Takin’ it to 53rd Street: Conversations on the future of Hyde Park’s main strip

On December 14, despite frigid temperatures and an early morning start time, close to 200 Hyde Park and South Side residents packed the gymnasium of Canter Middle School for a half-day workshop to discuss the future development of 53rd Street, the community’s primary commercial and business corridor and an important shopping hub for the mid-South Side of Chicago.

The 53rd Vision Workshop was sponsored by Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle and a coalition of local institutional and community organizations including the 53rd Street TIF (Tax Increment Finance) Advisory Council, the University of Chicago, the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, Interfaith Open Communities, and the South East Chicago Commission (SECC).

“The turnout certainly exceeded our expectations. This represents a major step forward in ensuring that the priorities and preferences of the community are reflected in development proposals for 53rd Street,” said Alderman Preckwinkle.

53rd Street, as one of Chicago’s many TIF districts in Chicago, has demonstrated that tax increment financing may fail because of its very premise. Developed in the State of California and quickly adopted as a pet project of Mayor Daley, tax increment financing allows municipalities to borrow against future revenue from property taxes. Loans go to improving area infrastructure, and that infrastructure in turn increases property value. Taxes from the increased value go toward paying off the original debt. The problem is that increased property value is not necessarily guaranteed. Finance is only one variable on the side of the equation that ends in money. People are another. While you could have the best commercial infrastructure in the world, you may not have any people using it to

The keynote presentation on “The Benefits of Density” by urban designer Sam Assefa, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development for the City of Chicago, addressed many of the concerns people associate with population density. Hyde Park, in fact, has experienced a significant decline in density as a result of urban renewal in the 1960s. According to U.S. Census data the population of Hyde Park in 1960 was 65,000. It is now 44,000.

“Density can have a very positive impact on everything from retail to property values to crime and safety, although it often carries negative connotations.” said Irene Sherr, an urban planner responsible for organizing the event on behalf of the SECC and Alderman Preckwinkle. “I think participants now have a better understanding of how we can achieve a more energetic and vibrant commercial corridor on 53rd and adjacent areas without compromising the quality of life that attracts so many people to Hyde Park

Using technology provided by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, attendees were able to vote on development priorities and see their preferences reflected in real-time.

Results from the polling revealed several recurring themes for 53rd Street: a desire for a greater variety of retail options, development with retail on the ground floor with residential or office space above and a visually clean and attractive environment. In general, there appeared to be strong consensus among attendees regarding major issues.

To get numerical, fifty-three-percent want to see retail on the ground floor with residential above. Participants also expressed a strong preference for the retail to feature unique shops and specialty stores. When asked what buildings on 53rd should look like, many said structures should reflect a combination of historical and well-designed modern buildings. Sixty-three-percent said they would accept a new 8-10 story mid-rise mixed-use development somewhere within the 53rd St. Tax Increment Finance district. Obviously, people saw shopping as the dominant activity of 53rd Street, but many wanted to see more entertainment options including cultural venues, movie theatres, and nightlife. This is good news but its unclear if and how this initial impetus will translate to anything tangible on the storefront.

Alderman Preckwinkle said that the information culled from the workshop will be shared with city planners and reflected in future requests for proposals to developers. While the workshop marks a major step forward in the development process, Preckwinkle urges people to remain engaged so their individual priorities and concerns are heard.

“People can, and should, attend the TIF Advisory Council meeting to learn about current development proposals,” she said. “In addition, the standing committees of the Council provides opportunities for residents to participate in reviewing proposed projects.”