Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The CTA Cuts -- An Alternate View

posted by richard gill

In response to the current iteration of the CTA financial crisis, a deal came out of Springfield that prohibited a fare increase and continued to let seniors ride for free, but paved the way for reducing bus and “L” services in order to preserve operating cash. The service reduction took effect on February 7, 2010.

The CTA says that, overall, the reductions are 18 percent of bus service and 9 percent of ‘L’ service. The way the media have treated this, one would believe the changes could dislocate everyone’s life and bring the city to a halt. True, the service reductions may create some inconvenience and hardship, but it appears that the CTA has implemented the cuts in a way that minimizes negative impacts. While the changes are regrettable, I don’t think they are as awful as they’ve been made out to be.

First, nobody is being left without service. The nine eliminated routes were all prefixed with “X,” such as X55, indicating a so-called express route. Those routes weren’t really “routes;” they were overlays on primary “regular” routes, on the same streets. All of those regular routes remain. Further, the “X” expresses weren’t really expresses. Rather they were limited-stop services that stopped at intervals of about a half-mile. Generally, they ran only during weekday rush periods.

The “X” service was nice, but did not save a whole lot of time. For instance, between the Museum of Science and Industry and Midway Airport, the X55 was nine minutes faster than the 55 local. The “X” routes were subject to the same traffic, speed limits, rates of acceleration/deceleration, and red-light delays as the local routes. They tended to have longer dwell times at bus stops, because their boardings and alightings were more concentrated.

Citywide, CTA’s route-by-route specifics indicate that where intervals between buses were lengthened, they were relatively small and incremental. On some routes where “X” buses were taken off, the local service actually increased somewhat to compensate.

It is also worth noting that the “X” services had initially been regarded as experimental, implemented only in the relatively recent past, and were not part of the historical operating pattern.

As for the “L,” all of the routes are intact, with slightly later morning start times and slightly earlier finish times, and minor headway lengthening. As with the bus routes, lines that had all-night “Owl” service continue to have it.

For the long run, at least, there may be some positive aspects to all of this. I can think of three.

1. Everyone now knows the precipice is not a mirage. Because of all the previous false alarms and last minute reprieves, there was widespread feeling that it was all posturing, and service reduction just wasn’t going to happen. Well, this time it did happen.

As for the CTA’s operating unions, they could have forestalled a good portion of the service and job reductions by making some concessions, including postponement of a wage increase. However, the prospect of an 18 percent reduction in bus service meant the large majority of bus drivers—those with enough seniority—could keep their jobs without making concessions. Union members voted to reject the concessions. Thus the service cuts were made and jobs were lost. It would be interesting to know if the vote went more or less according to seniority.

2. The cuts enabled the CTA to mothball their oldest buses. These were pretty well beaten up, having run on Chicago streets for 15 years. They have less effective emission controls than newer vehicles, and do not have the low floors now required for accessibility.

By reducing the number of buses on the street, CTA can close its 103-year-old Archer Garage. The Archer Garage began life as a streetcar barn, before there even were buses. It never was a very good bus building. One problem has been the garage’s narrow doors. Streetcars could go in and out with very small clearances on each side. The track kept them centered. Buses had a tendency to lose outside mirrors at the doors.

I would imagine the CTA will sell the Archer Garage and property, and let others fight over the building. Look for a battle between preservationists and developers. Maybe Save the Point people & co. will forget the Point and take up the cause of the old streetcar barn. Thus, positive aspect No. 3: Archer Garage is not in Hyde Park.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The University and Lab School ECC Plan: Too Hasty?

Posted by Elizabeth Fama

On Thursday night (2/11/10), the University, Lab Schools, and Alderman Hairston hosted a community meeting about the possible use of the Doctors Hospital site (58th and Stony Island) as a location for a new Early Childhood Center (ECC) for the Lab Schools.

I counted roughly 140 people in attendance. Most people in the audience had positive comments; there were few hard questions. Most identified themselves as Lab parents or Stony Island neighbors. One preschool teacher vocally supported the proposed off-campus location, citing the nightmare-ish drop-off and pick-up she experiences daily at the Woodlawn Houses (two homes currently used for 4 nursery classes on Woodlawn near 58th).

After attending the meeting, and spending a few days digesting the presentation, there are three important questions that I believe go to the core of whether this is good decision-making versus hasty*, shortsighted decision-making:

1. Would the University have bought a 10 million dollar property (not counting the cost of demolishing a 1920s masonry hospital) just to build a Lab School ECC?

2. Is this the best use of the Doctors Hospital site from the University's and community's points of view?

3. Is it this the best place for the Lab Schools to build its ECC?

I think the answer to all three questions is unfortunately, "No."

1. I assume that the U of C bought this property with the hotel in mind. Now that the precinct has voted itself dry, the hotel developer is gone and the University is searching for a worthy cause for the property. The Lab Schools ECC is a handy cause, but not necessarily the right cause, and it wasn't chosen with any sort of Master Plan in mind for either the Lab School campus or the University campus. The University owns much of the land on Stony Island between 56th and 59th -- for example, one person at the meeting questioned whether they had more useful plans for the facilities building between 56th and 57th -- and it should be working toward a coherent vision for that entire stretch.

2. So what is the best use of the Doctors Hospital site? Stony Island is currently a relatively desolate street-scape, and it would be best for the community and for the University if it were enlivened with a steady flow of pedestrians and with some sort of night life. The ECC will be locked down tight after 5 PM, and it will be designed with little interest in foot traffic: the play spaces will be safely enclosed, away from the street, and the drop-off and pick-up car line will snake around the back of the building, with a slow lane and an express lane. Because the children it's intended for are in grades N through 2, very few families even in Hyde Park will feel they're within "walking distance" to school, particularly if they also have older children to drop-off on the main Lab School campus. The very rough schematic of the building already shows that it encourages a car (not pedestrian) culture. In my opinion, this "green" building will actually increase the number of families who drive to school.

Stony Island Early Childhood Center Study, including drop-off/pick-up car line.

I can think of two better alternatives for the site without even breaking a sweat:

a) build a large dorm complex geared especially toward 3rd- and 4th-year students. Dean John W. Boyer has written a detailed pamphlet discussing how the University should strive to be like Oxford, where students live all four years on campus. That will only happen if the housing options include something designed for the maturing lifestyles of upperclassmen, namely (from my informal poll of college students): suites made up of four single bedrooms surrounding a kitchen and bath. There could be an exercise room and a rec room on-site, plus common hang-out areas on each floor. There could be a cafe on the first floor that is open to the public (like the Booth cafeteria). Students would mill about the neighborhood on foot at all hours, and would help make the street safer.

My two U of C college students know many upperclassmen who like dorm living and feel a loyalty to their houses, but leave housing after their first or second year because the dorm lifestyle (eating in the residence halls and sleeping in the same room with a roommate) no longer fits their needs. On top of that, if you haven't been in them lately, Broadview, Blackstone, and Snell-Hitchcock are barely suitable for human habitation (the kitchen units in Blackstone are downright dangerous) and desperately need to be remodeled or closed.

b) build a faculty apartment complex (managed rentals or a mix of condos and rentals) with an exercise room, a rec room, indoor parking, and that same cafe on the first floor (open to the public, like the Booth cafeteria). This would draw young faculty back to the neighborhood from the north side, and allow faculty in lower-paying disciplines to afford to live on campus. It would also, incidentally, convert some commuting Lab families to walking families -- a hidden "green" benefit. Perhaps after several years of eating at the cafe, the neighbors would vote themselves "wet" again, just to be able to have a glass of wine there. (I can dream, can't I?)

3. The problem of space on the historic Lab School campus comes down to this: preserving the regulation-sized soccer field that's on Jackman Field. I'm not kidding. When you peel everything away, that's the reason they're proposing splitting the campus in two (either the regulation soccer field will have to go, or the tennis courts). Rather than list the pedagogical reasons that I believe a single campus is at the heart of Lab's teaching mission and should be a selling point for the school (as it is for Lab's feisty competitor, Francis Parker, which touts "Parker is proud to be the only independent school in Chicago where 14 different grades learn, share and grow under one roof."), I'll just offer the simple solution that solves the space problem: put the regulation soccer field -- which only high schoolers use -- across the Midway, near the South Dorm, the Harris School, and the future home of the Booth dorm (bonus: a soccer field would get plenty of use by the University and by Woodlawn neighbors). Then build an ECC that can house all of N through 2 (including the Woodlawn houses) on the historic Lab campus. Mind you, this still leaves room at Lab for a non-regulation soccer field for gym classes and practice, and leaves the tennis courts intact. Only the regulation soccer field would move. It would be relatively cheap to build a field and a shower/locker room facility across the Midway.
One study for an ECC placed on the historic campus, showing loss of tennis courts.

In sum: there are much better uses for the Doctors Hospital site, and there are ways to keep all of the grades at Lab in contiguous proximity to each other, to preserve the educational, progressive principles we should be holding dear for all grades, not just N through 2. Preserving one Lab campus would also help to decrease the driving culture surrounding the school and the University.

*Post-script for dedicated readers:

Some of the sense I got of the "hastiness" of the Stony ECC idea were logistical, practical issues. The University will obviously work on them, but they added to the proceedings a slight air of "rushing the plan through."

1. Alderman Hairston reassured the audience that the drop-off and pick-up car traffic associated with Bret Harte (a public school at the corner of 56th and Stony) would not interfere with that of the new ECC because a plan was in place to re-route Bret Harte traffic through an alley behind the planned Solstice development. When questioned about what would happen to that re-routing plan if the Solstice project did not get off the ground (a real possibility, because Antheus Capital has not sold enough units yet to break ground), Alderman Hairston said, "We'll have to find alternative funding somewhere." With the City's current finances, that seems thorny.

2. The Stony ECC would have 70 parking spaces for staff, and Mr. Magill said the staff will number about 75-80. However, with six classes for each grade, I count 72 teachers and assistant teachers just for the classrooms alone. Presumably there will also be teachers in art, music, and computers, staff for the library, tech support, facility services, a principal, a secretary, a security guard, and a nurse -- not to mention visitors spaces. On-site parking isn't important to me, but the numbers should add up in a presentation.

3. Much of the outdoor play spaces are in the form of enclosed courtyards. Even with a glass building, these spaces will be wet and muddy for much of the year. The pretty pictures didn't show the typical Midwestern "coatroom-mudrooms" that usually handle that kind of mess -- instead it looked like an idealized Palo Alto scene.

4. Many of the "best practices" schools that the architects studied were in warmer climates like Palo Alto, where the weather is ideal for contiguous indoor-outdoor space. The architect spent some time talking up the Google corporation's Wetlands preschool. A quick check shows that tuition at Wetlands is $57,000 per year (and no longer subsidized for employees). The student-teacher ratio is ridiculously low, with enrollment of only 72 kids in the Google Woodlands preschool, in Mountain View CA, for example.
Ideal classroom configuration, based on the Reggio Emilia Approach, which many of the Lab Schools preschool teachers have been hoping to adopt at Lab.

If you're interested in participating in an open (and I hope open-minded) discussion of the ECC plans on facebook, here's the link.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Harper Court: Rosy Future or Vermilion-Tinged Fantasy?

posted by chicago pop

Let's Party Like it's 2006?

Harper Court Redevelopment Site Plan: Looks Good, But...

$194 Million Redevelopment Cost: Who Will Loan the Money
in Current Credit Crunch?

And Don't Forget, Someone Else Also Has Big Plans for Next Door
Including 170 Residential Units and Dozens More Retail Spaces

Proposed Antheus-Financed, Studio Gang-designed Project Along Lake Park and 51st Street
Presumably in Dry-Dock
(July 2008)

Back to Reality:
Expect Some Nice Chess Tables

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Local Sex Shop has Vibe Sale

posted by chicago pop

Vibe Sale at Drawers Intimates
1450 E. 52nd Street

Every neighborhood needs a decent sex shop, and perhaps none more so than rather top-heavy Hyde Park. Well, we have one, and they're glad to be here ("located in historic Hyde Park"), but not only that, they're having a major Vibe Sale.

Drawers Intimates was closed the bright winter morning I happened past their storefront signage, but this did not keep me from speculating, in true University of Chicago style, upon what might be the ideal-typical, theory-laden inventory of Vibes best suited to the Hyde Park market -- Vibes, that is, sold by an independent, small business, and custom-tailored to the unique clientele of our diverse and sophisticated neighborhood.

Number one on this inventory would be the black, vinyl-coated, and cordless Wrecking Ball, with two adjustable settings: one for "Harper Court" (Low) and another for "Doctors Hospital" (High). The Wrecking Ball would be perfect for aging NIMBY matriarchs who, though outwardly demure when pedaling their bicycles down 56th Street in long skirts and owlish glasses, fantasize (in stolen, private moments) of wanton acts of architectural demolition.

For the high-powered academic set -- and in particular for the misfit Men and Boys of the Committee on Social Thought -- we envision the pink, jelly-filled, and life-sized Platonic Boy, designed to provide years of durable consolation to terminal Masters students facing the bleak prospect of guaranteed academic unemployment, supervisory neglect, and endless revisions of their reactionary theses on Al Farabi. The Platonic Boy comes with detachable laurel wreath, an inflatable Greek vase (with insulated beer cup) cast in the 6th century Attic Style, and is equipped to utter Heroclitian aphorisms when embraced.

Likely to be the most popular item for the grass-roots and horticultural market segment would be the battery-powered (two lithium D cell rechargeable) Jack's Beanstalk. The Beanstalk, in the form of an organic -- and sizable -- community-grown, latex zucchini, would come with a set of three rotating "Promontory Point" attachments, a camel hair "vegetable brush," and a simulated "limestone block" extender. Unlike Platonic Boy, or the Wrecking Ball, Jack's Beanstalk can be left in plain sight on a kitchen countertop -- leaving the owner free from fear of the disapprobatory glances of children, friends and neighbors -- but also readily available for use in one of the many impromptu (and some might say "notorious") Hyde Park "vegetable parties."

Called away moments later by the obligations of the day, here ended my reflections upon this simple set of three ideal-typical Hyde Park Vibes. I hope they provide free inspiration and commercial success to another of our proud, local retailers committed to serving all of Hyde Park's needs. Feel free to suggest your own (or to contact me for questions of industrial design and patenting).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More Orly's Drama: Celebrity Chef Splits on Shopiro

posted by chicago pop

Celebrity Chef Jen Gavin, formerly of The Big Easy/Orly's*****

We'll get straight to the dish on this one: at a time when many folks have reason to celebrate all things New Orleans, The Big Easy (or Orly's, as it will always be known in our hearts, sort of like the Sears Tower will always be just that) is down one celebrity chef.

Here's what Hungry Hound Steve Dolinsky has to say about the drama on his Adventures in Urban Eating blog:

Less than a month after opening its doors, chef Jennifer Gavin and The Big Easy (not to be confused with Big Easy Cajun at Old Orchard Shopping Mall) have parted ways. Gavin – a former contestant on “Hell’s Kitchen” – had been brought in to help overhaul the new menu and concept in the former JalapeƱo’s/Orly’s space in Hyde Park, on 55th St.

We ate there once a few weeks ago and noticed a definite improvement in the menu, plus an attempt to spruce the place up with a coherent decor and a new coat of paint. But, alas, the curse of Orly's seems to have quickly set in, and now the folks behind the latest Orly's makeover are now kitty-hissing at one another:

“She up and quit on us, right in the middle of the shift on Saturday afternoon,” said owner David Shopiro. “Jennifer, while a good kitchen person, was more into being a celebrity.” Shopiro said the restaurant was pretty busy this past Saturday, and they were expecting a large group from Operation Push to come in around 1 p.m. Gavin had approached him, asking if she could do an exit interview for the Fox TV f0lks at 1 p.m. “She told me it would take a few minutes, so I thought, o.k.,” said Shopiro. Next thing he knows, the kitchen is in the weeds, and the team is clamoring for help. Customers were getting upset that the food was coming out slow. “I went to the office at 1:25 p.m., and it was locked, so I was shaking the door, asking her to get off of the phone, and come out to help,” said Shopiro. “By 1:40 p.m., customers were getting pissed off, so I started pounding on door, telling her to give them your phone number and call them back,” an exasperated Shopiro recounted. Two minutes later, he says, the chef walked out to the kitchen, told her boss he owed her an apology for yelling at her, and left the premises.

OK. So now here's the other side of the story:

For her part, Gavin says “things were getting a little weird, and the situation was not what I had planned on.” She has hired an attorney to assist with her separation from the business.

A little weird. That just about gets it.

****(And for more weirdness, check out Dolinsky's upcoming bit on The Big Easy this Friday (ABC 7, 11 AM) in which he interviews now-departed Gavin.)
*****Photo above sourced at: []

Harper Court: It Can Be Done (Even Here)

posted by Richard Gill

The February 8 public meeting of the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council was surprising indeed. The surprise wasn't the proposed Harper Court redevelopment, which has been the subject of large quantities of public input and communication. It was the tone of the meeting that was the big surprise. It was downright pleasant and cordial, far from the angry and disruptive meetings for which Hyde Park has become notorious.

Afterward, a number of us joked that we must have come to the wrong meeting, because Hyde Park meetings "always" have some angst and bile (recall meetings about Promontory Point, Doctors Hospital, 57th Street, the Co-op and so forth). This one did not. It was respectful, it was informative, it was civil, and most of all, there was general approval of the proposed redevelopment. How did this happen?

The TIF council, led by chairman Howard Males, has been diligent in practicing openness and communication, including very productive workshops. The University of Chicago (current owner of the property), the City, and 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle have gently but firmly moved the project forward and have left little doubt that there would be a project. The Request for Proposals was made public, and included public input. All along, it has been a local TIF project, not "The University of Chicago's project."

Also, there was no longer a corpse to fight over. The Harper Court of the 1960s has been demolished. It is gone. There had been some unpleasantness over preservation versus replacement, but that was long past. The focus now could only be on the new.

For the meeting itself, Vermilion Development, the selected principal team for the project, had done its homework. As they showed architect's renderings, they explained features that reflected public inputs. They were prepared for almost any question or criticism that might be brought up during questions and answers. As he does at all of his meetings, Howard Males clearly explained the meeting's format and length, the process leading up to this point, and the process moving forward. I think his enthusiasm for the project was contagious.

There were criticisms, but they were about availability of funding, project details, traffic, phasing and the like; there were no suggestions that the process had been closed or unfair or rammed through, or would somehow be "bad" for the neighborhood.

I don't pretend to know all the reasons why the Harper Court redevelopment seems to be largely free of public strife at this point. However, as the Point and other projects revive, as they eventually must, the proponents might do well to study the Harper Court process, in terms of securing initial public buy-in and then solidifying it, by knowing the neighborhood, responding to expressed needs and concerns, communicating and working with the public, and Aldermanic leadership.

It can be done.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hyde Parkers Suckle Federal Ag Subsidy Teat

Public Meeting on Proposed Lab School Expansion Thurs. Feb. 11

From the University of Chicago's website:

February 3, 2010

The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston invite community members to a public meeting on Thursday, Feb. 11 to discuss advance planning for a possible expansion of the Lab Schools’ early childhood facilities.

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Laboratory Schools’ Large Group Room, 126 Judd Hall. Entry is through the double doors on South Kimbark Avenue, just north of East 59th Street.

As part of a proposed expansion now under consideration, Laboratory Schools administrators have identified the need for an early childhood center that would be dedicated to children from nursery school through second grade. Those children are currently spread among several buildings.

One option for locating a new early childhood center would be on University-owned land at 5800 S. Stony Island Ave. The meeting will offer an opportunity for members of the community to hear more about the early childhood program, possible design features and the sites under consideration, as well as to ask questions.