A Nice Vue If You Can Get It

courtesy of Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

Vue53 would replace a Mobil gas station on 53rd Street and Kimbark Avenue. Rendering courtesy of Valerio Dewalt Train Associates

Last Thursday, the Chicago Plan Commission approved Mesa Development’s proposal for Vue53, a Hyde Park commercial and residential development that would replace a Mobil gas station and adjoining car wash on 53rd Street, just north of Nichols Park. After several years of discussion with the community, the City Council’s Committee on Zoning is scheduled to vote on it, and if that vote passes–which, given the political support the development has received from 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns, it almost certainly will–construction will commence soon after. It is expected to be finished by early fall of 2015.

In 2009 the University of Chicago purchased the land, known to locals as the McMobil site since it is home to a Mobil gas station and once held a McDonald’s. It is essentially the midpoint between the ongoing Harper Court developments and Kimbark Plaza. If the bet made by the UofC and Mesa pays off, Vue53 will fill 53rd Street’s “gap in the smile,” as residents have also called the site.

The development and its design have, however, been a source of controversy among residents in Hyde Park and Kenwood. In an attempt to reach out to the community, Mesa has held a series of “visioning workshops” since 2007, when the Chicago-based firm first became interested in a combined residential and commercial development in Hyde Park. Vue53 is funded entirely by private donors, and Mesa expects 53rd Street’s TIF to receive $1 million annually from its property taxes.

When Mesa’s proposal was presented at the May 7 TIF Advisory Board meeting, a crowd of several hundred people came to pass judgment on the development’s final iteration, aspects of which had been changed to reflect concerns brought up at the January TIF Advisory meeting.

Jim Hanson, principal at Mesa Development, emphasized that Mesa had doubled the number of rooms in the development set aside as affordable housing, to twenty percent of Vue53’s 267 total units. At the Chicago Plan Commission meeting, Alderman Burns said that the affordable housing offered with this proposal–three-fourths of the rooms deemed “affordable” will be on-site, while the remaining one-fourth will be located at the discretion of the UofC–is much better than what most developers would have agreed to. “As a consequence of this project we’re going to make a significant improvement in the amount of affordable housing in the community,” he said in his statement to the commission.

For the opposition, however, the bigger issues boiled down to complaints over design. In March, a group called Citizens for Appropriate Retail and Residential Development (CARRD) materialized, calling itself “an ad hoc citizens group dedicated to preserving the livability” of Hyde Park. Its public liaison, David White, sent a letter to Chicago Plan Commissioner Andrew Mooney, calling the Vue53 proposal “grossly out of proportion” with other buildings directly around it. In response to these criticisms, Mesa lowered their building from fourteen stories to thirteen. When Hanson announced this to the crowd at the May 7 TIF meeting, it elicited laughs and a very loud, very sarcastic “Wow!” from one attendee.

White called the development “an example of the evils of spot zoning,” referring to the zoning of a specific parcel of land against the surrounding area’s zoning restrictions. The UofC used spot zoning to get around the fifty-foot height cap that has been in place for buildings on 53rd Street since 1957 in order to pursue the Harper Court development. With this precedent and the support of Alderman Burns, it is likely that the Committee on Zoning will approve the 154-foot Vue53.

Many residents also worry that the development won’t include enough parking spaces and will increase traffic congestion around 53rd Street. In March, Mesa commissioned a traffic study for the area surrounding the McMobil site. The study concluded that there would be virtually no added congestion to the area, and that retail parking availability in Vue53’s lot would be high due to the low rate of car ownership among Vue53’s targeted demographic: people aged sixteen to thirty-four, whom they expect to fill eighty-five percent of the units. Mesa also hopes to limit the number of cars in its lot by offering apartment and parking space leases separately. The number of parking spaces, for both cars and bicycles, is over the zoning requirement for the area, and two parking spaces will be reserved for a car-sharing service.

Regardless of the amount of parking, Chuck Thurow, a former urban planner who led both the January and May TIF Advisory meetings regarding the Vue53 proposal, believes that most residents want density because it is better for the urban environment. “I don’t think any of the people who were against [the development] had heard about global warming yet,” he said. Thurow did wish that, during the community meetings, there had been more discussion on architecture and the building’s façade instead of obstinate partisanship and disrespectful comments about Mesa’s design. (“It looks like a bunch of tubes,” said one resident.) He called the May meeting “some kind of tribal ritual,” bemoaning the fact that most people left holding the same opinions they had brought.

Still, if the Plan Commission hearing was any indication, the tide of public opinion seems to be turning: fifteen people–including representatives from the South East Chicago Commission and the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce–spoke in favor of the plan, while eight spoke against it. One resident, speaking on the development’s behalf, noted that Hyde Park has long been home to modernist architecture, and that the design continues the tradition. He cited the Robie House and the Del Prado apartment building, both of which were considered modern at their times of construction. Alderman Burns agreed, saying in a letter to Commissioner Mooney that he thought it was “good to have modern and distinct architecture” in Hyde Park, both for residents as well as for attracting tourism and commerce from around the city.

Despite the issues involved in determining what kind of building should occupy the McMobil site, some are just happy to see the land developed. Earlier this month, Chuck Thurow was, as he put it, “dragged” into Nichols Park by one particularly concerned resident. She sat him down on a bench and told him, “It’s gonna destroy our park!” Thurow was unfazed. “I’d much rather look at a building than a gas station and car wash,” he said.