Letters to the Editor

A booster for new Hyde Park stores

To the Editor:

Hyde Park has been my home since 1999, when I moved here as a high school student with my mom. I loved it; it was a true community. All the kids grew up together, went to school together, played sports together and knew each other’s parents. And it was diverse, certainly more so than other parts of Chicago. When I went away to school at Howard University, I knew I would come back home to Hyde Park.

I did in 2008. I still loved my neighborhood, but as a young adult, I found that my needs had changed. Hyde Park did not offer all of the amenities, social opportunities, retail and entertainment preferences that suited my lifestyle. For those, I typically headed north, along with other Hyde Parkers of my generation.

That’s why I am excited about the redevelopment that’s been going on in Hyde Park, specifically along 53rd Street. While I miss some of the businesses that have now come and gone like Dixie Kitchen, there’s a new vibe that’s spreading throughout my community: Vibrancy. Things are changing, and as a single, 28 year-old sales professional who travels a lot for business, it’s great to know that when I am home, my options to shop, eat and play in Hyde Park are growing and becoming more varied.

I hope Hyde Park will always have the small businesses that have long been the fabric of our community. I think residents will demand it. We are what keeps a shop like the 57th Street Books going, while giant Borders folded. I am super-excited about Whole Foods coming, but not at the expense of Treasure Island. Diversity has always been what’s best about Hyde Park, and I think that includes diversity in retail — the right retail. To thrive economically, Hyde Park must offer places that appeal to its longtime residents, while giving millennials like me a reason to stay.

We still would like to see entertainment venues open up. But thanks to retailers like Ulta, Sir & Madame, a multi-screen theater and growing dining options, I’ve been heading north less and less. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
Bediah Bell

Business owner extols New Hyde Park

To the Editor:

I have been a lifelong resident of Hyde Park, and I am a business and property owner here. I understand the pulse of the streets, the heart of the people and the desperate need for growth. To watch the transformation of the 53rd Street corridor take place is electrifying and well overdue. I always dreamed of one day seeing upscale restaurants, boutiques and exquisite eateries on the 53rd Street “strip” as we called it — and why not?

Hyde Park is a community within itself. Unique in that its very fabric is woven by a diversity of people with an awesome flare — we are sophisticated, yet compassionate about our community. We are a community unafraid to roll up our sleeves and make something good happen. This flare, this sophistication is now sure to ignite. It allows the opportunity for outsiders and insiders to come out, eat, drink and shop and all have a good time. For us, it’s all about the quality of life.

As I reflect on my childhood experience in Hyde Park, and even when I have ventured away to find residence in New York and Europe, I always seem to find my way right back to this place I call home. Today, home is a great place to live, to take my daughter out to eat and shop. No longer do I have to go outside my community. It’s a sense of pride to be able to continue to give back to my community by shopping, eating and — yes, can you believe it — going to a movie in my own backyard. As a homeowner, and entrepreneur, I am so grateful for the new and improved Hyde Park community.

Lisa C. Pilot-Livingston

U. of C. must own up to TIF gains

To the Editor:

Rather than “Clearing the air on Harper Court” (Dec. 11), University of Chicago Vice President for Civic Engagement Derek Douglas’s letter about the financing of the Harper Court development obscures the level of public investment provided for the project. Douglas says, “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.” It sounds like Douglas needs a refresher on how a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district works.

Douglas states correctly that TIF assistance for the project included direct investment of $2 million from money already in the TIF fund and additional financing to be repaid from future tax revenues for a total of $20.04 million (he does not mention the $3.4 million grant of city-owned land to the project). The way the TIF works is that the city provides that financing through bonds to be paid from future tax revenues. So not only are 20 million tax dollars NOT used for schools and city services, they are also not available for anything else within the TIF district. And if the TIF goes bankrupt (for example, if the university claims exemption from property taxes), the taxpayers are still liable for that $20 million.

Thus, the developer received $20 million from the TIF as well as additional financing from private investors, whom it presumably paid off when the university bought the property for $98 million. The university now owns the property, the private investors have their return and the developer turns its profit. The only investors who have not yet been made whole are the taxpayers (through the TIF district), who not only never get their initial $2 million back but who will need to pay the remaining $18 million over the next 11 years in the form of all the property taxes collected on Harper Court as well as an additional $750,000 each year from the rest of the TIF district.

Douglas speaks proudly of the university’s choice not to claim a tax exemption for Harper Court, but the redevelopment agreement depended upon diverting those Harper Court tax revenues. Presumably after 2024 there may be some tax revenue available for things like schools, though Douglas’s letter implies that the university may choose to claim its tax exemption at that point. Rather than extolling its benevolence to the community, the university would do better to acknowledge the enormous public subsidy it received in its latest real estate deal.

(Figures taken from the Staff Report to the Community Development Commission about the Harper Court Project: www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dcd/supp_info/tif/53rd_street_tif_.html)

Michael Scott
Hannah Hayes

Ald. Burns, reconsider on Kenwood B&Bs

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

Dear Alderman Burns:

Two of Chicago’s architectural treasures are in danger of decaying: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Blossom and McArthur houses. If they could be saved by permitting their use as bed-and-breakfasts, this should be allowed to happen. To let these buildings waste away or be torn down would add to Chicago’s already existing reputation as a destroyer of important historic architecture (the Stock Exchange, the Bertrand Goldberg building at Northwestern University Hospital, etc.).

Two B&Bs are located on my street in the 4th Ward (Ellis Avenue). The traffic that they generate is so unobtrusive that some of my neighbors don’t even know that they exist. The concern about increased traffic is a red herring. As for transients wandering around the neighborhood, people who can pay $300 a night to stay in a B&B are unlikely to be undesirables —another red herring. 

Let’s check with the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development about allowable uses in zone RT4 (formerly R4) before we worry about rezoning. B&Bs are probably already an allowable use. Chicago’s zoning code permitted small, unobtrusive businesses to operate in areas designated R4, and it is probably also true of the newer designation, RT4. 

For sure – let’s rethink using these houses as B&Bs. They are potential economic and cultural assets to Hyde Park/Kenwood and to Chicago.

Richard Sessions

I agree with Currie on fracking regulations

To the Editor:

I agree with state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25) that the regulations for fracking need to be stronger and more clearly defined. The proposed rules do not do enough to protect the health of the communities. Hydraulic fracturing is a process that uses and chemically contaminates billions gallons of fresh water per year that would otherwise be available for human consumption. Much of the contaminated water remains in the wells, which can threaten the underground water sources.

 With no needed protections surrounding these ponds, it could leak into drinking water sources. Since the abundance of chemicals is unknown to the community, they do not know their potential health risks. How scary would it be to raise your kids in an area you grew up, only to find later in life that because of the chemicals in your water they developed cancer? I am not saying that any chemicals that are used in fracking are known to the public as carcinogens, but that does not rule out that strong possibility. The companies are exempt from disclosing the types of chemicals on the grounds that they are “trade secrets.” How is it that politicians are protecting companies over the health of their constituents?

I believe the proposed rules need to be strengthened to protect the health of the surrounding communities from the threat of fracking chemicals. I urge people to read the proposed rules and submit their personal comments and opinions.

Molly Olson

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

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

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