Monday, June 29, 2009

A Tale of Two Campus Towns: Hyde Park and Ann Arbor

posted by chicago pop

West Side Books, Ann Arbor
The Quintessential Campus Town Institution

One of the most frequent questions for those who have lived or studied in, or simply passed through Hyde Park for any length of time, is why it does not more closely resemble other campus towns they have known. Certainly, not all campus towns are desirable models. I can think of a number of larger state schools in the Midwest that have expanded in the form of parking lots and drab student housing to consume the old American village that once surrounded it.

This isn't the case with Ann Arbor, Michigan. To the immediate northwest of the University of Michigan campus sits a roughly 10-square block area that makes up the "old downtown." It is a remarkably diverse commercial district adjacent to a major American university. It has upscale dining, it has ethnic quick eats. It has a cupcake shop, and a Chinese bakery specializing in fresh steamed buns and at least two chocolate shops.

It has fancy boutiques, whimsical ones, and non-profits that run storefronts for a variety of causes.

Robot Supply and Repair
Front for 826michigan, a Non-Profit Tutoring and Writing Center
Founded by Dave Eggers in San Francisco,
Opened in Ann Arbor 2005

The Workantile Exchange
A "Co-Working" Office Cooperative, With Cafe in Front

It has half a dozen bookstores and a comic book store, and its bars, restaurants, and independent cafes nearly all offer sidewalk seating.

Sidewalk Dining in Downtown Ann Arbor

The Monkey Bar

It has a garden supply store, a contemporary furniture store, and a brand new gym fronted by a juice bar. And as far as I could tell, it has only one Starbucks.

Most importantly, old downtown Ann Arbor is a pleasure to walk around and explore. It seems to pull together most of what past surveys and workshops say people want in Hyde Park: lots of dining, lots of al fresco seating, independent retail, and boutique shopping.

Retail Diversity: An Interior Designer's Studio, A Workspace Co-op, and Ethnic Cuisine

It manages to sustain a core of local enterprises that does not resemble the Banana Republic/Restoration Hardware/California Pizza Kitchen real estate "product" that is so common in new retail development. In the midst of all this, there is room for alternative or non-profit operations that use their business to fund other operations.

Of course, Hyde Park is a neighborhood in an economically distressed region of Chicago, and relies on a single large employer of around 12,000 people to drive the local economy. Ann Arbor is a city in its own right, with a Big 10 research university that itself employs around 38,000 people, while also hosting a cluster of tech and biomedical employers, all of which keep Ann Arbor's median household incomes higher than their Hyde Park equivalents. And as interesting as Ann Arbor's downtown area is, it is relatively low-density, and there are no major drug stores or supermarkets within walking distance. Since 2005, however, the city has embarked on a major effort to rezone downtown and outlying areas to encourage greater densities.

A Thriving Commercial District
Recently Added Density Around the Edges
"Since 2005, when Ann Arbor began rethinking building heights and downtown density, that small area of the city [downtown] has been in the spotlight." --

So Hyde Park is not completely at a disadvantage with regards to Ann Arbor. In the last two years, a number of positive changes, some small and some large, have taken place. There should be room for still more, assuming people understand what is required to bring them about.

Adding More Residential Density to Downtown Ann Arbor

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What Makes Hyde Park Great?

posted by chicago pop

A note of interest from Chicago's very own Metropolitan Planning Council:

The nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council is sponsoring a new photo and video contest to highlight Chicagoland's best public places.

The "What Makes Your Place Great?" contest is calling on architecture, urban design, photo and video buffs -- and anyone else who is interested -- to submit photos or videos of their favorite public places in Chicagoland, along with short written descriptions about why their favorite places contribute to their communities.

"Buying Asparagus at Daley Plaza Farmer's Market"

The contest is part of one of our major projects,, Chicago's hub for "placemaking" tips -- guidance for improving your neighborhood, one bench, flower pot, or dog park at a time.

"Softball Game in Pilsen"

After July 27, there will be an online public voting process to pick the People's Choice Award in each category. A panel of Placemaking experts also will select a Grant Prize winner in each category, for a total of four awards. The prize packages are pretty sweet (see below).

"Chicago Streetscape"



(Chicago) … Chicagoland is a patchwork of thousands of great neighborhood places that define our lives by inspiring us, relaxing us, and encouraging us to sit and talk awhile with our neighbors. To find the best places in Chicagoland, Placemaking Chicago, a project of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), today launched the “What Makes Your Place Great?” contest on

From June 3 through July 27, 2009, entrants can e-mail original photos or videos showcasing their favorite public places across Chicagoland, along with a 250-word-or-less description, to (Complete rules and submission criteria guidelines are available at Entrants may feature places in the City of Chicago or in Chicago suburbs located in Boone, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties in Illinois; or in Lake, Porter, and La Porte counties in Indiana; or in Racine and Kenosha counties in Wisconsin.)

“Show and tell us not only why your favorite place is special to you, but also how it contributes to your community,” said MPC Associate Karin Sommer, who manages the Placemaking Chicago project. “Is it somewhere people go to relax or meet up with friends? What are some unique ways people use the space? And what is it about this place that keeps you coming back?”

Four winners, two photo and two video, will be announced on Sept. 25, 2009. One winner in each category will receive a Grand Prize award, selected by a committee of Placemaking experts; and one winner in each category will receive a People’s Choice award, selected by public vote on from Aug. 10 to Sept. 14, 2009. Winners will have the opportunity to showcase their favorite places at an MPC event in October, and they will win prize packages including:

  • Chicago Architecture Foundation walking tour tickets;
  • A trio of “Co-op Hot sauce” made from chiles grown in NeighborSpace community gardens in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood;
  • Passes to the Art Institute of Chicago, donated by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago;
  • MPC roundtable tickets;
  • A gift certificate from Branch 27, Browntrout, or Feast restaurants, or Seven Ten Lanes; and
  • Boulevard Lakefront Bike Tour tickets and membership in the Active Transportation Alliance (a special prize for People’s Choice Award winners).

MPC and Placemaking Chicago are grateful for donations from these organizations and restaurants, as well as from The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Placemaking is a people-centered approach to community planning that starts with neighborhood residents and businesses creating a vision for a public space, and then working together to make that vision a reality. In 2008, MPC worked with the New York-based Project for Public Spaces ( to develop the first-ever city-specific guidebook on Placemaking, “The Guide to Neighborhood Placemaking in Chicago.” MPC and PPS co-facilitated two workshops in the fall of 2008 to train community activists, local leaders, and city agency staff in Placemaking techniques. In 2009, MPC teamed up with WPB (the Special Service Area for Wicker Park and Bucktown) and local residents and businesses to come up with ideas to transform the Polish Triangle at the intersection of Ashland Avenue, Milwaukee Avenue, and Division Street in Chicago into a great gathering place. More than 700 people contributed ideas through an online network, online public survey, and a two-day open house in March. MPC and WPB continue to work with residents to form a vision for the Polish Triangle based on the ideas they’ve generated so far. Stay tuned for news about summer events in the Polish Triangle!

Learn more about Placemaking – and read the complete “What Makes Your Place Great?” contest rules and submission guidelines – at; or by contacting MPC Associate Karin Sommer, at 312-863-6044 or

Since 1934, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has been dedicated to shaping a more sustainable and prosperous greater Chicago region. As an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, MPC serves communities and residents by developing, promoting and implementing solutions for sound regional growth.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

On the Track of a Trail

posted by Richard Gill

Some bridges, such as this one above Wood Street, are badly deteriorated.

On Saturday, June 20, an organization named Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail hosted a walk/run/bike event to publicize their effort to create an urban trail on the right-of-way of a long-inactive railroad line.

Informally called the Bloomingdale Line, the railroad is elevated on retained earth-fill embankment, running east-west along its namesake street, at about 1800 North. The trail would essentially replace the track on the embankment from the Chicago River to about 3800 West. Neighborhoods traversed include Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. The neighborhoods seem to have adopted the railroad line and its structures.

CTA's Blue Line crosses above the Bloomingdale Line, just west of Milwaukee Avenue.

For most of its existence, the Bloomingdale Line was an industrial freight branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. Some twenty years ago, ownership was transferred to the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railroad. The Canadian Pacific Railroad is the present owner.

In the past few decades, many hiking/biking trails have been established on former rail lines in rural areas under various programs, such as Rails-to-Trails. The Bloomingdale Trail would be one of a few rail-trails right inside major cities. Saturday’s event was timed to help celebrate the June opening of New York City’s High Line, a path on an abandoned freight branch on the west side of Manhattan.

One developer on Damen encroached on the right-of-way. This practice is now prohibited.

The Friends caught a break in the recent stormy weather; it was a beautiful hot, sunny day. So, with camera in hand, I set off on a two-hour walking excursion along a segment of the Bloomingdale Line.

Homeowners have planted flowers and vines at the retaining wall. This is on Hoyne Avenue.

Lined with greenery, alleys and walkways along the retaining wall take on a bit of a European look.

As I walked, I was reminded that despite Hyde Park’s amenity envy vis a vis the North Side, at least we don’t have to struggle to acquire a trail. The best one in the city is right on our doorstep.

Nice mural work east of Western Avenue.

The Friends' literature dutifully said walkers ought not to climb up onto the trackway. The admonishment was largely ignored, and no doubt is ignored in general. I saw local residents jogging up there. These friendly folks seemed to be living on the track.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

MAC Properties and Hyde Park -- Kansas City

posted by chicago pop

That's Not the Del Prado:
The Bellerive Hotel, Kansas City, Missouri

If and when Off-Off Campus does an improv routine touching on Hyde Park's second-largest landowner, MAC Properties, there's a one-liner they'd be foolish to pass up:

Eli Ungar: "I liked the Hyde Park neighborhood so much, I decided to buy another one."

In point of fact, things didn't progress in quite that order. Ungar's MAC Properties began acquiring residential properties in Chicago's Hyde Park at about the same time, in 2005, that it began to do the same in Kansas City's own historic Hyde Park neighborhood.

Vernacular Kansas City Two-Flats

The similarities between the two Hyde Park neighborhoods are curious. Both are linked to the larger city by a system of boulevards inspired by the City Beautiful movement. Both neighborhoods were platted in the mid- to late-19th century, and both are adjacent to smaller developments called "Kenwood." Both were annexed to their larger metropolitan neighbor after a few decades of municipal independence. Both are a mix of gracious, 19th century homes on broad, leafy streets, and taller 1920's residential hotels, with smaller 3-story apartment buildings sprinkled in between. Both are racially diverse, and both have suffered from urban decline.

And now, both neighborhoods are home to Eli Ungar's MAC Properties.

MAC's object in both neighborhoods, to quote MAC's Peter Cassel, is to develop "contemporary apartments in classic buildings." In practice, that translates into a $30 million project renovating vintage 20's transient hotels, together with smaller apartment buildings, and bringing them to market as middle-range rentals targeted at middle-class professionals.

In Chicago, examples of this strategy are the Del Prado, Windemere, and Shoreland Hotels. In Kansas City, it is the Bellrive and four similar buildings on Armour Boulevard.

The Bellerive's Casbah Room in its Glory Days

A local paper detailed the glamorous heyday of the Bellerive in the Roaring Twenties.

The ornate red-brick structure was Kansas City's fanciest apartment hotel when it was built in 1922, boasting a parade of famous guests: opera diva Ernestine Schumann-Heink, actress Mary Pickford, silent-film actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, contralto Marian Anderson and writer Edith Sitwall. Even Al Capone stayed there... Stars like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Liberace, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis performed at the hotel's swanky Casbah nightclub. Partly because of its past and partly because of its neobaroque architecture, the Bellerive made it onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

That didn't keep it from falling victim to the declining fortunes of Hyde Park in general, which like those of it's Great Lakes sister, set in after World War II. It's a familiar story.

By the end of the Second World War, a profound change had occurred in the area. Many of the original owners had died or moved to larger communities, with newer addresses of quality. The large old homes were converted into apartments and sleeping rooms. The neighborhood began a long, slow decline which continued unchecked until the 1970's.

By the early 2000's, four the the five old hotels on Armour were vacant, and the Bellerive was traded from developer to developer as plan after plan fell through. The neighborhood was being polarized between affluent homeowners in the 19th century homes on smaller side streets, and the concentration of low-income renters in subsidized housing along Armour. Not long after MAC acquired the property, vandals began raiding it for copper pipe.

Renovation Underway at an Old Hotel on Armour Boulevard

By 2010, MAC hopes to have turned the situation around. Of the 3,000 plus rental units in the Hyde Park neighborhood, MAC has approximately 250 units in service, and 400 in development. The neighborhood has received MAC warmly, with neighborhood groups advocating strongly for MAC in negotiations with the Kansas City government in 2006 and 2007.

Speaking of the Armour Boulevard Hotels, a representative of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association told a reporter in 2006, "The precedent that needs to be dumped is that this is an area for subsidized housing. These buildings need to be brought back and brought back now. Everybody agrees it needs to be a mixed-income neighborhood."*

Sullivanesque portal of a non-MAC neighbor on Armour Boulevard, the Newbern (1922)

Another representative of the Hyde Park group agreed with MAC in 2007 that the "neighborhood has maintained that the key to saving Armour is opening it to free market housing."** This view ultimately swayed city hall, convincing the relevant tax agency to wave certain fees for a 17 year period in the expectation that MAC's investment would help revitalize a centrally important part of Kansas City.

Renovated Lobby of a Hyde Park MAC Property

Stairwell of a Renovated Hyde Park MAC Property

As with Chicago's Hyde Park, MAC has made the bet that Kansas City, a growing Midwestern city with a healthy downtown just 3 miles away, home to a number of corporate headquarters, a major university, and a hospital complex, would support a growing market for middle-class renters in a neighborhood where they would add a much-needed demographic balance.

The scale is smaller in Kansas City, and there are no plans for major new developments like Solstice or the Village Center site. The neighborhood politics in Kansas City are also less convoluted, with the prominent neighborhood groups recognizing that an improvement in the housing stock -- or simply the preservation of Hyde Park's urban fabric, as opposed to clearance -- will benefit the entire community.

A MAC Building Near the Bellrive Hotel

So Hyde Park now has a sister city -- not Paris, Florence, or London, but good old Kansas City, Missouri.

* "Armour Projects Set Back. Five Building Renovations Stumble over Fee Wavers and Tax Abatements." The Kansas City Star, December 2, 2006.
** "Project to Redevelop Buildings is Revived." The Kansas City Star. February 21, 2007.

Monday, June 8, 2009


posted by Elizabeth Fama

In the late spring a young woman's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of...swimming.

But if you want to swim at the Point, you'll have to do it illegally and at one of these three treacherous swimming access spots.

Now, it may have been a while since you've actually walked the promenade all the way around (and in some places it's physically impossible), so I've prepared this helpful slide show: A Walking Tour of the Point's Deterioration. Click on fama.elizabeth's Public Gallery, and then choose "slideshow." It will take you only 90 seconds to view it, and it will bring you up to snuff on just how bad the Point is getting.

It's time for us to demand The Compromise Plan, and the sanctioned deep-water swimming that goes along with it.

And don't forget to write to me if you want a free FIX THE POINT bumper sticker. They're all the rage.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Good Sign

posted by chicago pop

An improvement we noticed on East 55th Street. Thought we should call it out: thanks Snail Thai Cuisine!