U. of C. would not build Quad McMobil

To the Editor:

The McMobil development promises benefits that few Hyde Park residents would reject: more retail stores, new consumers to patronize them, a lively presence of new residents on 53rd Street and in Nichols Park, unionized employment during the construction period and after and a percentage of low-cost housing units.

I embrace all of those goals. But I oppose the placement of this building at this location. The building is ugly. It has a Babylonian appearance, gigantic, block set upon block, like Lego construction. Its segments seem like parts of a much taller, narrower building that has been dismantled, its base spread out and its upper stories rearranged below in neat lines but no sense of proportion. The street façade will be all glass storefronts. Many new commercial developments and many malls might be proud to have these facades and this entire building. But set on 53rd Street in Hyde Park it is nothing short of grotesque.

The neighborhood at present has integrity and a strong aesthetic and cultural character. It will be compromised and changed by this building. Urban and gritty as it may be, it is worth maintaining. A benevolent developer planning for Hyde Park redevelopment with the good of the community in mind would surely consider this factor. And I don’t doubt that University of Chicago and Mesa Development have the good of the community in mind.

If the U. of C. campus and not Hyde Park were at issue the thinking and planning would be very different. Let’s imagine this case: Mesa Development Co. proposes to set the McMobil building on the campus of University of Chicago in the campus core, say on the quadrangle in front of Swift Hall or between Pick and Eckhart halls. That’s clearly impossible. It would be grotesquely out of place within the perimeter of the old campus. But suppose the developer named the project “Campus Renewal” or “Vue U. of C.” and urged the economic and social benefits of the project, the many new jobs, the growth of residential space for students and the innovative architecture, encouraged the public to practice progressive thinking about change. The university planners would not be indifferent to those benefits, but they would reap them in a location suited for such a building. For instance, south campus. The integrity of the inner campus has aesthetic and historical value, and a McMobil among the three-story neo-gothic buildings would violate its integrity and mar that value. But the proposal would be rejected, of course; the university respects the integrity of its inner campus, and Hyde Park residents cherish it.

I urge the U. of C. and Mesa Development to respect the integrity of the 53rd Street area as well: either scale down the project and make it consistent with the neighborhood architecture; or move it where it’s better placed — or both. When the U. of C. needed a new library, it didn’t set Regenstein or Mansueto in the old campus. An absurd idea. They put it on the edge of north campus, where the innovative architecture could assert its own new ambience without treading on anyone else’s.

McMobil would meet with much less opposition if it fit the neighborhood. It doesn’t and we are being invited to overlook that fact by the thought of economic and social benefits.

The McMobil project would be well placed along Lake Park Avenue, backing up to or facing the railroad tracks, looming above other commercial property, and looming alongside other high rise buildings nearby (like the Harper Court office building, 47th Street and Lake Park Avenue, the east side).

To object that the community around 53rd Street lacks cultural and aesthetic integrity, and that a glistening, huge new building would replace its “urban blight” (the term from the New York Times article), would be a case of big interests muscling into an established neighborhood with crass disregard of its present character.

The university’s track record on redeveloping Hyde Park is not encouraging. I’ll end by quoting some passages from “Reflections on Hyde Park” by Phil Hefner, long-time resident of Hyde Park, distinguished theologian and teacher emeritus at LSTC:

“The redeveloped 55th Street is, from a human point of view, a street of horror. It was changed from an ordinary bustling city street to a major artery connecting Lake Park Avenue to Cottage Grove Avenue and Washington Park. It is more a highway than a street. Even more important, it changed the streetscape by lining it with institutions … The ‘new’ 55th Street contradicts totally what our greatest urban planning writer, Jane Jacobs, called for in her idea of ‘human streets.’ She coined the term ‘ballet of the streets;’ there is no such ballet on 55th Street — it moved to 53rd Street.

“55th Street was a historic street that had evolved with the neighborhood. That history was simply torn up, so as to make the street an effective barrier between the university and the Golden Rectangle on the south and the “other world” to the north. [Fifty-third] Street is also a street with a history — in part an extension of the history of pre-urban renewal 55th Street. In the half-century since urban renewal, the domain of affluence has extended, so that it can now include 53rd Street and move north to Hyde Park Boulevard. It is no surprise that the university and the developer … are now moving to re-write the history of another street.”

The essay will be published soon.

Stephen Jaeger