Sunday, August 24, 2008
Thursday, August 21, 2008
posted by Peter Rossi
As you sit down to dinner in Hyde Park, the doorbell rings and you cringe: chances are it's either a solicitor or a "cause."
Residents of Harper and Stony Island Avenues opened their doors early this month to find a bearded NIMBY or one of his minions, armed with a petition. What was the petition about? It sought to put a referendum on November's ballot voting the 39th Precinct dry. "Dry," of course, means to prohibit the sale of alcohol in any commercial establishment. Hey, Hyde Park is already a nuclear-free zone, so why not also take aim at the devil's brew? Visions of corseted women being raped by drunken immigrants, children being neglected by their alcoholic parents, and Bar Mitzvahs gone mad drift into your head.
But no, this petition is pure subterfuge. The Bearded One is a longtime NIMBY who wants to halt development in Hyde Park. It's no accident that the 39th Precinct includes the old Doctors Hospital.
On the subject of Doctors Hospital, popular opinion appears to have turned against the NIMBYs, so how can they block the hotel project? It's easy: hotels depend on restaurants for profits, and restaurants depend on liquor licenses. There's no surer way to plow salt into the DH soil than to forbid the sale of alcohol.
But wait. Isn't this Bearded One the same man who stood up at the August 5th community meeting on Doctors Hospital and solemnly declared, "I'm in favor of development"? Isn't this the same person who insists he's not against a hotel, but merely wants the developer to "reuse" the existing building in the construction? Isn't this the same person who feigned righteous indignation when the developer, White Lodging, said "reuse" was not feasible for this project? How can this man be publicly in favor of development and "preservation" of the structure as a hotel, and at the same time go door-to-door, trying to submarine not only the proposed development but any future development?
Welcome to the Wonderful World of NIMBYs. They think the means justify the end, and that no one will hold them accountable for their outrageous actions.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
posted by chicago pop
Chicago 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell just had a NIMBY coming-out party.
Or at least it looks like she is trying to get in the Club. And nothing helps score some NIMBY street cred better than hating on the University of Chicago.
But it's not just hating on the U of C that makes you a NIMBY -- if that were the case, we'd have to include hundreds of College students -- it's how you hate on the U of C that makes you a NIMBY.
To really get street cred as a NIMBY, you have to be stuck in the 60s, the way Pat Dowell accused her 3rd Ward Aldermanic predecessor Dorothy Tillman of being "stuck in the 80s" before walloping her in the 2007 city council elections.
You have to believe, like the greatest Hyde Park NIMBYs, that what happened in the period of Urban Renewal, racial turnover, Civil Rights, and inner city decay formed a template that will forever govern the operation of Chicago politics.
You have to think that the grass-roots organizations that were formed then, over 2 generations ago, if not before (whether the Hyde Park Co-Op, the Harper Court Foundation or The Woodlawn Organization), are still relevant and effective, and that the stories these organizations tell about themselves are accurate interpretations of history.
Most importantly, when you get a chance to build something useful on a vacant lot or empty building, you say "No thanks," and make arguments about why you should be able to control and obstruct the buying and selling of private property.
Dowell makes it very clear what she wants in her letter, sent to U of C President Robert Zimmer, Mayor Daley, and, um, the Hyde Park Herald (August 13, 2008).
She doesn't want the University buying land in her ward.
She says as much, referring to her "expressed reservations about the university purchasing land in the Third Ward at this time."
Dowell claims that the University is being high-handed by not bringing her in on its real estate plans, even though she has made it clear that she doesn't want the University in her neighborhood to begin with.
So why is she surprised she's not in the loop?
Even though NIMBY-ism clearly comes in a variety of colors, it still operates according to the same conservative and self-serving logic, in which paranoid speculations are cooked up on the basis of skewed understandings of changes that happened before a lot of us were born.
The 3rd Ward version of NIMBY-ism -- like one of Dorothy Tillman's hats, it can be taken off a hook and worn by anyone -- comes in a standard package that includes ritual incantations about the "history of the university's relationship with its neighboring communities."
We're all supposed to know what this means, we read about "the history" in the papers, University officials work through their guilt by endlessly admitting that there is a "history", when what this history really boils down to is one incident in Woodlawn that happened 50 years ago in utterly different historical circumstances, and with negative unintended consequences that have left that neighborhood worse off than if it hadn't experienced "the history" in the first place.
The story is this: in the early 1960s, the University of Chicago wanted to use federal urban renewal funds, with the support of municipal condemnations, to bulldoze and redevelop Woodlawn the way it had bulldozed parts of Hyde Park, which would have resulted in the displacement of low-income households the way it already had in Hyde Park.
Local folks mobilized to prevent this. It never happened. Local folks were happy, and then their neighborhood went to hell. Somewhere along the line, at the instigation of The Woodlawn Organization and now-convicted felon and former 20th Ward Alderman Arenda Troutman, they tore down the 63rd Street spur of the El, something increasingly regarded as one of the dumbest decisions in the history of mass transit.
Fast forward half a century: urban-renewed Hyde Park is a diverse community on the upswing, with its fabric more or less intact, anchored by the University of Chicago.
After The Woodlawn Organization achieved its goal of blocking University-led renewal of its eponymous neighborhood, however, it was unable to keep the area from descending into the very death spiral that the University had sought to forestall, losing population, businesses, and tax base over the next 30 years, as middle class blacks followed their white predecessors out the door.
That's a victory? Maybe not, but it provides a useful scapegoat.
This is the myth that Pat Dowell uses to impute Original Sin to the University of Chicago, and to try to score points with 3rd Ward constituents. It's a myth because the times have completely changed, though the racially charged NIMBY rhetoric has not.
My bet is that today's 3rd Ward voters can tell the difference (see Postscript).
The University is not purchasing land with the financial assistance of federal programs, and is not exercising eminent domain, as was done at the time of Urban Renewal. These purchases are not taking place at the height of the Civil Rights movement, when such actions were charged with political meanings and seemed to embody power relations that they no longer have.
Most unfortunately for the Woodlawn Myth of the Predatory University, the 3rd Ward purchases are taking place at the moment of a historic watershed, when inner cities have regained the interest of markets, imaginations, and entrepreneurs, and when smart, equitable urban development is seen to be a key to future sustainable habitation of our planet.
Any major revitalization of the south side wards around the University of Chicago will probably require the capital and involvement of the latter, in some form of public-private partnership that brings jobs to the neighborhood and builds on the efficiencies of existing urban infrastructure.
So let's put away the canned resentment and take advantage of an historic opportunity to get things moving down King Drive.
Either that, or the vacant lots in the 3rd Ward may collect garbage for another few generations.
I was standing in the parkway of Garfield Boulevard taking these pictures of shuttered buildings, empty parking lots, and vacant land, when I was approached by a African American man about my age.
"You going to buy it?" he asked, pointing to the lot between King and Prairie.
"No," I said, "someone else already has."
"I hope they do something with it," the guy told me. "What we need around here are more jobs. These people want jobs. That building's been empty for 10 years. Someone needs to do something with it."
So I told him that the University of Chicago bought it, and some other lots around here, but that his Alderman Pat Dowell doesn't want the University to own land in her ward.
The guy didn't have a response to that. What he did say was that "we need development that pushes out the people who don't care about the neighborhood, and keeps the people who do."
Friday, August 15, 2008
posted by Peter Rossi
The NIMBYs who oppose a hotel on the Doctor's Hospital site were hopping mad after the August 5th "community" meeting. There were a number of people who had the temerity to question the knee jerk "preservation" and "congestion" arguments trotted out by various Harper Ave regulars. Even the 5th ward alderman was showing signs of a backbone on this issue.
I can only imagine the panic in the air during the weekly "editorial" meetings with Herald staff. Aren't we going to be forced to reveal some of the truth about Doctor's Hospital? Not to worry, our trusty Herald reporters and editors will figure a way to downplay the bad news and distort the account of the meeting.
Once again, the Herald came thru with a doozy ("Drs. Hospital, take 2"). All of the tricks of the trade are present in this minor masterpiece of distortion:
1. reversing the order of importance of the events at the meeting
2. selective omission of important facts
3. paint the Harper boys as heroes and the White Lodging executive as evil and slippery
4. Misquote where possible
5. Don't actually do any reporting (such as interviewing people and questioning them on the logical and factual basis for their assertions).
6. Don't report rude behavior and rather insane or inane remarks from opponents.
For the facts, read Richard Gill's post below this one. DO NOT read the Herald story as it might be hazardous to your judgment!
The article starts out with a couple of paragraphs on how the community and Leslie Hairston shoed away evil White Lodging and they came crawling back in the person of Scott Travis.
I don't really know what happened to tip the Alderman but I suspect that what this is all about is that White Lodging didn't put in time in Alderman Hairston's throne room. This has nothing to do with community protests as it is clear that nothing really has changed in the year or so since the original community farce. The Herald claims that White Lodging "clashed" with community "denizens" (are these small animals found at the bottom of ponds?). This sounds like White Lodging running roughshod over residents. What happened is a few cranks shouted down reasonable discourse with nonsense about the "historic" value of this eyesore and concerns that they wouldn't be able to put those chairs out in Harper Ave to reserve their personal parking spaces.
The real news from the August 5th meeting is twofold: 1. Alderman Hairston sees the writing on the wall - it's White Lodging or nothing (where is the long line of folks willing to pony up $70 million?) and 2. there are large number of responsible people in the community who would love to see White Lodging build a hotel. A subplot is that preservation of DH is dead. Preservation advocates have consistently refused to explain why this mediocre relic of institutional architecture is worth saving. If this wasn't obvious before the meeting, it sure is now!
To get the real news from the Herald story you have to turn to the continuation on page 3 and wade thru several attempts to disguise this important fact. In paragraph 10 of 19, Ms. Hawley asserts that the "majority favored development." Of course, our NIMBYs claim they favor "development," you see, just not development as White Lodging proposes it. The fact is that a very substantial group of people (I think about 1/2 of the attendees once you subtract the outside labor organizers in the red t-shirts) want a modern hotel and would like to see DH torn down.
The "preservationists" have tried to spread the impression that "preservation" is possible and might even be cheaper by virtue of tax credits. The Herald fell for this tact, hook, line and sinker. In fact, the paper was so eager to advance this point of view that words were put into Landmarks Illinois president Jim Peter's mouth. The story incorrectly asserts that Peters claimed "federal tax credits ... would make a hotel conversion cost-effective." Mr. Peters did not say this. As he is well aware, this would be irresponsible to say as there are no cost estimates for "conversion" or "reuse" plans. Mr. Peters did bring up the tax credits but was careful not to make the leap of faith. As we all know, tax credits for building gold mountains don't mean that gold mountains are cost-effective.
The Herald also choose to omit one of the most persuasive speakers, a spokesman for the Museum of Science and Industry. She told the group that visitors to the museum are constantly asking about nearby hotel accommodations and that MSI staff have to refer them downtown. In addition, the museum offered its 1500 space underground parking garage as overflow for valet parking.
The selective omission continues as the Herald reports that residents of Vista Homes asked for environmental and traffic studies. This is correct but the Herald fails to report that there was a traffic study done by White Lodging that showed minimal impact and that an environmental study was done prior to the U of Chicago purchase.
Sometimes, the Herald just gets plain frustrated that people are not towing the NIMBY line and quotes are fabricated. One of the most ridiculous suggestions made by opponents of a hotel is that there should be a "masterplan" for development of Stony Island Avenue between 56th and 59th Streets. U of C Vice President Susan Campbell pointed out the absurdity of a "masterplan" for the west side (the east side is a park) of only three blocks and then patiently explained that the U doesn't own all of this property. Somehow all this was forgotten and Ms. Campbell is quoted as saying that a masterplan is "a good idea."
Just as the Herald saw fit to omit details of some of the most persuasive arguments for the hotel, the paper saw fit to omit the rude behavior and demagoguery of some of the opponents. The labor organizers attempted to disrupt the meeting by forcing a vote on whether the hotels would be a union shop. One particularly addled NIMBY cautioned that out of control Bar Mitzvahs might corrupt the Bret Harte kiddies. Longtime demagogue, Greg Lane, delivered a scripted speech about how we should demand "good" development not just "any" development. Mr. Lane was a little short on how he would raise $70 million for "good" development if we are not able to take the "dirty money" of White Lodging.
When NIMBYs don't like being confronted with the truth, they parody those who speak the truth. The preservationists were dealt a severe blow when it was pointed out to them by both Mr. Travis and Leon Finney that the DH is sort of a monument to racism. Built as a hospital for Illinois Central employees, the hospital had a policy of not admitting black patients. Of course, the Herald doesn't explain this fact as it might be verified by the reader. Instead, Mr. Travis is blamed -- "he tossed out another, previously unheard argument into the mix: the hospital has an ugly history of discrimination..." This way it is not clear whether or not assertion is true or just an invective from Mr. Travis.
The next paragraph detailing Leon Finney's support for the hotel and corroboration of the discrimination against blacks is cleverly written so that you have to dissect it carefully to see that Mr. Finney agreed with Mr. Travis. From "Finney" to "agreed" there are no less than 11 words. This remind me of Mark Twain's essay on how to read a German sentence -- go to the end and get the verb!
The NIMBYs didn't like Marcy Schlessinger's remarks about why the hotel is not reusable. We can't refute the fact that the SECC did study this, so let's paint her as biased by reminding folks that the SECC receives its funding from the U. Never mind that Ms. Schlessinger was there of her own volition and has no particular reason to be beholden to the U.
But the real problem with this article is that there is no actual reporting in it! A reporter should interview the various key players and do some homework. Ok, Mr. Preservationist why is this building historically significant? How much would your re-use proposal cost and why did White Lodging claim that it is not feasible? Ok, Mr. Travis, give me copies of your analysis of the re-use proposal and your traffic study. Ok, Ms. MSI give me an estimate of the number of rooms you could refer each year. Ok, Mr. Labor Organizer in the red t-shirt, what is your name and where do you live and are you being paid to attend this meeting? Give me documentation of the "shoddy labor practices" not rumors. Our own Chicago Pop did a little bit of reporting in just a few minutes and found out that there is no substantiation of these claims.
Is the Herald a newspaper or a NIMBY newsletter?
Sunday, August 10, 2008
posted by Richard Gill
I'll begin by saying that I think the meeting overall was positive, with very strong support for a hotel on the Doctors Hospital site. Further, I believe the meeting removed any impression that there is broad sentiment in the neighborhood for saving the Doctors Hospital building or any part of it. The meeting was at times difficult, but people came out and spoke their minds, and the "Hyde Park Establishment" did not dominate the meeting.
I'm glad to say that those who spoke in favor of the hotel project (and did not object to the demolition of the old building) behaved themselves, and kept their remarks brief and to the point. The speech making, irrelevancies, non sequiturs, interruptions, and one major attempt at disruption, came from naysayers, die hard "preservationists", people who dislike the U of C, and people with political agendas. That noisy, time-consuming stuff clearly irritated Alderman Hairston, who ran the meeting, and she was able to cut it off most times.
Throughout the one-hour, forty minute meeting, Alderman Hairston did a good job of walking the tightrope between letting people vent and keeping the meeting on track. Several times, she made it clear that this is a private project, and most decisions are up to the developer (White Lodging).
It was standing-room-only by the time the meeting started at 6:15PM. About 200 people were seated in the Bret Harte Elementary School gym, and dozens more lined the walls or stood in the corridor outside the room. At least 20 people in red t-shirts reading UNITE HERE were in the room, occupying as many seats at the front of the room.
Alderman Hairston opened the meeting with a background statement, saying the meeting follows on earlier input from the community. She said that earlier input told her that the community does not want the Doctors Hospital building to remain dormant, nor does the community want it bulldozed. She said she wanted White Lodging to listen and take ideas back with them. She said a concern is to ensure fair labor practices. Finally, she said she wants the community to feel good about what happens with the site.
The first question that came to my mind was, when did "the community" determine it doesn't want the building taken down?
Scott Travis of White Lodging presented the company's plan for a 390-room hotel/15,000 sq. ft. function room with a $60-70 million investment. Then the mike was passed around for Q&A.
Yes, all the usual issues came up: parking, "congestion", design compatible with "the community," the U of C controls it all, let's make the building a nursing home, and let's have more "master planning" and more studies and more meetings, and how do we know that the construction work won't damage Vista Homes? That stuff pretty much didn't seem to fly with Hairston.
White Lodging was accused of having a poor record on fair labor practices; I heard nothing to substantiate that. The red shirts, who apparently have some labor affiliation did some "union" chanting. One of the red-shirted people demanded that Travis say yes or no, right then and there, to a union shop at the hotel, then they chanted "yes or no, yes or no." Hairston stopped them after a minute and told them this was not their meeting and that they were being disrespectful of everyone else, and, if nothing else, premature. She was applauded for this. They were quiet for the rest of the meeting.
Then, there was the "threat of alcohol being served on the premises" and how it would endanger children who would somehow get hold of the stuff, and one man stood up and said alcohol would surely be a threat, because there would be Bar Mitzvahs in the function room. The poor fellow tried to backtrack but just dug himself in deeper. Hairston, who appeared both amused and disgusted by this, said there weren't going to be people in the hotel plying elementary school children with "gin and juice."
Many people spoke of the need for amenities in the neighborhood, particularly this hotel. An MSI representative said they would probably book 300 rooms a year in the hotel. I think the meeting's strongest message to the Alderman was that the project is sorely needed and will be good for the neighborhood.
Rev. Leon Finney spoke, reminding everyone that the project will have to comply with the planning and lakefront protection ordinances, so all the fear mongering should stop. He said the hospital is a blight. He stopped some of the preservationists in their tracks when he noted that for most of its history the hospital had been Illinois Central Hospital and would not serve nor employ African-Americans. He asked why anyone would want to preserve a reminder of that. Finally, in response to all the ideas about doing something else with the property, he said, "If not a hotel, then what?" He said let's move forward and he applauded the alderman for calling the meeting.
Hairston said the next step would be for White Lodging to make a presentation in a few weeks, responding to concerns raised at the meeting, possibly around the end of September.
I don't know who said it, but I have in my meeting notes that someone accused White Lodging of "trying to pound their square peg into Hyde Park's round hole." I will stop here and let the reader ponder that assertion.
Friday, August 8, 2008
posted by Elizabeth Fama
I mentioned in my previous post that the Promontory Point revetment is becoming dangerous in many sections, and it's my guess that the City gives a few tickets to swimmers every year just to protect itself against future liability lawsuits if (or when) someone is seriously hurt or killed.
If you haven't walked along the promenade and examined the erosion of the revetment from top to bottom, as I've suggested in the past, you might be surprised to see how far it has deteriorated in many sections. Let's explore one of those sections in detail...
There are currently two (accidental, unsanctioned) water access sites on the north side of Promontory Point, and this is one of them:
You can just make out a cave in the revetment steps in the background of this photo (look for the black hole, surrounded by shrub-like weeds, just above and left of center).
This is a view of that caved-in section, from the water:
The promenade is completely gone. And can you see the two side-by-side limestone blocks in the stepped revetment behind it that are seemingly balanced on nothing (again, above and left of center)? Well, here's the view just to the right of those two "suspended" blocks:
Now here's a photo of the cave under the two blocks, to the left:
A small child could fit in here. But I don't recommend taking your kids along this section of the Point. To tell you the truth, my own kids were annoyed (in that lovingly protective way they have) that I was teetering on the lack-of-promenade, taking these photos.
Doesn't anyone want a free Fix the Point bumper sticker?
Sunday, August 3, 2008
posted by chicago pop
5200 S. Blackstone
One of the biggest positive transformations in Hyde Park has been happening mostly under the radar for about 6 years now.
It hasn't involved the construction of new buildings. It hasn't involved Federal grants, City tax breaks, bailouts from the University of Chicago, or neighborhood activists laying down the law.
Most of the improvements we're talking about have been behind locked doors, in the form of new kitchens, modernized wiring, newly lit stairwells, central air, and restored historical and architectural details.
Since acquiring its first rental property in Hyde Park, MAC Property Management has sunk a whopping $200,000,000 in construction costs to renovate, restore, and add to the inventory of rental units to the neighborhood. This is all apart from the two projects slated by Antheus Capital, the private equity firm and parent company of MAC, at the Solstice location and at Village Center.
In Hyde Park, the result has been a net addition of 400 rental units since 2002, ranging from one bedrooms at $900/month to 2 bedrooms at $1,400/month, depending on the size and location. On average, this represents a rent increase of $300-500/month at a range of properties, many of which had deteriorated for decades under the former ownership of K&G Building Management.
MAC Director of Community Development Peter Cassel, who took us on a walking tour of MAC's walk-up and high-rise properties, emphasized that when MAC acquired rental properties along Cottage Grove, Drexel, or the historical art deco Blackwood tower on East 52nd Street, many of the units were uninhabitable.
In the long-forlorn northwest corner of Hyde Park, where MAC's current activity is conspicuous, a few examples stand out. At the Drexel Grand (5220 S. Drexel) only 30 of the 64 units were occupied when MAC acquired the property. The gas had been disconnected to the entire building, and the previous owner had distributed microwaves to all the tenants as a substitute for gas stoves.
Shortly after MAC acquired The Blackwood (5220 S. Blackstone) the 15 story deco tower completed in 1930, the company was contacted by the FBI and informed that 59 of the building's residents were suspected of involvement in the drug trade.
Primarily for this reason, according to Cassel, the building was half-empty. Similar dynamics are playing out on Ingleside, Drexel, and Maryland, where MAC is renovating historic buildings in an area that for decades had been viewed as a lost cause by both the University and the Chicago Police.
On Cottage Grove, MAC is is building on the favorable geography of West Hyde Park. A cluster of 3-story walk-ups face Washington Park, offer secure parking, and direct access to CTA Cottage Grove and Garfield Lines for workers commuting to the South Loop or downtown. For medical technicians and others employed at the U of C Medical Center -- a major target for the new rental units -- work is just steps away.
West Hyde Park's Front Lawn: Washington Park (Renovated MAC buildings on either side of 54th Street and Cottage Grove)
Since the Second World War and the subsequent 60 year boom in suburban development, the market in residential real estate has operated on short time horizons. Malls, residential subdevelopments, and the familiar landscapes of suburbia were investments expected to generate returns within a 5 to 10 year period. For this reason, they were built quickly and cheaply. Decades later, it shows.
It wasn't always this way. Many of the greatest achievements of American urban building date to the pre-WWII period, when real estate was a long-term asset class, something expected to garner value over a period of several decades.
In many ways, MAC -- a private equity firm that is also investing heavily in other historic, inner city neighborhoods (such as another Hyde Park, in Kansas City, Missouri) -- represents a return to this older model of real estate investing.
One of the up sides of this model is that, relieved of the pressure to report quarterly earnings growth to anxious Wall Street investors, a company like MAC can take its time to realize a return.
In MAC's case, that horizon is about 15 or 20 years down the road. Until then, MAC's financial bets are tied in part to the success of its rental portfolio, the market for which has already responded favorably throughout the neighborhood. MAC won't be flipping these properties anytime soon.
The down side is that this activity may add to the pressure for low-rent, off campus student accommodation as much as the boom for condo conversion did. K&G answered that need for many years, and it's not clear that it was good for the neighborhood as a whole.
The University and Divisions may need to take the higher rents into account when they formulate admissions and funding packages for graduate students, the biggest segment of student renters. And MAC, which has clearly gotten very big, very fast, needs to stay on top of its work orders and customer service, both of which have generated many complaints from student renters.
For the University, spending more for housing allowances to float fewer students through graduate school may ultimately be a better deal than paying for a police force to protect them in the slum conditions that have historically housed them.
Until then, MAC is rounding out the housing market for working professionals, and we're starting to see the results.