Hyde Park's big test

Its residents, one of whom runs the free world, are among the smartest in the country. It sits on prime lakeside real estate and boasts gorgeous historic architecture. Hyde Park has all the trappings of a commercial star, so why is it a veritable retail and entertainment wasteland? And is salvation finally around the corner?

  • 4th Ward Alderman

  • These preliminary conceptual drawings, courtesy of Vermilion Development, offer a glimpse of what Harper Court may look like.

  • These preliminary conceptual drawings, courtesy of Vermilion Development, offer a glimpse of what Harper Court may look like.

  • activist/resident

  • student

  • business owner

4th Ward Alderman

The Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop in Hyde Park prospered for almost 15 years, offering heaping servings of fried catfish, jambalaya and hot cornmeal biscuits called Johnny cakes. Its colorful, low-country decor and Cajun menu even inspired Hyde Park favorite son Barack Obama to rave about the restaurant on a “lost tape” episode of WTTW-TV’s Check, Please!

“Those Johnny cakes, they’ll get you early,” Obama says on the episode, which aired in January 2009, shortly before his inauguration as President.

Six months later, Dixie Kitchen closed, but not for lack of business. It was forced out of its home in the Harper Court Shopping Center because its landlord, the University of Chicago, had plans to redevelop the center and refused to renew the lease.

“That was definitely a shock, especially coming after the Obama review,” says Sheridan Simon, a former general manager at Dixie Kitchen who now works at sister restaurant Calypso (also in Harper Court; its lease runs out in 2012). “We didn’t want to leave.”

Over the past year, a number of other restaurants and small retailers have been forced out of Harper Court, so that today, the shopping center at 53rd Street west of Lake Park Avenue is blighted by vacant storefronts and boarded-up buildings.

Hyde Park was where scientists invented the Bomb. This part of town looks bombed out.

The few survivors at Harper Court, among them Dr. Wax Records, Fairy Nails and Launder Koin Laundromat, will soon join other ousted businesses to make way for a $250 million mixed-use development of stores, a movie theater, restaurants, condominiums, offices and a hotel.

It is here where Hyde Park’s untidy past intersects with its uncertain future. Hyde Park and the adjoining Kenwood neighborhood long have boasted assets such as a top-tier university, world-class museums, historic architecture, numerous arts and cultural offerings, and a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan. But the neighborhood lacks a vibrant shopping-and-entertainment district. The restaurant choices are limited, the nightlife is dominated by dive bars and the neighborhood can’t even attract—gasp!—a Gap (or even shops with more indie cred).

Civic and business leaders hope the new Harper Court, expected to break ground in 2011, will be a game changer. “This project will be a catalyst for economic development, and I think will set a new model for future development in the area,” says Democratic nominee for Cook County Board president Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, whose 4th Ward includes part of Hyde Park and Kenwood. “It’s not just Hyde Park that needs this, but the surrounding neighborhoods on the South Side that rely on Hyde Park for shopping and entertainment.”

While there is still a strong preservationist movement in Hyde Park-Kenwood, even staunch opponents of development seem resigned to the idea that something needs to be done to rejuvenate the area. “The best way to grow is incrementally: plant a garden and slowly grow things, as opposed to something sudden, massive and stunning. But it may be too late to do an incremental development,” says Jack Spicer, a long-time Hyde Park resident and preservation activist.

Whether the Harper Court redevelopment can be called sudden, massive or stunning is unclear, but it certainly can be considered the epicenter of the area’s economic development, if simply by virtue of its location. Its position on 53rd Street is in the middle of Hyde Park-Kenwood, roughly bounded by 47th Street to the north, 63rd Street to the south, Lake Michigan to the east and Cottage Grove Avenue to the west.

But 53rd Street isn’t the only place where shopping and entertainment opportunities are scant: Vacant storefronts or undeveloped properties dot the neighborhood’s other commercial corridors like missing teeth, mainly 47th, 55th and 57th streets and Lake Park Avenue. Long-standing barriers to attracting businesses to Hyde Park hamper development. Merchants and restaurateurs court the bourgeoisie who live in the stately mansions, but the students are decidedly more bohemian. Thus, there aren’t enough people with spending power. Outsiders often are reluctant to travel to Hyde Park, in part because the nearby Loop has so much to offer, and because of the South Side’s rough reputation. And setting up shop in Hyde Park frequently requires navigating a difficult obstacle course represented by the University of Chicago, which is the largest landowner; the two local aldermen, who have near-absolute power on zoning matters; and a strong preservationist movement.

Right now, however, the biggest problem is the recession. It has been troubling for retail and entertainment enterprises, and particularly for the handful of upscale restaurants in Hyde Park, including La Petite Folie (1504 E 55th St, 773-493-1394). “We’ve made a lot of personal sacrifices to keep the business going,” says Mike Mastricola, who owns the French restaurant with his wife, Mary, the executive chef. The couple, both University of Chicago graduates, opened it in 1999 to favorable reviews and mixed economic results. “If we had any sense, we would have just opened a pizza place,” Mike says.

The weak economy also has stalled attempts to fill vacant stores, rehab buildings and develop vacant lots. Consider the state of limbo of MAC Property Management Inc., which owns more than 70 buildings in Hyde Park. The company has plans to redevelop the tired and partially vacant Lake Village Shopping Center at 51st Street and Lake Park Avenue, and refurbish two historic hotels—the Del Prado and the Shoreland—into residential properties with some restaurant and retail space. Additionally, it’s planning to build Solstice on the Park, a “green” condominium development designed by noted local architect Jeanne Gang. But progress on each project has been slowed by the recession.

“This is a difficult time for any developer. Lenders are much more demanding about how many tenants you have lined up before they’ll give you money,” says Peter Cassel, MAC’s director of community development in Hyde Park. “When the economy improves, we do believe there will be demand for these products,” Cassel continues. “From our perspective, Hyde Park needs more residences. It needs more people coming to work here. It needs more shopping and restaurants.”

Remove the economy from the equation and inherent obstacles to attracting new businesses remain. It begins with demographics. Almost 50,000 people live in Hyde Park-Kenwood, and nine months each year, it’s home to 14,000 University of Chicago students. The university and its medical center employ about 12,000 people, of which 60 percent live in the neighborhood. The average household income is $62,500.

On paper, such an educated, well-heeled population would seem to be a big draw for commercial enterprises. But many established Hyde Park business owners say there aren’t enough residents in the neighborhood. In commercial real–estate terminology, this is called lack of density.

“National retail chains have certain [demographic] targets they look at. In Hyde Park, there isn’t enough depth to the market,” says Steve Soble, president of Spare Time Inc., which operates Seven Ten Lanes & Lounge (1055 E 55th St, 773-347-2695), a trendy bowling alley, billiards hall and lounge. Soble also believes there aren’t enough affluent residents to support more upscale restaurants, and that establishments serving low-priced food and drink, like his bowling alley, or dive bars like Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap or Falcon Inn, tend to fare better. At Jimmy’s, for example, college students, professors and construction workers drink in harmony, attracted by the $2.50 draft beers and $2.25 hamburgers. “What college kids want is different from what people want who live in houses where Obama lives,” Soble says.

Finally, Soble thinks Hyde Park is too close to downtown: A 20-minute ride by car or Metra Electric train, or a half hour on a CTA bus transports residents to some of the best restaurants, clubs and stores in the nation. This theory is supported by the habits of many University of Chicago students, including Supriya Sinhababu, 21, a senior geography major and editor of the campus newspaper, The Chicago Maroon. On weekends, Sinhababu is more apt to hang out in Lincoln Park or Wicker Park than in the Pub, the iconic watering hole on campus. “Hyde Park doesn’t feel as happening as downtown or Lincoln Park,” Sinhababu says. “We don’t have a clothing store. There are no 24-hour places to hang out, except for the Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Some longtime residents may not be as interested in the nightlife, but they find other shortcomings in the neighborhood. “You have to go downtown for clothing. Furniture? Forget it. You have to go to the suburbs…. We recently had to replace a major appliance and we had to drive to Abt in Glenview. You have to mount a polar expedition,” says Michael Conzen, 66, a professor of geography at the University of Chicago and a resident for four decades.

The same holds true for visitors to Hyde Park-Kenwood. The No. 1 attraction is the Museum of Science and Industry, with about 1.5 million annual visitors. But local merchants report that few visitors—especially suburbanites in SUVs—stray off the beaten path: from Lake Shore Drive to the museum parking lot, and back home again.

Some are scared off by the crime-ridden history of the South Side. While the University of Chicago boasts on its website that Hyde Park-Kenwood has one of the lower crime rates in the city, the same isn’t true for the surrounding neighborhoods. For example, Washington Park, on the western edge of Hyde Park, was recently ranked as the second most dangerous neighborhood in America, according to a study of FBI crime statistics.

“Hyde Park is kind of an island. But it suffers from being on the South Side. The mantra for outsiders is: ‘I’m not going there, it’s on the South Side,’” says urbanologist Max Grinnell, a University of Chicago graduate and author of “Images of America: Hyde Park, Illinois,” a study of urban renewal in the neighborhood.

Some Hyde Park businesses were hoping President Obama would help draw visitors to his neighborhood, but he doesn’t seem to have any coattails to ride (maybe his sagging approval rating is to blame?). Table 37 at Mellow Yellow restaurant (1508 E 53rd St, 773-667-2000) was a regular morning meeting place for Obama and his election team in 2008. Photos of Obama and his family adorn the walls. But few patrons even talk about it now. “This place caters to locals. I don’t get any tourists asking about Obama,” says owner Tad Garcia.

Despite the neighborhood’s shortcomings as a popular destination, a few restaurant and retail chains have taken a chance on Hyde Park—and met with some success. Bar Louie Tavern & Grill (5500 S Shore Dr, 773-363-5300) opened in 2007, and except for a brief shuttering for a failed city health inspection, has done steady business. Treasure Island Foods (1526 E 55th St, 773-358-6400) opened in 2008, giving the South Side another badly needed grocery option. The neighborhood also has two Starbucks.

Flamboyant restaurateur Jerry Kleiner (33 Club, Carnivale) made a splash in 2008 with the opening of Park 52 (5201 S Harper Ave, 773-241-5200), an American bistro kitty-corner from Harper Court. His arrival was heralded as a sign that big-name restaurants were ready to invest in Hyde Park, but that never materialized. In fact, Kleiner no longer has an interest in Park 52, having sold it to Marc Brooks, a lifelong Hyde Park resident.

“This is no sign that I’ve given up on Hyde Park,” says Kleiner, who in the past has divested interest in his restaurants. “My passion is to create new designs and move on. It’s in capable hands with Marc Brooks.”

Brooks offers the same story line as Kleiner, and maintains that business is steady at Park 52. But he also wishes other upscale restaurants would take the plunge in Hyde Park. “We’re something of a lone fish here. To me, you want a clustering effect: a variety of restaurants that can create some synergy,” Brooks says.

Of course, setting up shop in Hyde Park-Kenwood means a likely encounter with a troika of formidable forces: the University of Chicago, neighborhood activists and the local aldermen—Preckwinkle, whose 4th Ward covers the northern half, and 5th Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston, who oversees the southern portion.

The university is the area’s largest land owner. Beyond its massive campus, the school owns Harper Court, the adjoining boarded-up Hyde Park Theater, the Hyde Park Shopping Center (which houses the Treasure Island), 30 apartment buildings, and a number of abandoned buildings and vacant lots. The University of Chicago became actively involved in local development in the 1950s, during the urban renewal movement. Witnessing rising crime and deteriorating buildings, the university began to purchase and develop properties to improve the quality of the neighborhood.

While some university efforts over the years were successful, its aggressive community involvement also has met its share of criticism. One recent dust-up involved the Doctors Hospital building at 5800 South Stony Island Boulevard, which the university wanted to convert into a hotel in 2008. Local preservationists raised a ruckus because they wanted the historic building preserved. Some residents raised conflict-of-interest charges because the university leased it to hotel developer Bruce White, a University of Chicago Medical Center board member. Others didn’t approve of White’s history of using nonunion labor.

Ald. Hairston tried to mediate. But when discussions between residents, including Jack Spicer, and the university broke down, activists sponsored a referendum to prohibit liquor sales within the precinct where the Doctors Hospital building stands. When the ballot initiative passed by 21 votes in November 2008, it effectively killed the hotel plans.

“There were a lot of objections, and the university did not listen to the objections,” Spicer says. “Instead of the university saying, ‘Gosh, we screwed things up here,’ it insulated itself further from the community.”

These types of confrontations illustrate the often fractious relations between the university and residents. “The University of Chicago’s relationship with the community is an ongoing source of tension,” says Jay Ammerman, president of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, a 60-year-old community organization. “The university tends to hold things closely to its vest. When it’s not open enough, it creates a sense of mistrust.”

While taking its share of lumps, the University of Chicago has tried to take a leadership role in bringing economic development to the neighborhood. “We view our role as a catalyst: What can we do to help the community?” says Steven Kloehn, a university spokesman. “We don’t have to play this role. But this is our neighborhood. We’re another set of residents who would like to see top-quality dining, retail, and all those other things that make Hyde Park a better place to live and work.”

Local politics also makes economic development tricky. In Chicago, all zoning requests must gain the approval of the local alderman, and the Harper Court redevelopment is a prime example of how that works. It began in 2001, when the 53rd Street TIF (tax-increment financing) district was created. In a TIF district, the local property tax base is frozen for basic city services such as schools. As property values rise, the incremental extra taxes are set aside to fund infrastructure improvements and new development.

Ald. Preckwinkle supported the TIF and later announced a partnership between the University of Chicago and the City of Chicago involving the Harper Court redevelopment. The university owns the 128,000-square-foot center and the city owns the adjoining parking lot, all of which will be part of the new mixed-use development, which will benefit from TIF funding.

Critics say TIF districts can become piggy banks for politically connected developers. But Preckwinkle has no qualms about the arrangement. “The university and the city are taking a leadership role to bring about positive change,” she says. “Most of the residents I talk to support bringing high-quality retail and entertainment businesses to the area.”

Even if Preckwinkle’s premise is true, it remains to be seen whether the developer, Vermilion Development Corp. of downstate Danville, can pull it off. Vermilion has built successful mixed-use developments in college towns such as Urbana, Illinois, and Terre Haute, Indiana. The test will be whether a similar project will work in an urban setting.

Plans call for retail, offices and a parking deck to be built first, followed by a hotel and condominiums or apartments. Vermilion believes the project will attract new residents—and further development—to the neighborhood. “The key is to create a [retail and entertainment] tenant mix that appeals both to the neighborhood and the university,” says David Cocagne, president of Vermilion Development.

Interestingly, Cocagne places more faith in the buying power of students than do other developers and businesses familiar with Hyde Park. “We know the demographics of the neighborhood are strong. And you’d be surprised at the discretionary income students have. You need to attract apparel stores, dining, entertainment, a movie theater: things that appeal to everyone.”

If anything, Harper Court is creating buzz. Restaurant designer Kleiner, for one, says he’s excited about the Harper Court development and plans to keep an eye on its progress. “I’m still convinced there’s an untapped market in Hyde Park,” he says. “Who knows, I might even come back there someday.”