Plan the future of 53rd Street

With the demolition of the Mobil gas station across from Nichols Park slated to begin next week, the 13-story development planned for that site — Vue53 to the developers, McMobil to everyone else — seems all but certain. Many Hyde Parkers have complained about the scale of this project, but without the support of Ald. Will Burns (4th), their complaints have not effected change to the plan. It appears to be a done deal.

Some residents will continue to fight this development, which is considered too large by many community members, but it is also important that we begin to think about the future. If Hyde Parkers do not want a 53rd Street lined with 13-story buildings, we have to get the neighborhood’s aldermen to agree on some planning principles for 53rd Street.

There is certainly some common ground for developers, politicians and the rest of us. We believe that every sensible Hyde Parker would like to see more people on 53rd Street — shopping there, recreating there and just enjoying the neighborhood. Beyond parking snarls, there is nothing but advantage to improving the use of our retail corridor.

The best way to achieve that goal is to increase density on the street — but not 13 stories at a time. Adding modest three- and four-story buildings on 53rd Street would maintain the scale of the street while increasing the number of people living and shopping there. Enough of that kind of construction easily replicates the density achieved by a high-rise, but without building massive, impersonal structures oblivious to their surroundings.

What is needed to achieve this end is substantive community planning. Some will argue that the thinly veiled focus group sessions about “visioning” 53rd Street were that planning process, but the obvious splintering of the community over the McMobil high-rise belies that claim. A series of meetings led by the community — not paid representatives of particular interests — could achieve a near-consensus on density and scale.

Beyond that planning process, a real commitment to the entire community’s planning priorities is required from the aldermen — and zoning is the most sensible way to secure that commitment. We must think about zoning restrictions on 53rd Street as a protection for all of us and not an obstacle to developers. An agreed-upon set of zoning parameters and a remap of the street to reflect those parameters — seen as binding by the aldermen — is needed.

It seems clear that Burns viewed the zoning at 1300 E. 53rd St., where the 13-story Vue53 will be built, as an obstacle. The zoning required for the development is so out of scale with the existing zoning on the street that it had to be re-zoned twice just to get to the needed height. We can’t continue to build on 53rd Street in this way and expect anything but the detritus of a hodge-podge of money-making schemes masquerading as a business district.

We are calling for a zoning plan for 53rd Street. Let the aldermen walk the street with Hyde Parkers and hammer out consensus in community meetings about how an improved 53rd Street can be achieved without out-of-scale development. It will be difficult work, but it is exactly the kind of work Hyde Park is known for. Rather than hearing about community concerns after the next massive high-rise is announced, why not use those concerns as a way to shape the street’s future in advance?

Vue53 sets a precedent that will be difficult to control. How can we tell the next group of developers that they don’t have a right to the same zoning changes that the Vue53 team got? It’s not only unfair, it could turn out to be illegal.

We need a set of planning principles we all stand by, endorsed by the aldermen. Let’s take all that anger over Vue53 and turn it to productive use. Let’s say “never again” —knowing that, if we do not, the next mega-development is just around the corner.

And remember, this phase of private development is beginning at 13 stories.