Quality of life harmed by McMobil project

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

In my third year as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I moved out of the dorms and into a beautiful privately-owned building at 5221 S. Kenwood Ave. I chose it because it was an older building seeping with character and charm, all odd angles and beautiful light, on the only curvy street in Hyde Park. It was my first apartment and, 13 years later, I’m still here. I have come to treasure the sense of community even among the largely itinerant student population, and have grown close to many of my neighbors — most of them long-term homeowners — on my block. I write this letter as much for them as for myself, out of a desire to prevent what I feel is a very unwise development proposal on the so-called McMobil site on 53rd Street.

By this time you have no doubt received countless communications from folks opposed to the project, as well as reassurances from those in support of it. I understand that as an alderman and civil servant it is impossible to please everyone; however, I strongly believe there is a solution that can please many people without making many other people miserable. I ask you to think very carefully before rezoning this space and to seriously consider the original rationale for its current zoning status.

Many of us who oppose development in Hyde Park are often dismissed as nay-sayers who object to change in general. And some of us are. I, for one, am very happy about some of the recent additions to Hyde Park, such as Harper Theater and Kilwins. I am not a big fan of others — chain pop-ups like Akira, Five Guys and Clark’s — but I recognize that while it’s not my taste, many people apparently enjoy these businesses, so I resign myself to the greater good. Other plans I believe have been made in error, such as leveling a place like Village Foods — an affordable grocery, open 18 hours a day, very near public transportation, in favor of Whole Foods — a more upscale affair which caters to a very similar clientele as Treasure Island. While I agree Hyde Park needed a decent hotel, I think there were other proposed sites that made more sense than the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue. I shudder and mourn, but accept that in a world of competing desires, I will not always have my way.

In speaking to many of the people in my immediate community, however, I have been hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks building a modern 13-story structure at the so-called McMobil site is a good idea. You once held a meeting to discuss your constituents’ concerns, and this proposal flies in the face of all of them. First, while some might find the design modern and elegant, it becomes ghastly in the surrounding context of single-family homes and 3 story-apartment buildings. It would dwarf even the highest buildings among us — the red-stuccoed Versailles on the corner of 53rd Street and Dorchester Avenue and the classical Grosvenor on the 5200 block of Kenwood. While I think we can all agree McDonalds needed to go, and something needs to go in its place, these towers would be grossly out of proportion and clash with the surrounding aesthetic.

Secondly, I understand that the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, among other groups, is in favor of density. But Hyde Park Produce, CVS and the surrounding restaurants never seem to lack in patrons, so much so that parking at the Kimbark shopping center at peak hours is scarce. If anyone actually believes that building a 13-story structure this far from public transportation will not create unreasonable amounts of traffic along 53rd Street, not to mention along the many narrow one-way streets leading off of it, that person’s reasoning is at best clogged, and at worst tainted by competing ambitions. As for residential parking, which is already difficult and has only grown worse since the city’s long-term lease of meters to a private company (which has changed the start time to 8 a.m. and now charges on Sunday), the claim that this structure will not exponentially contribute to the problem reveals either a gross miscalculation or a willing ignorance with intent to deceive. I will not insult your intelligence by laying out the math.

Most importantly to me, as an artist and really just as a human, is the quality of life and light. The proposed structure would cast cold, solid shadows over the entirety of many of my neighbors’ properties, blocking the lovely afternoon light in my studio and potentially dooming the rooftop garden I have built and cultivated for years. This kind of value is measured in different currency than economic interest, but I argue it is priceless in comparison. It is plain for many of us to see that the preferences of certain entities are being prioritized over the needs and desires of local residents, and that is unfair and unjust. Please consider the essential characteristics that make this site worthy of a more holistic, community-minded approach: the young graffiti artists constantly at work on the wall behind the site; the hawks, ravens and even a falcon I have seen basking in the dawn light in the mammoth tree across the alley; and the many residents who love our neighborhood enough to take the time out of our busy lives to fight it becoming another choked and gasping over-urbanized space.

We can all agree that a barren gravel lot along an otherwise vibrant stretch of 53rd Street is not a good use of space. Most of us agree that a set of modern 13-story towers protruding from our otherwise lovely block is an outrage. But there are common interests and common ground, and I urge you to start from there and work outward, utilizing the citizens group 53rd CARRD, or Citizens for Appropriate Retail and Residential Development, as a barometer and sounding board to help develop a better plan. It has never been easier to discern what a community wants than when it takes it upon itself to mobilize and ask for dialogue.

I plan to attend the March 18 meeting at the Augustana Lutheran Church, and I hope to see you there. We once met outside of Hyde Park Produce; you shook my hand and pledged to work hard for me and to honor my voice. I hope that is a promise you plan to keep.

Amanda Englert

Write a Letter