Letters to the Editor

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

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)