Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chicago Unshoveled: Another Entry

posted by Elizabeth Fama

I nominate the Park District for a Shoveling Razzie, for this eternally neglected stretch next to Bixler Playlot (which they apparently don't think is their responsibility, perhaps because it also abuts Ray School property):

East side of Kenwood Avenue between 56th and 57th (looking south).

I should have taken a photo of it when it was knee-deep in snow. Now it's just a course of packed moguls.

Not to be outdone, Ray School has neglected their highly-trafficked diagonal path this year (running from the southwest corner of 56th and Kenwood to 57th Street):

Ankle-breaking Ray School path (looking south).

And here is the Ray-School side of Kenwood Avenue between 56th and 57th. You can't even see that there's a sidewalk there:

West side of Kenwood Ave. (looking north) between 56th and 57th.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Chicago Unshoveled: A Photo Contest

posted by chicago pop

Hip-Breaking Stretch of Unshoveled Sidwalk, 56th Street

Location: North side of 56th Street, between Woodlawn and Harper Avenue
Time: Wednesday, January 28, 2009, 5:15 PM
Submitted by: HPP reader mchinand, who notes, "There was one townhouse between East Park Place and Harper that shoveled the portion of the sidewalk in front of their place but the rest was the single file, foot trampled path seen in the photo."

Submit your entry for most egregious unshoveled sidewalk in HP-K!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


posted by Elizabeth Fama

Yes, Virginia, there is a comic store in Hyde Park.

This is an extremely important measure of urban progress that many of you may not be aware of.

First Aid Comics is at 53rd and Harper, hidden away on the 2nd floor (nested between Mane Objectives Salon and Hair Dare You), with only a Superman poster high in the front window to capture walk-by traffic. It opened on November 28th.

Despite its small-ish space, First Aid is crammed with comics of many types: superheroes, anime, video game characters, and Star Wars and Star Trek. My son -- a devoted Hellboy and Watchmen fan -- was happy to find comics he wanted in this genre. There are also a few graphic novels, and novelty items like drinking glasses, buttons, and action figures.

The owner, James Nurss, is a former manager at Graham Cracker Comics. When I asked him by e-mail what motivated him to open the store, he replied, "Since 1980 I have wondered where the comic shop is in Hyde Park. I love the record and used book shops -- particularly Dr. Wax's, and the maze of rooms at Powell's. A comic shop seemed long overdue, and probably a nice fit for the neighborhood." He has hopes of building enough business to move to a storefront someday.

When you see Nurss in action, he's obviously devoted to the shop. He's friendly and service-oriented. He's eager to order anything you might want that you don't already see.

Check it out.

First Aid Comics
1459 East 53rd Street (west of Harper)
2nd floor (ring buzzer)

Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday: 11 AM - 7 PM
Wednesday: 11 AM - 8 PM
Sunday: 12 - 5 PM
Closed Monday

Eric's loot. (But the Susan Storm and Batman buttons are mine.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Meathead City: Winter Parking "Place-savers" and Other Primitive Behavior

posted by chicago pop

Hyde Park Cowboy Attempts To Own the Street
5300 Block South Kimbark

People who fantasize about Chicago as a Presidential City worthy of global spotlight might interpret the tons of furniture moved to city curbs after every snowfall as a sign of collective generosity, of gifts made by regular, everyday people for the benefit of the less fortunate, the furniture-deprived, or to anyone with a pickup who can collect all the junk left on the asphalt altar as a sacrifice to the snow god.

If you need cheap lawn furniture for next summer, or maybe a few sawhorses for your basement shop, or maybe some milk crates for your kid's college dorm, or a usable ironing board, or a step ladder for the attic, or you just want to make a donation to the Salvation Army or to the guys that drive the scrap metal trucks down the alleys of Chicago, you can always find what you need by cruising many of Chicago's neighborhoods.

Free Furniture in Dick Mell's 33rd Ward!
Take My Furniture! It's Free!

[Source: Chicago Tribune]

After hanging out in Chicago for awhile, however, visitors might be disappointed to learn that all that furniture on the street is not meant for the needy.

Instead, using junk to claim a shoveled parking spot fits right into an ethically dubious tradition of getting what you can for yourself from the public domain, with a Sopranos-style edge,

Not that different from passing a kitty around the office at Christmas to make sure the boss can buy something nice for his wife, bribing the Alderman, or making sure your unqualified kid gets a padded job with the City.

The Parking Ticket Geek says it better than I can:

Street parking is first come, first serve. No matter the season, no matter the conditions, no matter if you happen to have your junk out on the street. No exceptions.

It's like standing in line, or waiting your turn. It's something you should have learned in kindergarten. It's a societal tradition that is so deep, so ingrained, it trumps this so-called Chicago tradition of using trash to save your parking spot.

I'm happy to say that Hyde Park, the Presidential Neighborhood in the Presidential City, is mostly free of this cranky vigilante behavior. In contrast, apparently, to Richard Mell's 33rd Ward, the neighborhood that gave us conjugal @#$%& pottymouths Rod and Patti Blagojevich.

[See transcript of Federal wiretap for deleted obsenity].

Even so, I've found a few cases of people trying to import the primitive "dibs" custom to Hyde Park. Just two instances so far, but they are so conspicuous in their meat-headedness that they are worth highlighting.

Take the note found on this lawnchair left at the curb near the southeast corner of Kimbark and 54th, in front of a student rental building:

"Move This Chair at Your Own Risk :)"

Dubious Claims and Vague Threats on Kimbark

Because the anonymous owner of the above lawn chair is in violation of City Code 10-08-480 (hat tip again to Parking Ticket Geek at the Expired Meter), he or she will have to do better than make wooly and unattributed references to John Locke's Two Treatises on Government and the philosopher's idea of usufruct to dissuade me from appropriating his or her lawnchair for donation to the back alley scap recyclers.

Locke's theory worked nicely to disposses Native Americans of any rights to North American land, but unfortunately it does not supercede Chicago City Code.

Anyone want to get that chair before I do?

Finally, here's a case of someone with the trappings of a conscience, as befits the landed gentry of Hyde Park: the ladder leaning against the inside of this homeowner's fence is occasionally left standing on the street, but then stored out of reach when the parking situation eases up.

Much more discreet. After all, this stately home is just a few blocks from President Obama's Kenwood mansion.

One wouldn't want to be too much of a meathead in a place where the world might be watching, would one?

[This post also appears on Huffington Post Chicago]

Friday, January 23, 2009

Z&H on Hungry Hound

posted by chicago pop

In case you need something to stimulate your appetite, you might want to check out the January 16 edition of Channel 7/ABC's Hungry Hound featuring our own Zaleski & Horvath MarketCafe.

Of course, it's a big hit with Steve Dolinsky, who describes the shop itself as having a "low-key, intellectual vibe" typical of Hyde Parkers. Well said.

Check it out.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Developing the 53rd St. TIF: It's Hard and We're Not Quite Sure How to Do It

Results of the Third and Final 53rd St. Visioning Workshop

posted by chicago pop

Rendering of a break-even development concept at McMobil Site,
53rd and Kenwood

Over the last year or so, a variety of municipal agencies, community groups, and the office of 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle have sponsored a series of three neighborhood workshops dealing with development within the 53rd Street TIF district.

The first two were designed to educate neighborhood attendees about the basic concepts and parameters affecting real estate development in the corridor, and to help illustrate positive correlations between such factors as density of households and the viability of urban retail districts.

Overall, the workshops were well received, drew input from a wider demographic spectrum of Hyde Parkers than the typical and impressionistic "community meeting", and demonstrated a broad consensus on the demand for improvements in the neighborhood's retail offerings liveliness.

The workshops also gave grounds for a cautious optimism regarding public acceptance of the need for higher residential density as a prerequisite for the commercial revitalization of Hyde Park.

People aren't necessarily opposed to getting dense, if it's done right and the economic necessity of doing so is made clear by running the numbers on possible projects. This is exactly what the third and final visioning workshop set out to do: illustrate the limits within which any urban development project is economically feasible by highlighting the economies of scale that come with density.

Reviewing the various development concepts from the November 15th workshop, it's clear that the facilitators tapped a rich well of creativity in the participants. Most of the concept proposals -- for the McMobil lot, the Dorchester Commons strip mall, and Harper Court -- are interesting, and some are attractive.

Aerial Map of Possible Development Sites Within Hyde Park's 53rd Street TIF District

Unfortunately, none of them is economically feasible. It seems that while Hyde Parkers may be growing accustomed to the idea of density, none of the workshop proposals was dense enough to offer the kind of return that would attract a real-world developer.

Even with up to $6.2 million in subsidies from the 53rd Street TIF fund.

Workshop participants used blocks and a map to mock up a development proposal which they then gave to some real estate people who crunched the numbers then and there.

The chart below lists the development concepts that were graded as feasible, i.e., not money-losing. Of the 8 concepts that made this cut, only 4 of them would have generated any profit for a developer, and none of those came close to the threshold of 15% return on investment that was used as the no-go line beneath which few developers would risk their money.

Economic Profiles of Workshop Site Proposals

Model and Rendering of Site Concept for Harper Court

Three factors seem to pose the biggest hurdles to these projects: 1) 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle's firm and praiseworthy commitment to a minimum of 15% affordable housing in any residential project; 2) an opaque and mysterious local market in real estate that may inflate the cost of land acquisition; and 3) a public hesitation to go even denser.

The affordable housing requirement for TIF districts is a Chicago ordinance, and Alderman Preckwinkle is firmly committed to it. It's laudable, but in order to make it attractive for the kinds of projects Hyde Park needs, we need bigger subsidies from somewhere, or a tolerance for still greater density to offset revenue from the sale of below-market rate units.

The market value of land in Hyde Park is a vaguely mysterious subject, as there is so little of it, traded so infrequently, with so much owned by the University of Chicago, that it is hard to know if the going rate is really $75/sq. ft as the workshop proforma assumed.

A perusal of values for a standard-size, 3,100 sq. ft. vacant lot in the areas immediately west and south of Hyde Park puts them around or below $35/ft.sq. The few lots in Oakland/North Kenwood are in the $55-60/sq.ft. range.

Dorchester Commons Concept

But in order to find comparable $75/sq. ft. prices, I had to venture north to Bucktown and Edgewater, where this number represents the lower end of the range. Is this really what the McMobile lot or Dorchester Commons are worth?

One relationship that's not too clear from the document is the relationship between retail and residential space in any of the projects, and how tipping this balance either way works for or against it. For example, the most ambitious concept for Harper Court (pictured above) actually has more retail than housing units (115 to 114); this concept also resulted in the highest (7.8%) rate of return.

Likewise, two of three concepts for the McMobile site had roughly equal retail to housing numbers, and neither of them did more than break even. The question I have for our real estate folks is why McMobile #1, with 44 residential units and 10 retail, did no better or worse than McMobile #3, with 16 residential units and 17 retail.

What are we to take away from these numbers? Do we need more retail at these sites, or more density? If a 1:1 ratio works OK at Harper Court, why not at McMobile, and which way should it go at that site, or at Dorchester Commons?

And how in the world could Hyde Park support 115 new shops as proposed in Harper Court #2?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it's clear that the 53rd St. Visioning Workshops have elevated the discussion of development in the TIF District, and in Hyde Park overall.

No longer will it suffice for a few people to sign a petition and make vague protestations about what they consider acceptable or not at this or that place, based on this or that arbitrary standard.

Now we have a much better set of tools for figuring out what will realistically work at some of these sites, as challenging as it may be. We just need to figure out how make that happen.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hyde Park in the Year 1 AC (After Co-Op)

posted by Richard Gill

Hyde Park Co-Op ca. 2007

It’s been a whole year since the Hyde Park Co-op finally did the neighborhood a good turn by going out of business. That finale occurred amidst Co-op adherents’ cries that its closure would destroy “the character” and the “uniqueness” of the neighborhood. You’d have thought the Co-op, moribund and dysfunctional as it was, constituted some sort of essence without which Hyde Park would wither and die. Well, the Co-op closed its doors January 20, 2008, making way for Treasure Island. And look—Hyde Park is alive and well in 2009.

The “character” of the neighborhood is none the worse without the Co-op. Unfortunately, the characters of the neighborhood are still working hard to prevent other changes that would break with their misty-eyed regard for the “good old days”, whatever that represented. Other characters merely want to retain specific privileges for themselves at the expense of everyone else.

The Good Old Days

The Co-op was simply doomed by money problems and a dose of hubris. The controversy that raged around the Co-op in its final days had little impact on the store’s actual closing. Nonetheless, that noisy and angry finale did serve as a rude awakening for what this blog has termed the Hyde Park Establishment. There is change afoot in Hyde Park. More and more people recognize the folly of a community mired in the past, and they’re not going to allow the Hyde Park Establishment—a dwindling lot—to control life in the neighborhood.

Hyde Park has seen a number of favorable additions and deletions in the past year. Co-op closure/Treasure Island opening. Zaleski and Horvath MarketCafe. The removal of Orisha Wall. Park 52. The Sit Down. Bike shop, Homemade Pizza and a new US Post Office making for a fully-occupied Hyde Park Shopping Center. Expanded Hyde Park Produce. Open Produce. U of C library expansion under construction. Istria CafĂ© more popular than ever. Chant. Parker’s Pets.

Admittedly, the Hyde Park Establishment did, for the moment at least, stop development of a much-needed hotel at Doctors Hospital. But look what they had to go through to win that self-serving, extremely narrow victory.

On the other hand, the Solstice development was approved and, the economy notwithstanding, it will be built. Density along 53rd Street will increase, to everyone’s benefit, whether or not the Hyde Park Establishment wants it. The Point will be rebuilt largely along the guidelines of the Compromise Plan. The dark hulk of St. Stephen’s church will not remain, even if the neighbors like it because it gives them a semi-private block. 57th Street will open to two-way traffic at Stony Island, even though some neighbors don’t want to lose their semi-private public street.

When these changes ultimately do occur, the Hyde Park Establishment and the NIMBYs among them probably won’t admit that the “character” of the neighborhood will not have been degraded. Whether they like it or not, that character—cultural, intellectual, social—is largely a function of the presence of The University of Chicago. The University is imperfect and has stumbled at times with regard to neighborhood relations and development. But the University, warts and all, is at the core of what is Hyde Park. And the University isn’t going away.

Here’s a closing note to the Hyde Park Establishment and its NIMBY subset: Nobody elected you the guardians of Hyde Park’s inner juices. What’s worthwhile saving will be saved, but the neighborhood will progress around you, for the better.

In the words of the Borg Collective: resistance is futile.

Friday, January 9, 2009

53rd Street Workshop: Final Meeting: January 12, 2009

(Click on image to enlarge)

7:00 PM
Kenwood Academy
January 12, 2009

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Open Produce

posted by Elizabeth Fama

If you visit a big city in Europe, you notice two things right away: you walk to most of your destinations, and there are storefront shops everywhere. For instance, within a stone's throw from an apartment my family and I rented in Rome, we were able to shop at a cheese and milk shop, two bakeries, a butcher, and a produce store. (A longer walk away, there was a supermarket smaller than Village Foods.) In short, no matter what Treasure Island says about being "America's most European Supermarket" (a slogan I dislike, primarily because a good store doesn't need a slogan...remember when the Co-Op was "Dedicated to Outrageous Service"?), the real European model is urban density coupled with a myriad of small shops.

Open Produce, 1635 East 55th Street, seems to follow that European model. It only lacks the company of the butcher (which, coincidentally, used to be across the street in the Manus Dental location more than a decade ago), the baker, and the cheese shop. And of course, as we all know, Hyde Park has spotty urban density.

There's a good variety of items in the store, with most of the standard fruits and vegetables you'd want (I missed seeing a few green veggies that are staples for my family: broccoli, snap peas, and green beans), and most are in respectable shape. There's an interesting selection of South Asian and East Asian dry goods, some canned goods, spices, and a refrigerator and freezer case with milk, juices, yogurts, and pre-prepared vegan and vegetarian foods. If you're like me and you eat tons of produce -- and frequently run out of tons of produce -- and if you live nearby, you could easily pop in on the way home from work or school.

I chatted with the owners, the animated Andrew Cone and the quieter Steven Lucy, about their goals: to stock hard-to-find vegan and vegetarian products (Andrew touts it as the only place in Hyde Park that sells Tofurkey); to stock humanely-treated animal products; to buy locally whenever it makes sense; but perhaps most unusual of all, to make the store's financial data and practices "open" for anyone to see -- their bank statements and other records are posted on a wall. If you follow their blog, you'll find frank discussions of money there. For instance, for October and November, they do a back-of-the-envelope calculation that shows their monthly "surplus" (not strictly the correct term in an accounting sense, but that's OK) was only $900 per month. Given spoilage and unexpected expenses (the latest are truck repairs), no one is taking home a salary yet. Still, Andrew says optimistically that the store is "20% of awesome." I'm still not sure what that means, but it's charming.

Finally, the hours of operation are purposely tailored to students: it's open from 11 AM to 11 PM every day, which might make it the most happenin' place this side of Dunkin' Donuts.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Parking Meter Deal: Right Idea, Wrong Reasons

posted by chicago pop

Parking is the gender-bender of urban policy issues. It has the capacity to make free-market Republicans slam their fist on the table in defense of subsidized parking anywhere and anytime, while making social democratic types of a green coloration passionate at the prospect of allowing market-clearing prices for curb parking.

But, like Chicago's notorious Blue Bag recylcing program, the higher rates for curb parking that will accompany the privatization of the city's 36,000 street meters give only the appearance of taking the lead of the civilized world, while in fact doing nothing of the sort, and disappointing both of the above constituencies in the process.

To take a few examples: London has implemented congestion pricing of roadways by zone; Paris has reduced the total number of parking spaces in the city, and has actually increased sidewalk space and built separated bike lanes by removing lanes from major boulevards.

New York City recently debated congestion pricing on the London model. The RAND Corporation has determined that the only realistic policies for congestion reduction in Los Angeles are road pricing and higher parking fees. San Francisco is pioneering a high-tech pilot program that will let parking meters charge a true market rate, based on hourly variations in demand (from $0.25 to $6) at individual meters in a given neighborhood.

If a parking system actually did that -- let the true market cost of public curbside parking vary with demand -- then, as parking researcher and guru Donald Shoup argues, you would considerably reduce congestion, as well as the frustration of circling for a parking spot at ungodly hours in ungodly conditions. You could then channel the revenue, through neighborhood parking benefit districts, to projects in the district area, or to related public goods such as a modernized transportation system in Chicago.

The latter prospect, however, is entirely lost in the Morgan Stanley privatization deal. What could be a long-term revenue generator for a city in budgetary crisis and with an enormous backlog of deferred public transportation maintenance has been traded for a one-time fix in operating revenue.

And it leaves one of the most powerful of transportation planning tools -- parking policy -- in the hands of a privately held company that specializes in parking garages. Is anyone at LAZ Parking, in which Morgan Stanley has an equity stake, thinking about Shoup's parking benefit districts? Will they be monitoring San Francisco's experiment with a spot market in street parking?

It's not clear, but there could be some positives. The fact that Chicago's meters will be owned in part by Morgan Stanley, the former investment bank that has since become a "financial services company", leads one to speculate that LAZ Parking may, at some point in the future, be taken public.

There would be every reason, prior to any IPO, for fully modernizing Chicago's street metering. This could go far beyond the contracted promise of non-cash metering by 2011, to include the San Francisco model of a block-by-block spot market in parking.

For Chicago, the benefits would be real but unintended, and the cash benefits more diffuse. Congestion currently costs Chicago commuters approximately $3,000/year, so any congestion reduction resulting from the reform would have the effect of a tax repeal. But the direct revenue benefits from the higher rates themselves would be foregone.

In the City's press release, not a single word mentions transportation, public transit, or any of the innovations in parking charges that are being tested in other areas to deal with these problems.

With long-term higher gas prices likely, and flat property values in suburban regions, people will still need to come and to stay in Chicago. Devising a system of metered parking that adequately prices that demand would be a great boon to the city, in terms of revenue; in terms of freeing up the supply of parking; and in terms of mitigating congestion and the CO2 emissions given off by cars circling for a parking spot.

If the new deal for parking should make anything clear, it is that street parking is not free. It has been massively subsidized for over half a century (Shoup estimates that in 2002 "the subsidy for off-street parking alone was between $127 billion and $374 billion") such that several generations of Americans have grown to maturity believing that street parking is like air or water -- free and plentiful. But, as our economist friends will tell you, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

And in an age of climate change, unstable oil prices and the foreign wars they generate, the unintended consequences of cheap parking are becoming less and less palatable.

There is thus some solace to be taken in the fact that, despite the bad deal that Chicago signed with Morgan Stanley, cheap parking is obviously going the way of cheap oil and cheap credit -- and largely for the better.

But as always, the devil is in the details. Raising parking meter rates is much easier than raising property taxes. If the City had the will to do this itself, instead of outsourcing the dirty work to a "bank holding company", it might have kept the revenues and used them to make Chicago the sort of world city worthy of hosting the Olympic Games.

[This post also appears on Huffington Post Chicago]