Letters to the Editor

It’s too late to yearn for B&B project

To the Editor:

The articles and letters about the pros and cons of B&Bs in Kenwood are interesting, but isn’t the point moot? I assume that the Tawani Foundation has withdrawn its offers for the two Frank Lloyd Wright houses. For good reasons. There are plenty of interesting historic properties all over Chicago with which it can work – including similar Frank Lloyd Wrights. It does not need these two houses. And if I were them, I would not want to work in Kenwood after the meeting at the Episcopal Church on Nov. 18. I thought that meeting was an embarrassment. We residents of Kenwood came across as totally provincial – lacking any grace or savvy. Not distinguishing between Tawani’s highly unusual proposal and other pedestrian development proposals.

The meeting was also disappointing because there was no real discussion of the issues involved. The plug got pulled in response to what I would characterize as a group of school-yard bullies. I came to the meeting dubious about the project, but like a lot of people, was intimidated by the immediate negative outburst. Led, I might say, by one of my dearest friends, so I should have been able to speak up.
I did not, and do not, fear that the two B&Bs proposed by the Foundation would cause the collapse of our neighborhood or undermine its character. Indeed, as proposed, they would have most likely added to its quality:

  • If Tawani’s other projects are indicative of its restoration work, it would have created two architectural gems to add to our historic renown — including restoration of their interiors. One of which, the Blossom House, is of national and international importance.
  • The visitors that the B&Bs would have attracted to the neighborhood (those willing to pay $200 or $250 a night to sleep in a Frank Lloyd Wright house) would not have detracted from the sterling character of we full-time residents. And indeed, they most likely would have acted as ambassadors to the rest of the world: testifying what a wonderful neighborhood Kenwood is and, more generally, how pleasant it is to spend time on Chicago’s South Side.
  • And many of us would have loved to have interesting accommodations nearby in which to house visiting family or friends when there are too many for our own houses.

My problem with the proposed uses was that I did not understand Tawani’s business plan. Even if I accepted that it never expected to recapture the massive up-front investment in restoration, I did not think that the B&Bs would even break even when they were operating. My friends, who have tried to operate B&Bs with their own and their children’s labor, had a really hard time making a profit. I feared that these enterprises would fail. I wanted to know what plan B would be. Those fears were allayed by the architectural restrictions Tawani was willing to place on the buildings for any future owners. If I were still head of the Chicago Landmarks Commission, I would have touted them as an extraordinary model for owners of important buildings anywhere. I am sure none of us current Kenwood residents are willing to preserve our homes through future owners to the extent that these people were.

I still would have loved to have heard more about the economics of the proposed project. It seems to me that once the buildings were restored that there might be other more economically viable alternatives. For example, could they be used as high prestige residences for important visiting scholars or dignitaries that are in Chicago for extended periods of time – maybe with the university or maybe with the future presidential library or maybe other institutions in the city? There probably would have been other interesting ideas that evening that never got expressed. I am confident of the insights and ideas my neighbors can generate and would have loved to heard them.

But most important, no one, including myself, stopped to thank Jennifer Pritzker and the Tawani Foundation for considering this extraordinary investment in our neighborhood. Perhaps Ald. Burns can extend some gesture to the Foundation that says: despite the impressions from the meeting in the church, Kenwood residents can be neighborly and welcoming to new ideas and concepts.

Chuck Thurow

Setting the record straight at the Village

To the Editor:

We fear some statements in Daschell Phillips’ article in the Dec. 25 issue of the Hyde Park Herald will give incorrect impressions about our plans for the Chicago Hyde Park Village (CHPV).

The Village will not be a senior center or social welfare agency.  However, the absence of such services in our community increases the importance of the kind of help and support that the Village will provide.

When it opens officially, CHPV will be a centralized source of information for members. It is also developing a comprehensive program for volunteers which will provide people of all ages with opportunities for sharing and participating in Village activities and services. Moreover, Village members will have access to volunteers who have been checked and trained to help them with a range of light tasks. Members will also have access to our lists of vetted and neighbor-recommended service providers. CHPV will continue to partner with other neighborhood groups and institutions to provide a variety of educational and social programs, such as our bi-weekly Drop-In program and our various entertainment and informational programs.

The major goal of Chicago Hyde Park Village is to encourage an “age friendly” environment in Hyde Park, where long-time residents feel comfortable and safe and newer arrivals can feel at home and welcome.

We are deeply grateful to our neighbors and local institutions for their tremendous help with our recent fundraiser. Their enthusiastic participation affirms that our neighbors want and support our mission. CHPV will open officially as soon as we raise sufficient funds to hire appropriate staff and to ensure that we can deliver the programs and services to fulfill our mission. People who would like more information about the potential for a village in Hyde Park can find information on the national village movement at vtvnetwork.org

In addition to financial support from Montgomery Place, its Unidine Food Service and the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement, MAC Property Management was also a generous financial sponsor.

Susan Alitto
President, Chicago Hyde Park Village

Hyde Park is coming into its own

To the Editor:

There are so many reasons to visit Hyde Park. The excitement on 53rd Street is intoxicating; retail stores, people young and old, fine dining and much more. Who would have thought? In 2001, I opened my law practice in the Hyde Park Bank building; I have seen the ups and downs of my business and others. While there was always traffic in the bank; there was always something missing. The revitalization is exactly what was needed. Simply stated, it’s good for business and it’s good for the community.

One of my daily rituals, during my lunch hour, is to walk around the community. Recently, I did just that, and this time there was energy like never before. I saw long lines to get into a few restaurants, people enjoying the new Starbucks and browsing through the different shops.

I am a Hyde Parker and I work in my community. A community rich in diversity, and compassionate about our convictions. It is a choice I made and I am glad I stayed around to see all that it has become and I can’t wait to see the finished product.

Arnold Toole

Rebuffing B&B offer shames history

To the Editor:

Kenwood is justly proud of the magnificent homes that line its streets. With that in mind, I was saddened to read in the Herald of the controversy over two of its most important houses, Blossom and McArthur. My parents bought a house on Kimbark Avenue in 1950 for less than $20,000. Shortly thereafter my mother, Phyllis Will, and other “Kenwood ladies” formed the Kenwood Open House Committee to encourage others to purchase a home in our suburb in the city and prevent them from becoming rooming houses. Fast forward 60 years and we see the very significant long-term fruits of their labors as homes now regularly sell for well over a million dollars.

I believe my mother and her colleagues would also be saddened to see the community not supporting the restoration of these architecturally and historically significant buildings. I took the opportunity to tour them on Dec. 15 and was, once again, in awe of their beauty and the obvious work of Frank Lloyd Wright almost hidden inside them. I hope members of the community and the alderman will reconsider the very quick decision to deny permission to allow the houses to be rehabilitated and run as bed and breakfasts. A buyer with the resources to accomplish this and protect these gems should be embraced and encouraged. These buildings have long been a source of pride in the community and to deny the opportunity to return them to their earlier glory seems unthinkable.

Nikki Will Stein

University’s Douglas did not justify TIF cash

To the Editor:

I read, with interest, the letter of Derek Douglas, the University of Chicago’s vice president for Civic Engagement, in which he defended the $23.4 million dollar Tax Increment Financing (TIF) subsidy the university received for its Harper Court project.

According to Mr. Douglas, the purpose of the Harper Court project was “to bring new retail activity and new economic activity to the neighborhood.” Apparently, his point is that it was worthwhile to spend $23.4 million in TIF funds — including $11.7 million that should have gone to the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools — in order to build a university office building.

Yes, there is retail in the Harper Court development. However, much of this consists of national chains relocating within the neighborhood (the L.A. Fitness facility on 47th Street is scheduled to close next year). And yes, we did get two new national retailers — Chipotle and Ulta — though we lost local businesses Park 52 and Dixie Kitchen. Was it sensible to spend $11.7 million that should have gone to the public schools to do this?

Certainly, the university has its own interest in developing the neighborhood, and this has driven the university’s acquisitions along 53rd Street. While the university’s interests and those of the neighborhood coincide in many respects, this does not mean there is a mutual interest in taking money from the public schools to facilitate the university’s plans. Moreover, it would seem that properly funded public schools would make this neighborhood more attractive to university personnel.

According to Mr. Douglas, “among the university’s contributions [to the project] were the donation of a property that had cost the university $10 million, the university’s credit rating, and years of time and expertise.” However, the university did not “contribute” the property — it bought the property and has kept control over it, like its other real estate acquisitions in the neighborhood. Also, part of this property is a former city parking lot, which the city sold to the university for the nominal price of a dollar.

As for the university’s credit rating, it would seem that the university — with its multi-billion dollar endowment — had the wherewithal to build its office building without any subsidy at the expense of the public schools. Concerning the university’s time and expertise, it would seem that the university has been able to devote its time and expertise — without any TIF subsidy — to its other development projects.

Mr. Douglas offers a list of charitable and civic endeavors undertaken by the university, apparently as a justification for the subsidy the university received at the expense of our public school students. Are we to understand that when the university gives with one hand, it takes away with the other?

Conspicuously omitted from Mr. Douglas’s defense of the university’s TIF subsidy is any reference to how this subsidy did anything to implement the original objectives of the 53rd Street TIF, to provide for: (a) local schools; (b) street improvements (such as Clean Slate); and (c) parking, in our already congested neighborhood. This is consistent with the university’s policy of ignoring — if not undermining —these community objectives.

Marc Lipinski

B&B article ignores Kenwood history

To the Editor:

Lindsay Welbers’ Dec. 11, 2013 article regarding the desire of a commercial enterprise to develop two private homes in Kenwood solely for commercial — not residential owner-occupied —purposes, ignores certain salient facts regarding the prior history, and importance, of single-family, owner-occupied housing in homes originally designed for such purposes in Kenwood.

First, from a historical perspective, it is important to remember the original premise of the racially and economically diverse group of residents (primarily mothers) in the early 1960s who literally saved Kenwood from the “block-busters” (and formed the Kenwood Real Estate Committee that became the Kenwood Open House Committee) by insisting that the zoning for single-family, stand-alone homes be maintained as owner-occupied single-family, and that the illegal “boarding/rooming houses” of the post-World War II era be stopped before all of the neighborhood was destroyed.  Their efforts, memorialized on the Hyde Park – Kenwood Community Conference website (hydepark.org) and in articles such as the following from 1963 (bit.ly/JIzpDp) successfully led to the preservation of the high-quality, diverse neighborhood that exists today.

Second, Ms. Welbers and others who reference supposedly similar other B&Bs are not making parallel comparisons: the few other B&Bs noted are owner-occupied homes (e.g., Kossiakoff’s) in which the B&B function is only a small aspect of the overall home and is not a commercial enterprise in the mode of what appears to be contemplated by the Pritzker organization. In addition, the prior B&B projects of the Pritzker organization appear to be in mixed residential neighborhoods  — not stand-alone, single family home settings like Kenwood; rezoning would allow other commercial entities to come into the neighborhood with similar projects or multi-unit housing in single-home settings.

Carol B. Eckstein

FLW Conservancy hopes for another look at FLW houses

To the Editor:

The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy is the only organization focused exclusively on the preservation and maintenance of all the remaining structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (We own no Wright buildings but strive to protect them all.)  We work with the owners of private Wright-designed houses across the country as well as Wright sites that are open for public tours.

The Conservancy visited the Blossom and McArthur Houses last spring and was very glad to learn of the interest of Jennifer Pritzker in acquiring and restoring these houses and their auxiliary buildings. Though we have not seen the details of the proposed project, the Pritzker restoration track record is a strong one and we have no doubt that the project would be done with sensitivity and appropriateness and with the infusion of financial resources and preservation expertise that would assure a very positive outcome.

We were very disappointed to learn that apparently this possibility was rejected without careful examination due to concerns about introducing a transient element into the neighborhood.  

Several Wright private houses have been converted to overnight stay accommodations. We devoted one issue of our magazine to this topic, and profiled three, including the early 1950’s Palmer House in Ann Arbor, Michigan — a community that parallels Hyde Park-Kenwood in terms of the university connection. The Palmer House owners have indicated that their guests fall generally into three groups: luminaries speaking or performing at the University of Michigan, out-of state parents of university students looking for special accommodations during visits and people who are passionate about architecture. The Blossom and McArthur House B&B project would be the only intact functioning Wright overnight, other than the recently restored Historic Park Inn in Mason City, Iowa, offering overnight accommodations in an architectural setting from Wright’s Prairie period or earlier. As such I believe it would attract special guests who have high disposable income, are concerned about architecture and preservation, and in general would be a respectful, appreciative and very desirable group.

We hope the neighborhood and Ald. Will Burns (4th) will take another look at this creative and well-funded proposal. It provides a neighborhood amenity (who wouldn’t like to suggest to their out-of-town visitors that they could stay in a Frank Lloyd Wright house right in the same neighborhood?) and would help maintain real estate values instead of the drag of a deteriorating site and continuing uncertainty about its future.  Most importantly from the Conservancy’s point of view, it would provide a very practical vehicle to ensure the preservation of these buildings that were keys to Wright’s early career and his development as an architect.  

Chicago is proud of its reputation as a city of great architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright is America’s greatest architect and Chicago is famous as the focal point of much of the first half of his remarkable career. The Blossom and McArthur Houses are important to that history and deserve special attention to determine how they can be well preserved and maintained.

Janet Halstead
Executive Director, Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy

Thanks to readers from La Rabida

To the Editor:

On behalf of La Rabida Children’s Hospital and the children and families we serve, I offer heartfelt thanks to the staff and readership of the Hyde Park Herald. 

You were kind enough to run a nice story on our need for donations during this time of year — and more specifically, the importance of gift cards to our families. 

We want you to know that your message was embraced by your readers as we have had a very positive response.

La Rabida serves more than 7,500 children each year. In addition to being challenged with chronic illness, medically complex conditions and developmental issues, many of our children’s families also struggle financially. As most children look forward to receiving gifts this time of year, many of our kids do without basic items that many of us take for granted. The gift cards play a crucial role in helping our families make this a special, heartwarming holiday season.

Thank you again for your help,

Janet Haines

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