said he had walked the area of the Point and had taken pictures. He summed up the history of the Point's shoreline controversy this way: "The Army Corps proposed an engineering design without taking the space into account, the uses of the area, and the history. It was an engineering answer, not a cultural or historical one." He said the plan proposed by the Army Corps had "neglected Burnham's original intent." I thought he must have been mistakenly referring to the oldest design proposal of 2000 (i.e. the section built between 51st Street and 54th Street) because the Compromise Plan does take the existing recreation, scale, and materials into account, and it was approved by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. He seemed unfamiliar with the term "Compromise Plan," but said he had seen a plan from the City "as of two years ago." He went on to argue that his photos -- especially of the new construction along the 57th Street Beach (see image above), which, he said, "demonstrates the idea of concrete decorated with limestone"-- proved to him that Burnham's vision had been neglected. It seemed that he was allowing himself to be influenced by the two new sections north and south of the Point...neither of which was built with community input, and neither of which resembles the Compromise Plan.

"I'd like to make it a wonderful place to be."

Mr. Foxall's goal is to think of what activities the Point could have, and implement them in the design. For instance, he said that the beautiful views of downtown were inaccessible to handicapped people under the current design. I wanted to point out, but didn't, that the Compromise Plan does allow wheelchairs on the entire promenade level (although it's true that the entry ramp is on the south side). What I did say is that swimming access at the Point was not built into the 1930s revetment, and that by agreeing we want to arrange for all recreational uses and include handicapped access, we're already conceding that we have to give up some of Burnham's original design.

"Like putting Cadillac parts on a Ford."

He said the concrete was the wrong color for the shoreline. "Nothing is gray on the shore, it's all natural browns. The concrete will turn black." He wants the colors of the materials used to match what's already at the Point, and to match "the building [the field house] that's there."

"Two or three alternative designs."

His process, after the money comes through, will be:

(1) arrange the charette

  • look into options for materials
  • look at uses for the space, keeping the historic and cultural qualities in place

(2) send the resulting list of desired design features to the Buffalo District Army Corps, where engineers will design "two or three alternative plans that also take into account the science -- the hydraulics, the wave action, the weather, etc."

(3) price the alternatives and choose one.

"A multi-disciplined team."

His team will include:

(1) him (he is an architect by training, with a strong historic preservation background)

(2) a landscape architect -- "to preserve the viewshed"

(3) an architectural historian

(4) a hydraulic engineer.

"45 to 60 days, depending on how fast the Buffalo team is."

I made him guess at a timetable from the moment the money comes through:

(1) one week for the charette and design list

(2) 30-45 days for Buffalo to come up with two or three "60-65%" design alternatives

(3) 2-3 days of meetings to choose between them

Total: 45-60 days.


I came away from the conversation with this overall impression: Mr. Foxall is a bright guy who is proud of his experience working with communities (e.g. New Orleans after Katrina), and self-assured about his role in this project. He sees his job as starting from scratch; that is, to push aside all previous plans and start over completely: to look at what recreational activities and viewsheds the space can offer, and design something "culturally and historically appropriate."

I also came away with this prediction: Mr. Foxall will create his wish list for the Point. The Buffalo engineers, constrained by a (possibly dwindling) shoreline budget and by structural considerations, won't be able to do any better than the Compromise Plan -- a concrete-and-steel base with limestone blocks as revetment steps and decoration. Nonetheless, the "Save the Point" group will heroically accept Mr. Foxall's plan as a "preservation" plan. It will get built, but a decade will have passed since the Compromise Plan was presented, and millions of dollars will have been poured down the usual Hyde Park Obstructionist Hole.

Let's just hope that no one is seriously hurt at the Point between now and then. If that happens, the cost of this heroic obstructionism by the "Save the Point" group will be immeasurable.