Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Rendering of Future Harper Theater and Herald Building Renovation

posted by chicago pop

On a gray winter stretch of December, this rendering of what we can expect at 53rd and Harper is a pleasant reminder of what Chicago streetlife can be like in the summer, and hopefully will be again soon at this location. Hat tip to HPP reader SS for the link at The Architect's Newspaper.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lab School, Shoesmith Elementary, and Educational Inequality

posted by chicago pop

A couple of weeks ago the amazing blog CPS Obsessed touched on a topic dear to us all but not much covered at HPP: education. Specifically, public education, the free kind, the stuff that is supposed to come with taxes and an address here in the neighborhood. I'll get straight to the remark that got me thinking:
#50. UC Lab gets a $5 million donation from an alum to build a new arts wing. Yes, Lab is an amazing school, I’m sure, and yes, they do offer some scholarships, but, but, but. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Shoesmith received a $5 million donation? Or heck, even $500,000? I wonder what the arts program at the average CPS school is like in Hyde Park? The rich get richer…
As some of you may know (or maybe not, since when most non-Lab financing Hyde Parkers think of their public elementary school, they think "Ray" or "Murray," note that these schools are halfway decent, and that they therefore will not have to move to the suburbs), there has been a moderate bit of buzz in the northern edge of the hood arising from the selection of a new principal at Shoesmith Elementary in beautiful Kenwood.

An inspiring group of parents from the Shoesmith district have formed a Friends of Shoesmith Elementary group with the aim of supporting the school's new and energetic principal in her efforts to turn the school around. It's a tall order, however. As lovely as are the old mansions and brownstones that surround Shoesmith on every side, the school does not fill to capacity and of necessity takes in children from outside the neighborhood. Scores have improved, but the school is still on probation with the CPS. The enrollment is almost uniformly African-American and low-income. Most of the white middle class parents who live in the district  don't send their kids there. Full disclosure: this includes me.

Meanwhile, as everyone has heard, the Lab School, in addition to its other expansions and projects, has just landed a $5 million grant for a new arts wing.

We seriously thought about enrolling our charge at Shoesmith, did our due diligence, and have done our small bit to help out. We'd love to see it turn around. But I wonder even if all the tall hurdles facing Shoesmith and other inner city public schools could be overcome, would it be possible to overcome one hurdle particular to Hyde Park: the existence of the Lab School and a few other private options like it? Does the Lab school inevitably skim off the cohort that would, all things being equal, attend the local schools and thereby help to correct some of the problems that stem from lack of social and economic diversity? Does the channeling of resources to an elite institution like Lab only deepen the gulf of local educational inequality?

The comment on the above-linked CPS post gets at this. It's part of the broader dynamic city-wide, in which people who have the resources or wherewithal can opt-out of a public system, thereby exacerbating many of the problems that keep public schools in a cycle of under performance. 

Another very candid comment laid out the situation in Shoesmith's district as it breaks down along class and racial lines:
#58 .There is a huge money gap in the Shoesmith area. there is a significant number of people who are very wealty, a significant number who live on the edges of the Shoesmith area that are low income/in subsidized housing, and a small number of middle/upper middle class families.

In my opinion, the vast majority very rich probably wouldn’t consider Shoesmith, even if it was a great CPS school b/c they are Lab/Ancona/Latin/Parker families.

The low income families have no other choice by Shoesmith and don’t have the connections/political weight/etc.. to make Nettlehorst happen.

The middle/upper middle class families (of which I’m one) could be the difference makers in turning Shoesmith but the questons for them, is seems to me, are (1) are there enough of them to make a difference at the school, (2) is the school going to be responsive, (3) is it worth the risk for their kids, (4) do any of them have the Nettlehorst-type connections, (5) and is it worth the effort knowing you’ll have to do it all over again for middle school b/c Canter MS is not a good option?

Not long ago, I had to think through these issues about Shoesmith, and decided it was better for my family to do the CPS magnet/RGC/classical lottery, or pay for Catholic school because Shoesmith seemed too much of a risk.

I still wonder what it would be like to try & make it appealing to the neighborhood, wonder if I made the wrong deicision and should have fought for Shoesmith instead of finding another school outside our neighborhood, and can’t tell you how many of my neighors who made the same decision I did say how they wish we could have our kids all the same school, right down the street.
Painful truths. As with retail, safety, sustainability, and so much else, it all comes down to head count. Are there enough middle class families and children in the district to turn Shoesmith around? In raw numbers, perhaps, but how many of them will inevitably be drawn to Lab? How much larger would the local population therefore have to be for Shoesmith to reliably enroll a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body within its own district boundaries?

As one of our  neighborhood's preeminent educational institutions lands a multi-million dollar windfall, while another struggles to fill its classrooms with local kids, these are questions worth pondering.

The 'Academics of Real Estate': Harper Court in the Wall Street Journal

posted by chicago pop

[You may have noticed that I've been on a little bit of a hiatus from blogging lately, but  a number of kind readers have encouraged me to quit loafing and get into my sweatpants (as one is clothed when blogging, by definition). Yes, there is still stuff going on in this fine neighborhood, a lot of it promising, such as what follows. And if you really think something should be up on this space, let me know: sending me stuff is the best way to get an issue broadcast. Because I'm lazy.]

Old news, yes, but worth excerpting: this good summary of Harper Court from the Wall Street Journal (paywall), which highlights the fact that this $134 million project is exceptional for being a major counter-cyclical investment. In the midst of a continued global recession and tight credit in real estate lending nationwide, there is nothing comparable to it on the South Side, and little else in Chicago or equivalent neighborhoods in other metro areas. How is this possible according to the laws of economics?

Why, it's the Chicago School, of course.
In a new bid to revitalize an area just north of its campus, the University of Chicago is subsidizing the mixed-use project, known as Harper Court, through various forms of assistance.
The university is selling land to the developer for $1 million that it bought for about $9 million; it is guaranteeing the $22 million construction loan on the 130-room hotel; and it is leasing the full 150,000 square feet of office space. Further, the city of Chicago is putting in about $20 million in a subsidy that comes from forgone future taxes on the site.
The moves provided the spark for a development that wouldn't have occurred otherwise, in a neighborhood long eschewed by investors. A formal groundbreaking occurred earlier this month at the site in Hyde Park, a neighborhood filled with students, university staff and faculty. By and large, poorer neighborhoods surround it, and large new private developments have been few and far between.
The university has a history in Chicago of steadily expanding its campus with new dorms, labs and classrooms. But that isn't what's behind this foray into the real-estate investment arena. Rather, it is being fueled by a desire to make the area around its campus more attractive to its students and faculty.
"We're not trying to flip these properties for profit," says David Green, executive vice president at the University of Chicago. "We're trying to really help invest in a way to spur development in the area."
Taking the role of both master planner and pioneer investor, universities in economically struggling urban areas have increasingly taken the lead on commercial developments to improve the livability of their neighborhoods.
The Journal points out, as we have on the blog, that other institutions like Penn have pursued similarly aggressive development agendas when it seemed that the market was unwilling to make major bets on the neighborhood. Of course, this entails a risk, but so does the choice to run a top-tier research university in a neighborhood that often only minimally meets basic standards of service and amenities expected by its staff and students.

53rd Street is singled out, to no great surprise, as full of potential but wanting over the last few years.
Harper Court, on 53rd Street, is a historic retail strip, dotted with a hodgepodge of retail outlets, from banks to a mattress store. Its Valois Cafeteria, a classic neighborhood eatery, has occasionally been visited by President Obama upon his returns to Chicago.

But the university has higher aspirations. "It hasn't been a great neighborhood street, or a real destination where there's an interesting mix of shops and services," says Mr. Green.
Elsewhere on 53rd Street, the efforts of the school are aimed at renovating older buildings. Earlier this year, it began renovating an old movie theater, and it leased a storefront it owns to a 24-hour diner.

"You have a real healthy combination of interesting development opportunities and good buildings with interesting space," says Josh Sirefman, a consultant for the university on the revitalization and a former New York City economic development official.
Based on the tall cranes and fencing around the Harper Court lot, and the spiffed up Herald Building now home to Five Guys, so far things look like a good bet. The kind of bet that probably should have been made a long time ago.