Experts weigh in on McMobil zoning requirements

Staff Writer

Hyde Parkers were given a crash course in zoning last week, the evening prior to a committee of the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council’s discussion on the proposed 13-story mixed use building on 53rd Street.

Mesa Development has requested a zoning change and submitted a planned development proposal for the 135-foot-tall Vue53 on the McMobil site.

The proposed building would demolish the Mobil gas station and car wash, 1330 E. 53rd St., and put a building with 267 apartments, 230 parking spaces and 30,000 square feet of retail in their place.

Residents at the meeting on Monday, May 6, at United Church of Hyde Park, 1448 E. 53rd St., were given a quick explanation of the zoning code by Tim Barton, who helped to rewrite the city’s zoning code in 2004.

The site’s current designation allows for a mixed use, residential or commercial building, with a floor-to-area ratio that limits the height of the building, keeping it within character of the surrounding area.

Mesa Development and the University of Chicago are requesting Ald. Will Burns’ (4th) support to allow the zoning change and approve the planned development. If approved, it would allow a building much taller than is permitted currently.

“[Planned developments] are basically their own zoning ordinance,” Barton said. The planned development would have to be approved by the City Council but, if approved, would bend the zoning laws for that site.

The type of retail component that has been proposed for the site would allow for retail spaces as small as 3,000 square feet or as large as 20,000 square feet. Both would be too small to attract the type of big box retailers that brings a lot of traffic from across the city, Barton said. “[It would be] small scale, small neighborhood-based retail uses. You’re not going to get Office Max in here. You’re not going to get Wal-Mart or anything like that.”

Adam Kingsley spoke on the process of rezoning a property. Kingsley is an attorney who previously worked in the city’s law department defending zoning classifications. Last year Kingsley worked to develop PD43, a compromise that allowed the U. of C. to create its properties on the 5700 block of Woodlawn Avenue while preserving the residential character of the neighborhood.

“So then you ask what are the surrounding zoning classifications and what are the surrounding developments? Does what’s approved fit with the surrounding classifications and the surrounding developments?” Kingsley said. “I think it’s clear that the surrounding developments along 53rd Street are predominantly one, two, three story buildings. While there are some exceptions. … I think there’s a good argument that [Vue53] is out of character.”

John Norquist, who is the president for the Congress for the New Urbanism, which works to promote walkable neighborhoods, spoke on why Mesa Development would have interest in such a tall building.

The Federal Housing Authority provides financial underwriting for many mixed-use construction projects. The FHA normally sets caps on how much profitability a developer can get from the retail component versus the residential component of a building.

“[The developer] will hit this cap pretty quick unless he builds it big,” Norquist said. “Low buildings, like we like, don’t get financing.”