When Hyde Park was preparing for the dramatic remaking of the neighborhood that came to be known as Urban Renewal in the 1950s, offices for the City of Chicago were established on the second floor of the Harper Building on the northwest corner of 53rd Street and Harper Avenue. There, the ambitions of civic leaders were translated into clearance projects. Plans circulated through those offices that would recreate huge swaths of the community.
Now, more than half a century later, with the launching of the Chicago Innovation Exchange, those offices will become the epicenter of a different kind of planning. Scientists, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and others will gather to turn the scientific and medical advances that come out of the University of Chicago into products for the market, with the intent of enriching lives and the university’s bottom line. By siting the exchange on 53rd Street, President Robert Zimmer and his associates at the university hope to gird their efforts to energize 53rd Street by increasing the foot traffic and activity there.
The contrast is striking to us, as the straightforward aims and strategies of Urban Renewal give way to the complexities of modern life. The university is investing a great deal of money on 53rd Street, and if the commercial viability of the street improves, there will be no question that its investment paid off. We cannot help but notice, however, the campus creep that seems to be tied into that investment.
The office building anchoring the Harper Court development means there will be a massive presence of administration personnel along 53rd Street. The incubator will also add more activity to the street, which is badly in need of it. As long as the retail integrity of the first floors of these buildings is maintained, these should be positive developments.
What would hamper revitalization of the street, however, would be storefronts turning into departmental offices. And while potential customers are a welcome addition to 53rd, we have to make sure that local business is there to welcome them. A street lined with chain stores may meet a consumer need, but it will not add to the overall economic health of Hyde Park.
The incubator’s presence on 53rd Street should be seen as a potentially valuable addition, along with the new office building on the corner. However, the vitality of the street will require a multiplicity of local owners of businesses and their patchwork of offerings. As the Chicago Innovation Exchange brings one dimension of modern life to 53rd Street, let’s not forget another: the growing realization of the need for local commerce for locally vibrant communities.