Letters to the Editor

B&B plan could save valuable properties

Editor’s note: The following letter was sent to Ald. Will Burns (4th).

Dear Alderman Burns:

The people of Hyde Park-Kenwood are very aware of architectural issues and have a special interest in Frank Lloyd Wright houses. The Robie House is the “crown jewel” of Hyde Park architecture, and the Heller House is also well known. Unfortunately, it has been for sale for more than a year and although it is in excellent condition and available at an appropriate price, no one has bought it.

Most of Hyde Park was not aware of the Pritzker proposal for the other two FLW houses (Blossom and McArthur) in the neighborhood or that the matter was being brought up in your last ward meeting. Those two houses are in bad shape (I have seen them) and if major work is not done soon, they might be lost to decay. That would be inexcusable. The Pritzker proposal seems generous and eminently feasible. B&Bs are quiet enterprises in general. Any FLW B&B will be pricey and will attract upscale clients, many of them with architectural interests. These two houses, restored and functioning as B&Bs, would make a splendid addition to Hyde Park/Kenwood – and might be the only way to save these exceptional architectural treasures.

Taking all this into consideration, I hope you will reconsider your recent decision to reject the Pritzker proposal and bring the question before a larger quorum where it can be discussed extensively before a final decision is made.
Vreni Naess

Clearing the air on Harper Court

To the Editor:

In recent days, some discussion has arisen about Harper Court that would benefit from a clearer recollection of the project’s history and the role that tax increment financing played in making it possible.

For years, Hyde Park residents had asked for amenities the market was unwilling to provide. In 2008, at the request of the City of Chicago, the University of Chicago purchased the old Harper Court and agreed to work with the community, leading a public-private partnership that would bring new retail activity and new economic opportunity to the neighborhood. In the face of a global financial crisis that put a halt to projects in Chicago and across the nation, Harper Court moved ahead to a successful opening only through extraordinary efforts from the university, the city, the community and the private developers. Among the university’s contributions were the donation of a property that had cost the university $10 million, the university’s credit rating, and years of time and expertise from staff and outside professionals, worth millions more.

Another critical contribution came through tax increment financing. TIF districts capture additional real estate taxes generated by new development, beyond existing real estate taxes, to catalyze economic development in underserved neighborhoods — exactly what has happened at Harper Court. Through the 53rd Street TIF district, the city invested $2 million to help launch Harper Court. The promise of $17.5 million in new real estate taxes generated by the new development allowed the developer to obtain financing critical to the project. The real estate taxes paid by the university and the retail stores will repay the TIF investment by the city. Without this public-private partnership, the developers would not have had the financing to move forward, and Harper Court never would have been launched. 

Last month, the University of Chicago exercised an option to purchase Harper Court, to assure that the development will continue to support a balance of quality national, regional and locally owned businesses, consistent with community values and the vision articulated by neighbors through the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council, visioning workshops and other planning processes. Rather than claiming exemption from property taxes, the university committed to pay full market rate real estate taxes through 2024, when the 53rd Street TIF district expires. After that, the expanded tax base will remain, generating new support for schools and city services. In the meantime, Harper Court’s success has catalyzed new businesses nearby that are already providing additional support to schools and city services through their ongoing tax payments.

The university has invested a great deal in Harper Court and 53rd Street to help attract amenities, create jobs and support new business opportunities. As neighbors, we are committed to seeing Hyde Park flourish, now and in the future. But this represents only a small part of our engagement and investment in the community. Take public schooling: the university operates four standout charter school campuses on the city’s South Side serving 1,800 students and provides enrichment programs for more than 900 high school and middle school students. At the same time, more than 400 U. of C. students volunteered with Chicago school students last year, donating more than 35,000 hours last year as teaching assistants and support staff at more than 50 partner sites. UChicago Promise helped 1,100 local high school students apply for college, waived $89,000 in application fees for students from Chicago and committed to replacing more than $2.2 million in loans with grants for Chicago undergraduates who qualify for financial aid. Along with police protection, transportation, medical care, cultural opportunities, job training and much more, this is an important part of our civic engagement mission, and a significant mutual benefit that comes from the partnership between a great urban research university and a great city.

Derek Douglas
Vice President for Civic Engagement
University of Chicago

B&B proposal a practical choice

To the Editor:

Regarding the decision to oppose bed-and-breakfast status for two Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Kenwood:

Many neighbors with whom I have communicated on this issue were very surprised to read about Ald. Will Burns’ (4th) opposition to this proposal and even more surprised to hear about the meeting at which the B&B proposal was discussed. Nobody seems to have heard anything about it beforehand, and everybody I’ve talked with seems to feel that a B&B might be the best solution given the circumstances. Nobody wants to see these lovely houses deteriorate further and end up being demolished. I find it hard to believe that the dissenting neighbors want that either.

Dreams of two separate owners swooping in to buy each of these houses and then spending what might well be $1 million each in renovations in addition to the purchase price are not likely to come true. With further deterioration, demolition may well become inevitable. And then what? Two vacant lots? New residential construction out of keeping with the architecture of the neighborhood?

At which point there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, but by then it will be too late.

Carolyn Ulrich

Village Thanksgiving drew many together

To the Editor:

We were pleased that you could join us at our Thanksgiving “Pot Luck” and capture the spirit of this celebration in photos you shared with the rest of Hyde Park. The event was a collaboration of Augustana Lutheran Church of Chicago with Chicago Hyde Park Village (CHPV) and some University of Chicago students. Augustana provided the turkey, social hall and sides; CHPV provided a ham and beverages and everyone else brought delicious sides and desserts. Many came directly after the community service at Rockefeller Chapel. We hosted mostly small groups and singles who liked the idea of joining together to share a meal, thanks and fellowship of this special American holiday. We also welcomed some foreign nationals who wished to experience an American Thanksgiving yet also share some of their native dishes with us, and a few students who had remained in town over the short break. We think this may be the start of a wonderful new Hyde Park tradition and hope we can do it again next year.

Susan Alitto
President, Chicago Hyde Park Village

Ald. Burns explains B&B decision

To the Editor:

Some residents have enquired as to why I decided to end discussions on converting two Frank Lloyd Wright homes to bed-and-breakfasts.

Leading up to the meeting, I encouraged the developer to meet with Kenwood residents to mitigate opposition to the project, which the developer did. I also talked to several of our neighbors regarding the project in advance of the meeting. I had hoped that our neighbors who were concerned about the project would have been assuaged by the developer’s presentation. The presentation answered many questions regarding future use, parking, events on the site, historic preservation, and the developer’s long-term interest in the properties. The opposition to the project centered on the commercial use of these two homes and commercial activity in residential quarter of the neighborhood.

At the meeting, we could not even discuss how the bed-and-breakfast would be operationalized because the vast majority of attendees at the meeting did not want a bed-and-breakfast under any circumstance.

Said differently, the differences between the opponents and the proponents of the project were as to whether the project should occur in the first instance. From my vantage point, more meetings would not have resolved that problem, because a vocal, diverse and large group of Kenwood residents are unalterably opposed to this proposal.

Ald. William D. Burns (4th)

U. of C. owes schools for Harper Court TIF $

To the Editor:

Now that the University of Chicago has taken direct ownership of the Harper Court project structures (it has owned the land, through its real estate development arm, for some time), we are faced with the undeniable fact that the $23.4 million TIF subsidy for this development was for the university’s benefit.

Half of the TIF subsidy — $11.7 million — came at the expense of the Chicago Public Schools. So, millions were taken from our cash-strapped school system to subsidize a private institution with a multi-billion dollar endowment. The subsidy was given by the 53rd Street TIF.

The 53rd Street TIF was supposed to be different from the many TIFs that cover much of our city. At its founding, the 53rd Street TIF was intended to pay for: (a) local schools; (b) street improvements (such as Cleanslate); and (c) parking, in our already congested neighborhood.

All of these objectives have been abandoned. The 53rd Street TIF is now no different from the other TIFs.

The university, as part of its civic engagement, played a role in the debasement of the 53rd Street TIF. It promoted the development of the Harper Court project — on its land — without any consideration of the TIF objectives.

The university ought consider a constructive act of civic engagement — and restore public confidence in the 53rd Street TIF — by making grants to our local schools, for at least half of the TIF subsidy it received. This would help the schools meet infrastructure needs that the CPS has been neglecting due to its lack of funds. It would also help fund the hiring of the teaching personnel CPS needs to give our neighborhood children the “longer, better school day” they have been promised, but have yet to receive.

Marc Lipinski

Happy to see changes on 53rd Street

To the Editor:

At 69 years of age, I’m happy to see improvements to our shopping options. Without a car, I am frequently on 53rd Street visiting my old favorites Kimberly Lee and Supreme. Recently I’ve added Comfort Me to my list of places to shop. My cousin and I visit the theater once a week and we change up our restaurant visits to include newcomers and reliable old standbys.

Progress is good as long as we still maintain that friendly feeling of visiting a merchant who treats you like a friend. Having moved to Hyde Park out of choice at the age of 21, I sought a community with young and old, integrated and with a social conscience. I think I got exactly what I was looking for.

There are some things I would love to see happen to help our retail area. Since the University of Chicago will be running a shuttle between Harper Court and the university, why not operate a shuttle that would take residents from Harper Court down 53rd Street to the shopping area that contains Hyde Park Produce and is across the street from [Freehling Pot and Pan Company]. This would encourage more business and soften the blow of TIF funds used, in effect, by the university. Residents would feel they are getting something in return. Imagine something attractive like the red tour buses making their way down 53rd Street.

Next, I think as a community we have to remember our ongoing commitment to the arts. Why can’t one of the Harper spaces go to Artisans 21 perhaps shared with Fair Trade? The Arts Council received $6 million from the university. I’m sure they have spent some of that money wisely, however, as a resident, I have never seen an accounting of that money in the Herald. Why couldn’t the Arts Council underwrite the rent for two years for these establishments?

Finally, great care needs to go into the blocks of storefronts starting at Harper and going west. For 40 years we had a gallery on 53rd Street. The Waller gallery was as comfortable as [57th Street Books]. To this day I have a wonderful piece of art Mr. Waller gave to me when I was in my 20s — Other pieces went on a lay-a-way plan. Then came Joe Smith’s gallery and his wonderful work he did with the teens in the area. Why is that location being utilized as a residence? Is the zoning not for retail? Do we have no control over our retail corridor? Can the chamber of commerce issue recommendations for retail windows?

We have not lost our small town community — we need only to care for it like an old friend.

Karen Phillips

57th Street Books a book lover’s paradise

To the Editor:

I moved to Hyde Park and told a North Side book-loving friend that I could now live happily ever after, for there was hardly a direction I could walk without encountering a bookstore. He looked at me solemnly and said, “Why, it’s like an alcoholic moving in above a tavern.”

Part of that happiness has been walking down to 57th Street Books which, I learned recently, is celebrating its 30th anniversary at that location. I may not have visited the bookstore quite as often as the hypothetical alcoholic has dropped in to the hypothetical tavern down below – while I don’t have an accurate count, my visits could be conservatively estimated to be somewhere in the four-digit range. It was also nice that our children, as they were growing up, could stroll down to 57th Street Books and charge (or even order) any book their little hearts desired (within reason, of course).

It goes without saying that I like the place.

57th Street Books is sometimes called the “popular” branch of the Seminary Co-op (now at 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave.), but it continues the tradition of Staver’s Books, the previous occupant of the basement store at 57th Street and Kimbark Avenue, by offering books that the mega bookstores would never dream of carrying.

A friend told me she once called Walden Books, logically it seemed, to see if the store had any editions of Thoreau’s “Walden.” The clerk responded, “Is that a book?” I can’t imagine ever getting such a response at 57th Street Books.

Going to 57th Street Books, in fact, is like walking into the pages of “Times Literary Supplement” or “The New York Review of Books”: always a pleasure, always a delight, always worth returning to again and again.

Barry Kritzberg

Tornadoes remind us of need for trauma center

To the Editor:

During Sunday, Oct. 23’s storm, tornado warnings appeared on our television screens, and sirens that people were telling each other were new tornado warning sirens sounded loudly in Hyde Park. Fortunately, we missed the worst of the storm, which hit downstate, where at least five people died. In Peoria, a spokesperson for St. Francis Medical Center was reported to have said that the hospital treated victims with head injuries, broken bones, cuts and bruises and that eight were sent to the trauma unit. If the threat of a tornado here in Chicago this week was considered serious enough to evacuate Soldier Field, wouldn’t you think that the threat of future tornados would be regarded as serious enough to make provisions for opening a trauma center on the South Side to provide for prompt and effective treatment of the victims?

Caroline Herzenberg

Happy birthday to 57th Street Books

To the Editor:

Congratulations to the Seminary Co-op Bookstores on the 30th anniversary of its 57th Street Books last month. 57th Street Books fills a place in the literary life of my family and the community that is very special. From its very beginning, my family and I would go to the store most weekends, whether on a lazy summer afternoon or dark, wintry day. Each of us would seek out our special place in the store. My son to the children’s books, my husband to the front table for history and politics and I to literature. All of us content, we might not find each other again for an hour or more, and, when we did, it was always to buy good books, promising homebound pleasure. It’s been the place where I ordered the syllabus titles for my son’s high school reading classes, where I buy most of my birthday and holiday gifts, attend favorite author events and have gotten to know and appreciate its marvelous staff over the years. I believe that the niche 57th Street Books has filled for the past 30 years for my family and me represents its broader importance as the neighborhood bookstore for the Hyde Park community. Here’s to another 30!

Debra Hammond

A final farewell from Artisans 21

To the Editor:

This is the last opportunity for Artisans 21 to invite all faithful friends of the arts and crafts to its annual Open House Dec. 7 and 8, from noon to 4 p.m.

After more than 45 years of providing Hyde Park and Kenwood (actually, all of Chicago) with original ceramics, jewelry, clothing, photography, mosaics, calligraphy, paintings, blown glass, quilting, etc., we will close on Dec. 24.

We thank everyone for supporting the arts through good times and bad. We will never forget your warm, perceptive enthusiasm.

Rob Borja for Artisans 21

Welcome to Lake Forest

To the Editor:

A century ago, Kenwood was an ultra-elite neighborhood with the cream of Chicago’s wealthiest families living in the most extravagant houses in town. A week ago Monday night’s Kenwood community meeting about the conversion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Blossom and McArthur houses to bed and breakfast establishments marked the return of Kenwood to its former and rightful glory.

The neighbors proudly and gallantly rejected a billionaire’s offer to carefully restore two of the most important examples of Prairie School interior design in the world. Not for any amount of silver would the community compromise its principles and risk the intrusion of the undesirable lower classes. Packer fans down for the big Bears game might show up and tailgate-party in the street. Deliveries of desired luxury goods might be delayed by taxi cabs idling at the curb. And, of course, there’s always the danger of strangers stealing scarce public parking places. One couldn’t expect one’s family and important friends to stay in a “commercial” establishment like a mere bed and breakfast when they could lodge at a new, second-rate Hyatt a few blocks away. We certainly wouldn’t want the kind of commercialization where families illegally rent rooms to students or professionals illegally see clients in their homes. To the unsophisticated, this may sound like self-indulgent whining from a Republican suburb, but, when you pay big money for a big house, you should get to have things just the way you want them. What a relief that the barbarian invasion has been thwarted. (By the way, the proposed total cost to said billionaire would have been $7 million for a total of ten guest rooms at $300 to $500 per night —well within the price range of the hoi polloi.)

Although the exteriors of the Blossom and MacArthur houses are protected by the Kenwood Landmark District ordinance, unfortunately the interiors are not. The interiors are works of the highest art even if from the outside one looks like another classic revival house and the other like a big, lost barn. In both houses, Frank Lloyd Wright created a revolutionary way of organizing interior space. There are few doors separating rooms but the interlocking domestic areas unfold in a way that provides a sense of warm intimacy. He pulls off this miracle with the use of restrained finishes, the inspired placement of windows and the most remarkable wood moldings and cabinetry you may ever see. Wright hadn’t yet learned how to make his exteriors express his revolutionary interiors, as he did spectacularly at the Robie House 16 years later.

Although both houses are in absolutely terrible shape, the Landmark designation allows us to hope they won’t be torn down. But nothing can prevent new owners from butchering the interiors. Do yourself a favor. Call your favorite real estate broker. Pretend you’re interested in buying them. Your walk-through may be your last chance to see these world-class, local works of art.

Jack Spicer

Thanks to the Herald for new series

To the Editor:

We look forward to the Herald’s new series on “Lost Hyde Park.”

I liked the observation in the announcement that “Hyde Park today is one of the best places in America to view the rich complexity of urban architecture, where history reflects the spirit of ever-changing eras.” Anyone who has lived here for a few decades can only think “Oh yes — How true.” Thanks to the Herald, as always, for reflecting and sharing.

Charles Custer

University concern about input hollow

To the Editor:

So the South East Chicago Commission is now conducting a traffic study “as a result of the 53rd Street Visioning Workshops.” I applaud the volunteer spirit of the community members who will serve on the committee. But the concerns about traffic were raised at the first Visioning Workshop in 2007, so why wait six years for this study? We should be skeptical of the argument that the delay occurred because “funding was available now.”

Why did the university not seek such a comprehensive study before moving forward with the huge Vue53 development at the McMobil site? Such a study might have produced a recommendation that development at McMobil be kept in scale. The SECC website, however, states that the current study seeks “recommendations relating to bus shelters, sidewalks and crosswalks, signage, biking facilities, streetscape improvements, shared or consolidated parking, ‘control of parking demand through pricing’ and parking requirements that will encourage pedestrian-friendly development.” It pointedly does NOT seek any recommendations related to the scale of potential developments. Community input is welcome up to a point.

At the first Visioning Workshop in 2007, the university and the SECC showed that they had an agenda to seek community acceptance of an out-of-scale building at the McMobil site. (The details are too long for this letter, but can be read on the website save53rdstreet.org.) At the end of the workshop, which had focused on issues around Harper Court, we were asked out of the blue to vote on whether we would accept a mid-rise (3-12 story) building “somewhere in the 53rd St. TIF district.” It was obvious to many of us that this was a transparent attempt to be able to spin the workshop results as community support for a tall building at the McMobil site.

My friends and fellow citizens on the committee should be mindful that the SECC and the university have an agenda here: they want to be able to claim that they sought community input and got community buy-in, but they also want to dictate what the questions are, just as in 2007 they refused to let the workshop participants take a separate vote on whether we would support a mid-rise building at the McMobil site. They have never asked that question, because they do not want to hear the answer. I call upon the Parking and Transit Committee to make sure that the right questions are asked.

Michael Scott

Save the 47th Street fitness complex

To the Editor:

Hyde Park has a wonderful asset which we might lose.

For the past several months, rumors have spread about the property at 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue. Currently, it houses the following facilities: XS Tennis, an indoor tennis club, LA fitness and the University of Chicago Physical Therapy and Advocate Health Outpatient Center. The rumor mill contends that the site will no longer exist housing the above. Instead, it will be a retail business.

The site as it currently exists is truly an asset to this community: Individual players who practice here come from all over the city: as far north as the Ravenswood neighborhood to Museum Park, to the near North Side to Chatham on the Southern perimeters. It is the only indoor tennis court facility between East Bank to the North and Evergreen Park at 95th Street. The University of Illinois Women’s Tennis Team and the USTA and Illiana teams use it as their home training base. (The USTA 3.0 Women’s team is the current regional champion).

In its present location, the physical therapy center is attractive to its customers as it offers free parking and short walking distances. It is imperative to patients’ compliance to have highly trained professionals and easy accessibility in the vicinity (four CTA bus lines — No. 2, 6, 28 and 47 — and an exit/entrance ramp at 47th Street to Lake Shore Drive) as it means continuing quality in care. The staff at this facility is outstanding. The site is close to the parking. Its proximity to parking, walking and public transportation makes it the ideal facility for therapy. 

When approached about the possibility of staying, the providers of these facilities have all offered to continue their services at the above site. How can we — as a community — ensure that the site will continue functioning in its present form?

We, the undersigned, are willing — as a community — to support any efforts undertaken to the continuation of this site in its present form as indoor tennis courts, a fitness center and a physical therapy and outpatient care facility.

Carol Gittler
Christing Uhlig
Barbara Asner
Rita Glass
Pat Hollingsworth
Judith Shuldiner
Margaret Saphir
David Appel
John Coleman Jr.
Tim Moore
Ed Taylor
Sabina Charles
Bob Hartfield
Brad Lyttle
Russell Ray
Vivian Tillman