To the Editor:
In response to Ms. Franklin’s “alternative to the McMobil plan” (letters, Feb. 27, p.4), it is equally important to hear the voices of those who support this architecturally pleasing and well-designed building on 53rd Street. This building will provide the most needed yet currently absent element to 53rd Street, additional market rate residents that will support the retail businesses and create greater demand for higher quality shops and restaurants that are badly needed in our wonderful neighborhood. The starting point is the University of Chicago’s exceptional investment in seeking to bring positive change to 53rd Street, with the rehabilitation of the movie theater, the catalyst for implementing the new development at Harper Court with pedestrian-friendly retail, hotel and an office building and now a bold new approach to bringing more residents to this ever-changing street. Safety of those who walk and shop on 53rd Street has historically been a major concern. Since the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, 53rd Street has seen many ebbs and flows in its perceived safety. Without a substantial density of residents living, shopping and strolling on the street, the retail corridor has struggled to define its position in the neighborhood. The last two shopping centers built on 53rd Street, Kimbark Plaza and Dorchester Commons, were designed to accommodate vehicles first, pedestrians second. It was a common design in the past, often mandated by local ordinances to require a minimum amount of parking to relieve the pressure on street parking and in Hyde Park’s case, to draw more shoppers further west along 53rd Street. Not only does this design provide convenience to the car shopper, it also offers a sense of security to shop only in the designated shopping center and not to stroll along 53rd Street. The result has been an inconsistent, often struggling mix of retail and dining options that have existed and changed over the years on 53rd Street since Kimbark Plaza was built. Yet, our community has always strived for better shopping options. We want places to buy clothing and small boutique shops. Might I remind Ms. Franklin that if she walks a short four blocks east from Nichols Park, she will be able to find “a scarf, a belt …” at the impressive new Akira shop? I’m not sure about finding a zipper or a tie, certainly two items that are not a top priority for shoppers in Hyde Park. We also want better dining choices, although a $3 cheeseburger at Nathans and the legendary “see your food” at Valois will hopefully remain as part of an eclectic mix of dining options. The Mesa development will be a long-needed plug in the western corridor of 53 Street. It smartly provides adequate parking inside the building and out of sight for its tenants and the public while presenting its street level retail directly in front of the pedestrian. With the increase in the number of residents at this location, Nichols Park will be active with more residents and more eyes for added safety and interest in maintaining the park and likely joining Ms. Franklin’s Nichols Park Advisory Council. More cars will add to the mix, however 53rd Street has never been a fast moving street such as the western section 55th Street past the train tracks. The benefit of already being a “slow moving street” is to discourage car use, and encourage pedestrian use. It is true the new residents might find a four-block (Ms. Franklin counts six blocks) walk along 53rd Street to the Metra train a bit chilly in the winter. However a nice walk encourages retail spending; a warm cup of coffee at Starbucks and hearty cheeseburger at Nathans or Five Guys or a slab of ribs at Ribs ‘n Bibs. It might also offer a fresh croissant or baguette at a future pastry shop. Or a place to pick up flowers on the way home from work. Ms. Franklin’s suggestion for a four-story retail complex would put far greater traffic pressure on the street, especially with the idea of an upper-level department store or mini Ikea. The last I checked, Ikea prefers about 350,000 square feet of space to operate their store successfully in the USA, far more space than any location for them in Hyde Park. Let’s not ignore the market reality of retail. Stores prefer to follow a community’s shopping needs and make certain the economic realities make sense. The Mesa development will clearly help define that goal and will assuredly bring more vibrant and exciting pedestrian retail to 53rd Street. Show your support and welcome this development.