Thursday, February 26, 2009

Circling the Drain: Bally's Total Bankruptcy on 47th Street

posted by chicago pop

A reader sends us the note below, alerting us to a Hyde Park Co-Op-style consumer revolt, this one taking shape against the ailing Bally's Total Fitness on 47th Street.

In bankruptcy for the second time in two years, Bally's facility and service have apparently both deteriorated, and, as happened with the Co-Op, customers are hemorrhaging to the South Loop. The difference is, in this case, it's not clear if there's a White Knight to keep the show going, as the U of C was able to at the 55th Street mall.

Those remaining and disgruntled members have managed to get Alderman Preckwinkle's involved, and a meeting is scheduled for tomorrow night. I'm not sure what Preckwinkle or anyone else can do if Bally's is really about to go under -- it seems like a stretch for the Alderman to reverse Bally's corporate fortunes, or improve the towel service, but there's no point in not trying.

What I can say is that if both the 47th Street clinic and the Bally's close, right across the street from the ever-vacant Co-Op branch, there will be an even larger, more desolate hole on one of Hyde Park-Kenwood's gateway thoroughfares.

Our reader informs us:

Feathers are beginning to ruffle at the Bally Total Fitness on E. 47th St. Unsatisfied members are joining forces to put pressure on Ald. Preckwinkle and Bally management to make drastic improvements to the club and/or bring a new health club to the community. Complaints include: deterioration of cleaning and maintenace service, elimination of towel service, poor management and customer service, unsanitary conditions, and rising memebership costs. Since the LA Fitness and XSport facilities have opened in the South Loop, there has been a mass exodus of Bally members to these cleaner/nicer/cheaper/no-contract-required clubs. Just like the grocery store issue, local residents are once again heading to Roosevelt Road or other communities to spend money and seek goods/services. In December, 2008 Bally's filed for bankruptcy for the second time in two years. They've been "circling the drain" for a while now; the chances for improvement are slim to none.

Ald. Preckwinkle will be meeting with community members and Bally's management on February 27. Residents and Bally members are encouraged to send an email to Preckwinkle ( with their specific concerns and requests around this issue. For more information, contact Ellen Kennedy at

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Report from Del Prado Zoning Meeting

posted by Richard Gill

Return to Glory for
"The Finest Residential and Transient Hotel in the Middle West"?

There was a public meeting Monday evening (Feb. 23) to seek comments on MAC's request to change the zoning of the Del Prado, which MAC is rehabbing. The requested change is from B1-5 to B3-5 (the same change that was sought and approved for MAC's building on 55th Street, west of Cornell).

The change would allow restaurants in the building to serve liquor and to have a bar area, provided a restaurant applies for, and obtains, a liquor license.

The new zoning would not permit liquor stores or taverns unless special zoning revisions were to be approved through public process, aldermanic review and city council approval. It was agreed that such changes, while possible, are extremely unlikely to be approved. Ald. Hairston noted further that liquor licenses can be, and have been, revoked.

Some attendees expressed reservations about the change, but in general, the B3-5 rezoning was greeted favorably. My statement was that I believe the potential benefits greatly outweigh the risks.

Alderman Hairston and Peter Cassel of MAC hosted the meeting. Peter stated that the Del Prado is a landmarked building with grand ballrooms and public spaces inside, and that these will not be adequately utilized nor will they attract operators unless liquor can be served. He said MAC's hope is to have the Del Prado work in connection with other nearby buildings, to present an attractive 53rd Street gateway to Hyde Park, for people coming off Lake Shore Drive at the 53rd Street exit. He said this requires that the buildings be commercially attractive and viable.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Shuttered Bank Branch on 53rd Street A Window to Credit Crisis

posted by chicago pop

A Bad Bet: WaMu Location in Hyde Park

The story of the shuttered Washington Mutual branch at 1364 E. 53rd Street is not unique. It was repeated all over the city of Chicago and nationwide during the five year boom in bank-branch expansion. The boom saw corner cafes, fashion boutiques, dry cleaners, and other neighborhood retailers displaced by bank branches willing to pay top dollar for central urban locations, driving up lease prices and driving non-bank competitors out.

Filter Cafe at Damen and Milwaukee; the ladies' boutique at St. James and Clark; readers can undoubtedly supply many other examples of unusual local businesses replaced by sleepy offices with a few tellers and an ATM over the last half decade.

As of 2009, many of the local retailers that preceded the branches are long gone. The news is that now, many of WaMu's bank branches are going, too. Fifty-seven of them by March 2009. For the retail fabric of Chicago's neighborhoods, the outcome is a net loss. On some Chicago blocks, there is now less retail occupancy in 2009 than there was 5 years ago.

The Washington Mutual property on Hyde Park's beleaguered 53rd Street commercial district is a paradigmatic case.

In 2004, as the credit boom was nearing its peak, a handsome though dilapidated brick building at 1364 E. 53rd Street was home to a number of rental units, and a ground floor fully occupied by five independent retailers.

In 2005, 1364 E. 53rd Street was purchased by a new owner, MAC Properties, and the leases on the ground floor retailers were not renewed. The retailers left, and in 2006 were replaced by a Washington Mutual Bank branch.

Now it's gone, too.

So turns the wheel of fortune. Is 1364 E. 53rd better now than it was before? Before: 5 independent, minority-owned businesses in a solid but run-down building, some of them delinquent in rent payments. After: a building preserved from the wrecking ball, refurbished, and returned to the market as rental units by its new owner, a building that now presents a quarter-block, 5,000 square foot stretch of empty storefront where the bankrupt WaMu branch used to be.

1364 E. 53rd Street, Hyde Park

WaMu's branch expansion began in 2002 and was part and parcel of the high-risk, rapid-growth strategy that led the venerable thrift bank into the choppy waters of subprime mortgages, subprime credit cards, and other risky forms of lending. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported of WaMu Senior VP and Group Manager Tony Manisco in April of 2004, the bank executive was "focused less on deposits and more on customer service and profitability from checking accounts and mortgage loans."

Using a concept devised in Las Vegas in 2000, one of the housing bubble's epicenters, WaMu set out to be the Starbucks of retail banking, an off-site living room where you could bring the kids and sign on to a low-rate home equity line of credit at the same time. As Manisco put it in 2004, "They use the mortgage, home equity products as the initial point of contact ... with attractive rates, and then they try to add other products."

By 2005, WaMu's attempt to break into the Chicago market was being called out by analysts as a bust. By late that year, WaMu had built 147 Chicago branches from scratch, at costs of between $750,000 to $2 million apiece, but had carved off only 0.3% of deposits in the Chicago metro area.

Hyde Park's MAC Properties, in what was probably a riskier move than they appreciated, signed a lease with WaMu at about the same time that analysts began pointing out how WaMu's expansion had come up short.

In 2006 WaMu began closing branches. In 2008, Chicago home foreclosures on WaMu-originated mortgages were outnumbering those of almost all other lenders, with 51 in February 2008, 64 in April, and 43 in September, according to foreclosure reports from the real estate website

The ironies of history. Now we have a landlord at 1364 E. 53rd who had a bank tenant paying $32/square foot and now has nothing; had he kept the paying tenants cut loose in 2005, he would be in a better position. Instead, he signed with a financial institution that has gone down as the biggest bankruptcy in US history, which has caused the credit markets to freeze up, and a recession to accelerate, all of which make it highly unlikely that he will find a new tenant for the space vacated by the bank that drove the businesses out to begin with.

The viral spread of bank branches may be over for now, and it's a good thing. Chicago suburbs recognized earlier than most the dangers posed by their irrational multiplication to healthy commercial districts. They began to zone against it when they realized that no one would want to visit a downtown full of bank branches, a district that closed at 5PM and had displaced the very businesses that would take all the money withdrawn from all the conveniently located ATMs.

[This post also appears on Huffington Post Chicago]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Plugs for Other Neighborhood Blogs, Websites: For Your Browsing Pleasure

posted by chicago pop

This is a cat. It's name is Libby. Libby was recently placed in a new home by a start-up Hyde Park cat adoption organization. They work to take feral cats off the street, domesticate them, and find them loving homes. They have a blog that tells you all about it at Hyde Park Cats. Gehen Sie dort.

Here's what they say about themselves:

Stray, feral, and lost cats and kittens in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago
are our focus. We maintain a cat colony, rehome and foster needy cats, and try
to help with lost-and-found issues. We really want to help educate the
community this spring and summer (aka kitten season) about the issues,
including spay-neuter and TNR (trap-neuter-release).

We hope to be a resource to the community. The volunteer group involved is
about 20 -- college and grad students, parents of toddlers, "civilians".

They asked me if I would get the word out about their work, and how could I say no? We've been a little dog-centric here at HPP, so this should right the balance.

In other news, a Hyde Park dude has come up with an interesting, interactive Hyde Park map that he'd like you to check out. You can use it to find a place to get coffee, beer, take a nap, find a mailbox, or avoid getting robbed. Give him some feedback. The web truly is an amazing thing.

Here's what this reader says about his project:

It's a small collection of maps of particular interest to UofC
students like myself, but also useful to Hyde Park residents. It includes:

* Crime Map - where burglaries, robberies, and car thefts occur in Hyde Park
* Bus Map - where the UofC campus buses run (hope to add others later)
* Necessities Map - where to buy coffee, beer, sandwiches, etc. at any
time of day
* Mail Box Map - where to send something by USPS, UPS, or Fedex

I hope you enjoy them, and I'd welcome any help to make these maps more comprehensive.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The University of Chicago's Health Care Desertification Project

posted by chicago pop

47th Street Clinic to Close by Early Spring 2009 -- University Shafts Neighborhood Middle Class

Since we posted on the prospect of Hyde Park's Impending Health Care Desert in June 2008, the situation has evolved considerably. It is now safe to say that, as a result of the subprime blowout, consequent credit crisis, and related global recession, the recently announced budget cuts at the University of Chicago Medical Center will leave Hyde Park without easily accessible primary care for everyone.

In particular, the 47th Street, University-run clinic will be closed entirely in March or April, instead of being sold to a private, federally subsidized medical group as originally planned. The tax-exempt Medical Center is transforming itself into a science colony inconveniently located among an underinsured population, with access to its basic services increasingly restricted to the original colonists.

While the issue of Chicago's ER sending l0w-priority patients to surrounding clinics or hospitals has been in the news recently, ("University of Chicago ER Sends Kid Mauled by Pitt Bull Home," Chicago Tribune, February 13, 2009) other changes strike closer to the heart of preventive, family primary care for Hyde Park residents.

If you have a doctor at 47th Street, they will be moving to DCAM.

If you want to get a doctor there, too bad, no new adult patients are being taken.

And from the word on the street I understand that it will be extremely difficult for newcomers to the neighborhood, even those with insurance that allows the University of Chicago and don't mind fighting their way into the heart of the massive Duchossois Center for Advanced Medecine, to get anything other than walk-in service with rotating physicians.

Like the idea of a family doctor who tracks your case history over years and knows your kids? The kind of medicine that can spot problems before they become the kinds of "complex" issues that the University prefers to treat?

Consider living in a different neighborhood. Until you need a liver transplant, that is, or you have a child who needs special treatment at Comer.

I felt at the time of the first post, and even more so now, that a community like Hyde Park needs a family health clinic accessible within the neighborhood by everybody -- not just faculty and staff, but anyone who can pay their bills and takes the chance on locating a family in this community.

While the University demonstrated a commitment to getting a decent supermarket in the neighborhood to replace the Co-Op, by closing the only conveniently located clinic in Hyde Park they are leaving dozens of families without local options for health care. This is a vastly more consequential decision that has received much less attention. While it is now much more enticing for people to shop locally for their groceries, it will soon be much more difficult for them to shop locally for a doctor.

Many families and individuals have already adjusted to this reality. In the comments to the original Hyde Park's Impending Health Care Desert post, it became clear that a large group of people had either resigned themselves to migrating north for primary care, have satisfied themselves with neighboring South Side, Federally Qualified Health Clinics, or somehow or another see physicians at DCAM for regular primary care.

It should be clear that the last option is not a reliable one in this neighborhood unless you are already in the system, and even then, it's not clear how many physicians will be retained.

A recent promotional brochure for the U of C had this to say about Hyde Park health care options:

U.S. News and World Report consistently selects Hyde Park's own University of Chicago Medical Center as one of the best hospitals in the United States...Also under the Medical Center umbrella are the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine, an outpatient facility; clinical training programs of the Pritzker School of Medicine; and several health care locations throughout the Chicago region.
The "clinical training programs of the Pritzker School of Medicine" are what you get as a walk-in from medical residents at DCAM, and there is no mention of a primary care health clinic in the neighborhood.

Ready to move your kids cross-country for that faculty job, knowing that the resident who treats them at DCAM will be gone in a few years and replaced by another?

The University of Chicago can do everything imaginable to encourage retail in Hyde Park, it can do a magnificent job coordinating the redevelopment of Harper Court, but if the families who chose to buy homes, pay property taxes, and volunteer at the local school can't see a doctor without having to travel many miles away from the coming $700 million medical center, then the University will undermine virtually everything else it accomplishes in terms of making Hyde Park a desirable place for people to settle in and live.

[This post also appears on Huffington Post Chicago]

Friday, February 13, 2009

Del Prado Zoning Change Meeting -- Feb. 23 2009

Click on image above to enlarge

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Herald's Chicken: Paper Launches On-line NIMBY Archive

posted by chicago pop

Hyde Park Herald Publisher Bruce Sagan, NIMBY Heart-Throb
(Picture found in girls locker room of Hyde Park Hysterical Society)

Because the Hyde Park Herald is essentially the vehicle for a personality cult, once in a while something useful actually results from the homages, celebrations, panegyrics, whiggishness, festschriften, glorifications, and pats-on-the-back to publisher Bruce Sagan that appear every year or so.

On the occasion of Bruce Sagan's 80th birthday, his sons have done us all the favor of digitizing half a century of the Herald's plentiful NIMBY-ism, and we should all be thankful. No more tedious trips to the Regenstein, or stuffing our file cabinet full of clippings documenting the local insanities of Hyde Park's Greatest Generation.

No, now it's all on line for die-hard NIMBY hunters, who may now clear away all the Herald clippings blowing about their garage.

We decided to test out the search engine in the New NIMBY Archives. So what do we think of this new feature? Here's one of 2 results we got when we typed in "NIMBY":

139 Down; the "y" in NIMBY

Not promising.

So we tackled the problem from another angle, substituting the synonymous term "parking" for "NIMBY." Outcome: 5772 results. Now we're talking!

We find that on November 6, 1996, Judith Kritzberg, one of the team of hard-core obstructionists that pushed the dry vote in the 5th Ward's 39th Precinct in November, 2008, like other dry-voters, was already complaining about parking. Specifically, she doesn't like permit parking and makes arguments against the idea that people have a right to exclusive use of the street in front of their homes to park their cars.

I wonder what happened to that line of reasoning last November?

In any case, the ease of searching and reproducing the results bode well. The results of other searches varied in surprising ways.

A search for entries including "Jack Spicer" returned only 2 results.
A search for entries including "task force" returned a much more satisfying 277 results. "Save the point" scored 160 entries, many of them advertisements, and other letters such as that dated June 12, 1963 and titled: "Save our Point from Riff-Raff."

We decided to finish our trial run with a by now classic euphemism for NIMBY-ism: Hans Morsbach.

Lo and behold, we have a goldmine of 43 results going back to the 1960s. From a random sample, I've learned that back in 1970 Morsbach was the target of a neighborhood petition to close one of his restaurants for attracting too many undesirable people.

This is going to be very useful after all.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Hyde Park's Bagel Breakthrough

posted by chicago pop

Hyde Park Scores Major Bagel Asset; Zimmer Provided Vision, Zalevski & Horvath Supplied Execution

Brain function requires quick calories. There are a lot of quick calories in bagels. University research communities achieve optimum brain function when fueled with lots of bagels.

The above syllogism establishes one of the foundational truths of University life. Behind the research grants, the search for donors, the battles over funding, it all boils down to bagels. If you've got them, you can go farther, faster.

If you don't have them, well, it's just harder. So we expect great things from the assembled minds of the University of Chicago now that Hyde Park-Kenwood has made its great bagel breakthrough: Zalevski & Horvath Market Cafe has decided to round out its delicatessen-ess by offering bagels on the weekends.

For those of you who remember last year's Great Hyde Park Bagel Hunt Part 1 and Part 2, it was then determined that there is a great, pent up reservoir of unmet demand for real bagels in the neighborhood, and it wasn't being met by any of the local options.

At the time, we concluded that the best of Hyde Park's limited selection was available at otherwise questionable Orly's. We weren't necessarily satisfied with this, it was just the best we could find. If you don't bother to get out and eat a real bagel once in a while, over a period of time you might be able to convince yourself that Orly's makes a real bagel.

But those days are over, we're happy to say. We've taste-tested a batch of Zalevski and Horvath Market Cafe's glorious, aromatic, chewy, and just plain delicious bagels today and we're still feeling the glow.

Clockwise from Upper Left: Plain, Poppy Seed, Onion, and Everything Bagels from Zalevski and Horvath Market Cafe

Z&H's Samuel Darrigrand tells us that University President Zimmer convinced him it was time to make the move when he observed that there was "a lot of bagel-shaped bread" in Hyde Park, but no bagels. After an initial stint distributing bagel-shaped bread from Orly's, Z&H decided to throw their own dough in the vat, and not long afterwards found a cook that really seems to know what they're doing.

Taste Test Results

This onion bagel just looks like a bagel. Its lumpy, has an irregular hole in the middle, and has a gnarled, wrinkled skin. It does not look like a fat little balloon or a doughnut. Like the other samples, this one was completely blitzed with flavoring. So far, so good.

Let's cut it open.

This bagel is hard to hold while you cut it, because it's so moist and floppy. The knife tears the bread inside, leaving a ragged edge, which is good, and indicates that this is not a muffin, not a biscuit, but a punchy, chewy bagel. And when both sides fall apart, a pleasant, sweet odor immediately rises from the dough. Perhaps a little honey in the water during boiling, in the Montreal tradition?

Only on toasting does the exterior of the Z&H bagel crispen, and only moderately, while the interior retains its moist density. The sweetness first detected on slicing the bagel survived the toasting and comes through in the mouth.

You Know You Want This.

Good news is hard to find these days. So we'll take what we can get, and this is pretty solid. So we salute the historic synergy activated by Zimmer and carried out by the gang at Z&H, who are doing their part to bring the delicatessen back to the city where it belongs.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

What to Do if the Tracks Make Tracks?

posted by Richard Gill

On Dec. 24, 2008, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) approved a railroad transaction that is likely to affect Hyde Park and neighboring communities. The ruling allows the Canadian National Railway (CN) to acquire the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway (EJ&E). The merger was made official Jan. 31, 2009. A number of suburbs are still contesting the ruling, but the decision most probably will stand.

Canadian National is the freight line that runs adjacent to Metra Electric. The CN and Metra share the right-of-way, but there is an ownership boundary between them. The CN-EJ&E merger will not impact the commuter service.

A 50-words-or-less history: Long time residents will remember the entire railroad as the Illinois Central (IC). Until 1987, IC owned and operated the electric commuter trains and tracks; in that year, Metra purchased IC’s commuter service. In 1998, CN acquired the IC freight railroad.

The EJ&E is a belt line that arcs around Chicago. CN plans to route most of its freight trains via that line, rather than through Chicago’s rail-congested center. This won’t fully happen tomorrow, because CN has to build $100 million in capacity improvements and voluntary environmental measures along the EJ&E, plus about another hundred million in environmental mitigation measures negotiated with ten suburbs or ordered by the STB as a condition of its approval.

CN’s operating plan says—and this may take a couple, or more, years—after the merger, there will be zero freight traffic on a number of lines. Their lakefront line, through Hyde Park, is one of those lines. Amtrak trains would remain until money is found to build new connections for them. Eventually, the CN is likely to abandon the lakefront line between 94th St. and 16th St., thence to some point on the West Side.

Canadian National Locomotive Near 53rd Street in Hyde Park

That leaves the question: How is it to be decided, in the open, what should be done with the right-of-way? I posed a similar question for the record during the EIS public comment period, and I communicated the issue to the 4th and 5th Ward Aldermen. If nothing else, my comment to the STB was probably unusual, for mostly they received objections from people living along the EJ&E, who fear a potential threefold increase in freight train traffic following the merger.

Abandonment will require a separate STB proceeding and approval, after which the railroad would have no control over the property. It is possible, though, that the railroad would reach an agreement, or sale, prior to, or as part of, the abandonment proceedings.

My immediate purpose for this post is not to propose any possible alternative use(s) of the right-of-way, nor to object to any. (I will let my opinions be known in the blog comments and other discussions.) In the U.S., the problem in not new, nor is it unique to Hyde Park or Chicago. Right now, I just want to say that the issue is a real one for our community, and that it is better to plan ahead than to be surprised.

The CN-EJ&E proceeding is in STB Finance Docket No. 35087.