Making Hyde Park

Development in Hyde Park has been a contentious issue since the urban renewal of the 1950s, and judging by the crowd at the panel discussion “Making Hyde Park: Development in our Community,” it’s as hot a topic as ever. Over one hundred students and Hyde Park residents crowded into an undersized room in Ida Noyes on Tuesday, March 4, to listen as a diverse group of panelists put forward their visions for the future of Hyde Park. It was an occasion for “conversation, not debate,” as moderator and University Community Service Center director Wallace Goode emphasized, but that didn’t mean voices were not raised as the panelists argued about issues like retail, density, architecture, and the University’s involvement in development.

The eight-member panel, which was organized by the Southside Solidarity Network, included both those with an interest in preserving Hyde Park’s past and current diversity and those focused on economic development. The Hyde Park Historical Society, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), the University, the Hyde Park Art Center, and the 53rd Street Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district were among those represented. While it would be impossible to divide them neatly into two camps, since many have overlapping interests and concerns, the organizations themselves seem to have been disconnected from opposing viewpoints. “These enclaves are voicing their opinions in vacuums,” said Susan Campbell of the University’s Office of Community Affairs. “We need to make sure everyone has a say if we want to maintain diversity.”

The discussion allowed a wide range of opinions to be expressed, many in conflict but some in general agreement. The establishment of a new retail corridor on 53rd Street is a top priority for several of the panelists, though the type of retail to solicit remains a matter of dispute. Architect Aaron Cook suggested the Gap, eliciting a murmur of disapproval from the audience. Most panelists seemed in favor of a healthy mix of local and national, cheap and high-end establishments, but a number of audience members voiced fears that Hyde Park could lose its diverse, eclectic character if it becomes the site of too many upscale chains.

Most panelists also agreed on the need for increased residential density, which allows for greater sustainability in terms of both businesses and the environment. As Irene Sherr of Community Counsel explained, “In the ‘60s, Hyde Park had 65,000 residents. Now it has 44,000.” She argued that taller buildings would allow for a larger population, which would translate into a larger market and draw more businesses into the area. But as several other panelists pointed out, Hyde Park’s problem may not be the size of its market so much as its ability to exploit it: currently, many students choose to spend their money elsewhere in the city. Perhaps this is because, as HPKCC president George Rumsey remarked, “There’s no entertainment here beyond browsing the bookstore.” Even University of Chicago students need something more than that–just as long as the bookstores don’t all become Borders.