posted by Richard Gill
The February 8 public meeting of the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council was surprising indeed. The surprise wasn't the proposed Harper Court redevelopment, which has been the subject of large quantities of public input and communication. It was the tone of the meeting that was the big surprise. It was downright pleasant and cordial, far from the angry and disruptive meetings for which Hyde Park has become notorious.
Afterward, a number of us joked that we must have come to the wrong meeting, because Hyde Park meetings "always" have some angst and bile (recall meetings about Promontory Point, Doctors Hospital, 57th Street, the Co-op and so forth). This one did not. It was respectful, it was informative, it was civil, and most of all, there was general approval of the proposed redevelopment. How did this happen?
The TIF council, led by chairman Howard Males, has been diligent in practicing openness and communication, including very productive workshops. The University of Chicago (current owner of the property), the City, and 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle have gently but firmly moved the project forward and have left little doubt that there would be a project. The Request for Proposals was made public, and included public input. All along, it has been a local TIF project, not "The University of Chicago's project."
Also, there was no longer a corpse to fight over. The Harper Court of the 1960s has been demolished. It is gone. There had been some unpleasantness over preservation versus replacement, but that was long past. The focus now could only be on the new.
For the meeting itself, Vermilion Development, the selected principal team for the project, had done its homework. As they showed architect's renderings, they explained features that reflected public inputs. They were prepared for almost any question or criticism that might be brought up during questions and answers. As he does at all of his meetings, Howard Males clearly explained the meeting's format and length, the process leading up to this point, and the process moving forward. I think his enthusiasm for the project was contagious.
There were criticisms, but they were about availability of funding, project details, traffic, phasing and the like; there were no suggestions that the process had been closed or unfair or rammed through, or would somehow be "bad" for the neighborhood.
I don't pretend to know all the reasons why the Harper Court redevelopment seems to be largely free of public strife at this point. However, as the Point and other projects revive, as they eventually must, the proponents might do well to study the Harper Court process, in terms of securing initial public buy-in and then solidifying it, by knowing the neighborhood, responding to expressed needs and concerns, communicating and working with the public, and Aldermanic leadership.
It can be done.