Monday, March 31, 2008

Hyde Park Treasures

posted by Elizabeth Fama occasional photo series.

#6. People who love books.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Go Blow Your Coat!

That's right.

Git on out and blow your coat. Honzo here is doing it (friend of Chillmaster) and you should too. Someplace beach-like. Honzo here actually likes winter, and so does Chillmaster, but you've probably had enough, so go find someplace warm, sunny, and beachy, even if it's the sunroom in grandma's ranch house. Maybe you can pretend to be as good a cook as Elizabeth Fama. Or try to figure out how to get invited to dinner at her place.

Meanwhile, we'll be back in early April. Maybe. Before then, no comments will be moderated, or if they are, only randomly.

Now git!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Brown Paper Packages, Tied Up with Strings...

posted by Elizabeth Fama

Future Home of the Zaleski and Horvath Market Cafe, 1126 East 47th Street.

When I snapped the photo above, the brown paper in the window made me sing out, like Maria Von Trapp. Because, as a matter of fact, the Zeleski and Horvath Market Cafe probably will be stocked with a few of my favorite things. You see, the proprietors want very much to work with the community to stock a "product mix" that we -- we the customers! -- want.

So I sent them an e-mail with the following list of items that I have to leave Hyde Park to buy. I encourage you to comment on this post with your suggestions for what the Zaleski and Horvath Market should stock, too. Zig & Lou are listening, really. So dream big!

-Raw honey (there are even locally-produced brands)
-Oat flour (although I did find this at TI since I wrote to Z&H)
-Bob's Red Mill Scottish Oatmeal
-Any interesting oatmeal
-Candied ginger
-The Ginger People 'Ginger Chews'
-Dried fruits (not just raisins, apricots, and dates)
-Amaretti di Saronno cookies
-Hard sheep's-milk cheeses
-Rice pasta (Tinkyada is a good brand)
-Dark Chocolate, all sorts.

(This is for Raymond.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Treasure Island: the Co-Op Meets Mr. Clean

posted by Elizabeth Fama

An attractive haul from Treasure Island

Friday, March 14th sure was a beautiful day to walk to the grocery store. And it was quite lovely to shop for just two nights' dinners within walking distance of my home. Carrying those groceries with my daughter, it felt almost like living in Europe. That's apparently what Treasure Island wants us to think, given that their bags are emblazoned with the logo America's most European supermarket.

Well, I don't know about that. But it was a whole lot cleaner than the Co-Op, and that's a start.

Which brings up this thought: it doesn't feel fair to review TI just yet, because it's really not their store. They're saddled with so many Co-Op leftovers: the shelves, the produce stands, the display cases, the's all Co-Op equipment, scrubbed to death. For instance, no retailer in his right mind would choose the early-90s font on the aisle signs. And who knows how TI would have laid out the store (flow and configuration) if they'd had a blank slate.

It's clear that in order to effect a quick turnaround (I'm sorry, no matter how much the letters in the Herald whine, it was a quick turnaround), TI madly cleaned the joint, replaced broken equipment, patched up mouse holes, and passed their health inspections in the nick of time to stock the store and open it. Period. It's also clear they have loftier goals for the future: the fish department is divided in two, with fish on one side, and a hopeful-looking butcher wedged on the right. I imagine his station will be enlarged.

That said, right now TI is just...a really clean, well-stocked Co-Op. To be sure, I was pleased to find a few items that were never stocked at the Co-Op (they have my favorite brand of dried pasta: Rustichella d'Abruzzo. In fact the imported pasta section is nice). And it was great to see that the produce was fresh (e.g. baby eggplants that don't have soft spots and crepe-paper skins). The cheese department is promising. The jams are nice. They apparently have a special prosciutto slicer. There are some adorable imported candies next to the bulk section. The fish monger was delighted to see me, and that's always nice. After a few minutes in the store my shoulders dropped, and I stopped feeling like I was in the Co-Op, which -- call me a wimp -- used to stress me out.

Maybe I'm under the wrong impression about Treasure Island, but I was a little disappointed that it didn't have more, I don't know, Whole-Foodsy sorts of items. Maybe those will come with time, or maybe there aren't enough customers like me who want oat-flakes cereal, raw honey, candied ginger, rice pasta (not Asian rice noodles), and O.B. tampons.

Now, my daughter's college friend and my housekeeper had both told me that Treasure Island's produce seemed to them to be pricey. So here's a comparison list of some of the items in the above-pictured haul (the items that are carried both at Peapod and at TI). It's hardly scientific, but it's interesting, because -- for many of the things I purchase, at least -- TI does seem to be more expensive than Peapod:

Unscientific price-list comparison between Peapod and TI

On my way into the store, a cute little succulent plant caught my eye; it was Hens and Chicks in a terracotta pot, and I thought it would make a nice gift for my mother-in-law. I carried it around the store with me, and wouldn't you know, I dropped it. The small terracotta pot smashed, and I cringed inside. The fish monger came out from behind his counter with a dust pan and swept it up for me with a big smile.

"Silly me," I told myself, "this is Treasure Island. It's not the Co-Op!" And the plastic pot that was inside the terracotta pot was still intact. With happy resolve, I went back to the floral department to get myself a replacement terracotta pot. The true test of customer service, no?

Granted, the woman I spoke to was not the head of floral, she was just a helper.

Me: "I'm sorry, I broke the pot on this plant. Can I have another pot?"
Her: "Those come with the plant, I don't think we have any."
Me: "There are more of the same plant over there, can I take a pot from one of the others?"
Her: "We sell pots separately, if you want."
Me: "But I thought you said...wait, you mean I have to buy a pot? These things are, like, 25 cents at Home Depot."
Her: "Really?" (Looking at another sample of Hens and Chicks, and tapping the terracotta.) "This is glass, isn't it?"

In the time it took for us to have that conversation, I realized that my mother-in-law already has a lot of plants, and that maybe I shouldn't spend $6.99 to further clutter her window sill. So I put it back on the display and said, "I'm sorry I broke it, but I've decided not to purchase it."

A floral worker who's unfamiliar with terracotta pots? Despite the clean, well-stocked store, that sent little Co-Op shivers down my back.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Lake Front Task Force" Dissed by Super Friends

posted by chicago pop

Aquaman allegedly tells Sharonjoy A. Jackson to "go jump in the lake"

Anything with a name like "Lake Front Task Force" -- headed by Sharonjoy A. Jackson -- sounds like it should be renting a room for free at the Super Friends' Hall of Justice. Either that or doing really nasty things for the CIA in the the boiler room of Sharonjoy's high-rise. The goals of the Lake Front Task Force (LTF), in fact, are much more modest, and have to do with obtaining official recognition as neighborhood super heroes so they can bust up all the pimpin' over at Bar Louie.

Super Friends Hall of Justice (design by Aaron Cook)

Superman has apparently deleted Sharonjoy's formal superhero application, though he refused to comment for this story, leaving it to Aquaman to set us straight on just where Jackson stands with the Super Friends team. Aquaman rolled his eyes when informed of Jackson's request for a Super Friends-refereed mud-wrestling showdown between Jackson and nemesis 5th Ward Alderman Leslie A. Hairston, who has not applied for super hero status.

Jackson's super hero application, if granted, would have awarded her the power to assemble groups of more than 6 people, and to cryogenically freeze the 5th Ward Alderman, by magically shaking her booty at any community meeting, for possible resuscitation at a future point in time.

A copy of Jackson's application, anonymously leaked to HPP, detailed background information that Jackson felt qualified her to be an East Hyde Park Superhero. Much of this information has been made available in past issues of the Hyde Park Herald, or uttered in public at various community meetings.

Sharonjoy, who is a "registered voter," (Hyde Park Herald, March 12, 2008) has "$100 in her pocket" (November 2007 Co-Op Town Hall meeting), though she's worried that if she keeps it there she'll be jumped by all the crack-heads hanging out in front of Bar Louie. She schedules meetings during winter snowstorms that keep the people in her building from taking the elevator to come to the meetings because it's snowing out. She thinks Hyde Park has a lot of non-chain, local businesses that are threatened (count 'em!) by capitalism, and finds East-Hyde Park city-living to be "bucolic," that is, like the countryside in that it includes rustics and bumpkins, but does not include shepherds and pooping goats.

Sharonjoy Jackson: "Residents do not need to be persecuted!"

But most of all, she really likes the Herald: "We believe the Herald, its editor and staff, have an outstanding history of dealing with community issues and supporting the needs and interests of community residents (thank you)."

Whatever the Super Friends might think, I'm sure we can all agree on this last one.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Opening Up About 57th Street

posted by Richard Gill

Following are reports of both the Wednesday, March 12 meeting, and the March 5 meeting on the opening up of 57th Street to westbound traffic from Stony Island and points east.

Sigmund Freud Experiences Repression Trying to Drive West on 57th From Stony Island

A second working-group meeting meeting was held at 8AM, March 12, at Ray School, regarding the proposed opening of westbound 57th Street at Stony Island. Compared to the March 5 meeting, this one was civilized. There were no outbursts or insults hurled from the audience and most people there seemed favorably inclined toward the traffic change. With one or two exceptions, the people who behaved badly at the March 5 meeting were not present on March 12.

Irene Sherr moderated the meeting. Also in attendance were Susan Campbell, Duel Richardson, and Brian Shaw (Transportation Coordinator) of the U of C; Sue Purrington, of Alderman Hairston's office: and a Herald reporter. There were 12-to-15 other people there, including representatives of 57th St. businesses Powell's Books, Noodles Etc., and Medici.

The CDOT traffic engineers reiterated their findings that were presented at the March 5 meeting. In particular, they said that, from a traffic and safety standpoint, the proposed change is quite workable, and there is no apparent reason why it could not be done. They also mentioned that the total 24-hour traffic volume on 57th St. - about 4,000 vehicles - is low for a street of that nature; more typical would be about 8,000. Even with the change implemented, neither the total volume, nor the peak-hour volume, would warrant traffic signals; stop signs and a flashing caution light would be sufficient. They said that, behaviorally, motorists tend to associate traffic signals with main (higher speed) roads, and stop signs with local (lower speed) streets.

The analysis took into account the Solstice building and a possible hotel.

The engineers repeated that, on a local street like 57th that has heavy pedestrian traffic and a mix of uses, congestion is actually an enhancer of safety. Traffic moves slower, drivers are more alert, and the street activity slows traffic down - things such as cars parking, delivery trucks stopping. Notably, they said that when traffic calming measures are installed, the intent is to mimic the effects of congestion. They said 57th Street already has some congestion; some additional congestion would make the street more pedestrian-friendly.

Additionally, the engineers said that speeding and accidents involving pedestrians are more prevalent on uncongested streets and one-way streets. Their other remarks included:

- Truck traffic is not an issue, because of the low clearance at the railroad bridge.

- 57th Street is slow and is not a route of choice to/from the Dan Ryan

- With the change, there would be less traffic in front of Bret Harte elementary school, and significantly less traffic there at peak times

- First responders, who need to drive fast, already prefer not to use 57th Street, because of the exiting congestion, and would continue to prefer other routes

- With the change, there would be less traffic queuing on southbound Lake Park at 57th Street.

Someone in the audience mentioned a traffic problem at 57th & Ellis and said opening 57th at Stony would make it worse. The problem with that argument is that anyone having to go that far west at 57th is going to find their way there via 55th or some other street.

Again, there was general agreement that the DO NOT ENTER sign at 57th & Stony is a significant hindrance to community access and navigability.

Parking, of course, was brought up, and, while it's acknowledged as an issue, I think most people agreed it's something to be addressed separately, not as part of this proposal. Irene Sherr mentioned that, during evenings and weekends, when museum visitors might drive westbound into 57th Street, commuters are not using street parking, and U of C parking is open to the public.

The three merchants liked the idea of opening the street, although the person from Noddles did complain about parking.

Speeding and disobedience of stop signs was judged to be a citywide issue, not something particular to Hyde Park, and a subject for enforcement by police.

Finally, there was some discussion about making the change on a trial basis. The engineers said that it would be possible. They would allow two-to-three months to let traffic adjust to the change and then evaluate it.

At that point, someone asked what a measure of "success" might be. My suggestion was that, by definition, the change would provide the benefit of more travel flexibility and options; therefore if no new serious issues developed during the trial period, the change should be judged successful.

The meeting ended around 9:30am. We adjourned to coffee and donut holes that had been brought in.

Reprise of the previous, March 5 meeting continues below!

posted by Richard Gill

"Why are you really so scared of opening up?"

I was there. The meeting was moderated by the U of C, which officially has no position on the proposed change.

I guess about 25 to 30 people attended. Based on the sign-in sheet, it appeared about 70-75 percent of the people were from an area bounded by 56th, Harper, Kimbark and 58th Street. Most, but not all of these (surprise!) spoke against opening up westbound 57th at Stony Island. Then there were other people (like me) from elsewhere in the neighborhood, some of whom (like me) think it sounds like a good idea.

CDOT had two traffic engineers there, who made a presentation on expected traffic impacts of the change. They said that based on their findings, the change is quite workable. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the weaker speaker of the two did most of the talking and allowed himself to be constantly interrupted by those who had already made up their minds that the proposal is a bad BAD idea.

According to CDOT, the additional westbound traffic on 57th, west of Lake Park, would be 60 to 90 vehicles in the peak hour. Presently, between 135 and 160 vehicles turn right onto westbound 57th from southbound Lake Park at the peak of each rush hour. Total 24-hour traffic on 57th Street, including both directions, would increase about 500 from about 4000 vehicles at present. CDOT says this is right in the normal range for streets like 57th.

The (unsubstantiated) objections were - congestion, parking, safety, pollution, quality of life, etc. Arguments about the need to make Hyde Park more accessible and navigable fell on deaf ears of the "against" people. It became clear that they don't want Hyde Park to be more accessible and navigable. At least they don't want it to be accessible; maybe once you've found your way in, it's OK to be able to find your way around.

The owner of Powell's Books spoke in favor of the change. He thought it would be good for more people (particularly museum visitors) to be able to easily enter the neighborhood and patronize local businesses. Then there arose a criticism from the gallery that this whole thing is only about helping business (BAD). It seems that some residents don't want to see local business improve, if the additional customers come from Council Bluffs, Bolingbrook, or Winnipeg. Maybe they object to me, coming all the way from East Hyde Park.

A few others, myself included, spoke in favor. My points were (1) that the additional cars on 57th would not be a net increase in the neighborhood and that some streets would have reduced traffic; (2) that, as stated by CDOT, traffic in front of Bret Harte School would be reduced; and (3) that connections between campus buses and Metra would be more convenient and safer because buses would be able to pull up to the north curb at the 57th Street station with the bus doors right at the station entrance.

As the meeting ended, some guy more or less commandeered the floor and got away with taking a straw poll, pro and con. Watch next week's Herald to see if they do anything with it.

Yes, as Elizabeth says, come to the March 12 meeting, listen to the presentation (even if you have to listen over the outbursts), and make yourself heard, whatever your opinion is. It is early enough in the process to make a difference. I think a decision has a way to go yet.

Finally, it was asked when and why the barrier at 57th & Stony was installed. Nobody, including CDOT, knew the when, other than it was presumably some time after the Big Bang. The guesses as to why were all over the place.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Retire and Rotate, part II: there's hope for rotation.

posted by Elizabeth Fama

As you may have noticed, the embankments and viaducts along Lake Park Avenue are being refurbished lately. The embankment walls are new (although I noticed they are only a veneer of stone over [gasp] concrete), and there's going to be fresh landscaping. The viaducts themselves are being shored up, with something called a steel frame "bent" system, and there will be more and better lighting. Progress is sweet.

TIF Council rendering of 55th Street viaduct from Lake Park Ave.

Ah, but what about the art, you ask? Is that being refubished as well? Or are we doomed to viewing outdated, peeling, vandalized murals for all eternity? Good question -- I'm proud of you. And as it turns out, we're taking a baby step towards "retiring and rotating" our public art.

Caryl Yasko's 1972 mural Under City Stone (north wall of 55th Street underpass) is unfortunately slated for restoration, once the Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG) finds a donor. But across the way, on the south wall, Albert Zeno's Alewives and Mercury Fish is blessedly being retired. In its place, and on both walls of the 53rd Street viaduct, there will be 8-foot by 12-foot digitally-printed color art panels by four artists: Terry Evans, John Himmelfarb, Calvin Jones, and Margaret Burroughs. The University of Chicago is paying for the panels. The art was chosen by a team from the CPAG, the Hyde Park Art Center, and the South Side Community Art Center.

Aspiration, by John Himmelfarb.

On the Beach, by Margaret Burroughs.

OK, so these particular pieces wouldn't have been my curatorial choices, you all know that by now. But I'm really happy that we're inching our way towards the "Retire and Rotate" principle in public art, since the panels can eventually be removed and replaced when they get worn, vandalized, or when we're simply tired of them.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

George Rumsey: Closet NIMBY

posted by Peter Rossi

George Rumsey and his Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (known here as HP-KFC) pride themselves on their objectivity and fair-mindedness. They will tell anyone who will listen that they simply want to promote debate about the issues. At least that is the standard party line.

That was all well and good when they could simply roll out of bed and monopolize the pages of the Herald. But now that there are other voices out there, control of the community discussion is slipping out of their grasp.

The future of Harper Court has brought Mr. Rumsey out of the closet. Rumsey has been quoted extensively in the Herald as asserting the rights of the HP-KFC to drive the discussion over future development of HC. There is a clear deep suspicion that Alderman Preckwinkle will snatch the limelight away from the HP-KFC and its "development and preservation" committee.

You are being unfair. Erecting a silly strawman. Read on!

Mr. Rumsey's public self shows up in comments on this blog. We were called in by the Alderman, he says. The "visioning" done by our Valois-based handful of NIMBYs is just a point of departure.

Rumsey goes further to claim -- "the real objective is to make progress on Harper Court redevelopment."

Not so fast, Mr. Rumsey has his own views about development. Below, I reproduce an email from Mr. Rumsey which gives our readers a glimpse into his true NIMBY soul.

Mr. Rumsey thinks there is a movement afoot to promote development at "all costs" and "local business be damned." What he means is that there are folks who really want to see change in Hyde Park and wouldn't mind a Panera, a GAP, or even an Old Navy. These stores are well-run, well-financed and exist to serve the needs of consumers. This does not preclude local businesses and, in fact, might actually help them by bringing in traffic.

Take a walk through Wicker Park some day if you want to see a beautiful mix of local boutiques, national retailers, and (horror of horrors) fast food. Witness the experience of Toys Et Cetera when they moved out of dying HC for the greater foot traffic at Hyde Park Shopping Center.

You mean, you're not in favor of 'supporting local businesses'? Shame on you! Go now, fill-out the survey. The Big Boxes are Coming!

Mr. Rumsey's email:

Subject: Harper Court Survey

Please do the following:
1. Go to this link:
2. Take the survey.
3. Send this link to ANY and EVERY one who might have an opinion about Harper Court.

I was bemused by Bob Borja's "comment" about my statement in last week's Herald. I said that because I think there is a movement afoot in Hyde Park to get development at any cost, and local businesses be damned. I wanted to be controversial and make people wake up.

Secondly, he was absolutely right in that anyone concerned about Harper Court should be attending our meeting. Why hasn't anyone from there be at any of our meetings? Harper Court Arts Council (Lesley Morgan and Mary Anton) have been representing the Arts Council. Who's been representing the businesses? Certainly not the TIF. So get with it, folks. Tell Borja I said so.

Next meeting 2/26 (Tuesday) with the city about the RFP. Then on 3/3 about developemnt. Then 3/10 with the TIF. Be there (or be out in the cold).But first take the survey and tell your friends, colleagues, kids, spouses, and any one else to take it (and don't skip the questions about supporting current businesses or continuing the HC mission, which had to fight like hell to keep the alderman's office from deleting).

George W. Rumsey

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sooner Than You Think!

posted by Elizabeth Fama

I hear through the foodie grapevine that Treasure Island will be opening its new store this Wednesday. That right, this Wednesday, March 12th, 2008. In fact, all of their deli meats and cheeses are arriving Monday.

How many syllables are there in the word "saahwheeet?"

(Now I'm just showing off, with my homemade pizzas, roasted acorn squash, and spinach salad. Yeah.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

On the Pavement: Flow is a Good Thing

posted by Elizabeth Fama

Late Notice: there's a meeting tonight at Ray School at 7 PM to allow neighbors a chance to talk about a darned good proposal to open up 57th Street to a westward flow from Stony Island (along with aesthetic improvements). The meeting promises to be full of cranky neighbors, so, dear Reader, why don't you go and be a voice of reason?

57th and Stony Island. NIMBYs like fortification.

The businesses on 57th Street would benefit a whole lot from making this street two-way, instead of one-way. Heck, the parking lot of the Museum of Science and Industry pours out directly onto this road. Think of all those customers.

Besides, this sort of fortification sends the wrong message. It says, "We want to make it as difficult as possible to get into our neighborhood, because we like living on a deserted island." It says, "NIMBY."

(There's another meeting on March 12, at 8 AM, at Ray School. The material will be the same, namely CDOT information on traffic counts, and a presentation of the proposal, with a chance for discussion. These meetings are the beginning of the process to consider this change.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Is Alderman Hairston A Parking Junkie?

posted by chicago pop

Alderman Hairston Does the NIMBY Hustle
(Illustration by Tom Tian of the Chicago Maroon)

If you read the Maroon or the Editors Blog, this is old news. Thanks to Alec Brandon for tipping us off this past Sunday, and to the Maroon, from which the most very comical illustration by Tom Tian above was taken.

The scoop? Hairston's office wants to, and sounds like it will, remove the northbound 171 bus stop at University and 57th Street, to add room for (free) street parking.

Here's Brandon's take, which is pithy enough to be quoted here:

This is just insane. The utility people get from four parking spots can't outweigh the inconvenience to hundreds of students. I have no idea why Hairston is trying to do this, but it just seems insane.

I agree. It is insane. This is like selling your pancreas for another hit of whatever. It makes absolutely no sense. 550 people use that bus stop every day. You trade that for 4 cars, which could sit there for days. It's a quick fix -- not even a fix, really -- for a much more complicated problem.

Hairston's office is keeping quiet on just what set this decision in motion. So what comes of it? A decision to reroute a bus from a strategic stop at the heart of campus, causing all sorts of complications -- like getting north- and southbound CTA buses to pass each other on Ellis -- in order to add 4 more spots to the curbside inventory.

Four more spots.

Here's what Hairston had to say, quoted from the Maroon:

“As you are well aware, [there is a] lack of parking in Hyde Park and a balance must be kept between bus service and parking for residents,” Hairston said on Friday in an e-mail to Ronald Weslow, a member of the CTA’s traffic and engineering crew.
According to Director of Campus Transportation and Parking Services Brian Shaw, over 550 people use the endangered stop on an average day, making it the second-busiest bus stop on campus.

Note that there are no metered parking spaces there. Nor is this a primarily residential block. Conceivably, I could park my uncle's VW bus there while he spends a week or two in Thailand and no one would notice. If you did the same thing for your uncle, that's 2 spots out of circulation for a few weeks. Perhaps the logic here is that, by adding these 4 new spots on University, it will become easier to park over on Dorchester. Hmm.

Even if these spots turned over much more regularly, adding inventory at the expense of a well-routed and heavily used bus route is just backward.

The northbound 171 makes 2 key stops: the first, right across the corner from the Reynolds Club, at University and 57th; the second, right across from Pierce at University and 55th. I see mobs of students at both stops day and night.

We've heard from a lot of students about how difficult it is to get out of Hyde Park using public transportation; the last thing anyone needs is for it to be more difficult to get around within Hyde Park.

And it doesn't solve the problem! Adding parking is like adding lanes to a freeway -- no sooner do you build them, but they are congested again!

This isn't the first time, apparently, that parking spots for a few vehicles have been given preference over room for public transportation. Hairston has blocked other, proposed bus stops nearby.

[Director of Campus Transportation and Parking Services Brian] Shaw ... has been trying to get a bus stop for the #174 El shuttle between Cottage Grove and Ellis Avenues since the route was introduced a year-and-a-half ago, but the alderman’s concerns about parking halted his efforts.
Here, too, we're talking a handful of spots for a bus stop that could improve mobility for all sorts of people coming and going to the science and hospital complexes.

There's a lot Hairston could be doing to reduce congestion and free up parking in Hyde Park. Like putting meters on the Midway. But that would be a bold initiative, rather than stealing from Peter to pay Paul.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Universities as Urban Redevelopers

posted by chicago pop

University of Pennsylvania's 2.8 million square foot, $800 million Cira Center redevelopment project broke ground in late 2007

An article in last week's Wall Street Journal (EEEEK!!! CAPITALISM!!! SOMEBODY KILL IT!) raised an issue that might seem like old news to residents of neighborhoods surrounding the University of Chicago: Universities have an enormous stake in the economic and social vitality of their environs (WSJ, Nick Timiraos, February 27, 2008).

Universities, increasingly, are extending their reach to off-campus development in an effort to give their surrounding areas and town centers a vibrant and modern feel. In the process, they are becoming major drivers of economic development after concluding that their fortunes are directly tied to those of their cities.

That's been known for decades around here, and not always in a positive way. But what is striking about the new wave of university-driven urban redevelopment is the scale of the efforts on the part of such institutions as Case Western Reserve, Columbia, University of Maryland at College Park, and, most spectacularly, Penn. Also notable is the more recent ability of these institutions to partner with private sector actors to finance their projects.

UM College Park is plunking down $700 million to build an entertainment center (including a hotel!) Case Western Reserve is "developing an arts and retail district in a neighborhood on its campus border", while Penn, which for decades has struggled to hold fast against the forces of urban decline, is orchestrating a $2 billion partnership for "office towers, apartments, a hotel and restaurants" on a 42-acre site adjoining its patch of West Philadelphia already more vibrant than it was a mere 10 years ago.

Penn, together with its development partner Brandywine, "hopes to put a 40- to 50-story office tower and a 25- to 30-story residential tower on the site to complement its Cira Centre development, attached to 30th Street Station."

Safety in depressed urban areas is cited as one reason for many of these initiatives, but the prime mover is the close interrelationship between a flowering University culture and a vibrant city environment. And the impact of this relationship on faculty and staff retention.

[I]nstitutions are recognizing that, along with lucrative financial packages and strong academic reputations, they need to have attractive and exciting college towns to lure top faculty and students.

Although the recent credit crunch will most likely slow down all of these plans, at least in the near term, the era of Universities financing redevelopment out of their own pockets seems to have passed -- at least in the cases cited.

Developers are eager to join ventures with colleges, which they see as providing a steady stream of business. "Universities are fairly reliable partners," says Sal D. Rinella, president-elect of the Society for College and University Planning, who argues that universities are recession-resistant: "As the overall economy gets worse, higher education enrollments tend to go up."

Anything on a similar scale around here would most certainly spark cries of an "urban renewal redux". But would this reaction be justified? Urban Renewal was a federally-funded program; most of these ventures set up some kind of partnership with the private sector, assisted by local municipalities with tax abatements and other incentives, with the overall aim of attracting jobs rather than blocking decay, and of boosting density rather than reducing it.

Projects such as Penn's seem to be geared to bringing in a more diverse job-base, which is something that requires more than building new dormitories. If there's one thing that would help the near south side of Chicago, it would be the addition of several major employers. But more students can't hurt either.

We'll see how the University of Chicago's own South Campus Plan shapes up in comparison to the cases mentioned above. Could Chicago pull off a Cira Center project? Would anyone let it? Does Penn have anything like the "61st Street Pact" made ages ago with Woodlawn neighborhood organizations, by which it penned itself in? And does Chicago have the experience operating as a partner in such large scale projects?

The experience of Drs Hospital -- ill-conceived, ill-received, and ill-pitched -- does not bode well in that regard. But it may be a sign of the future nonetheless.

Time will tell. There is so much university-driven city development going on in America's older cities now that, at the very least, some know-how from these projects may eventually cycle back to the Midway.