Hyde Park laws cork barcade proposal

Laura Green wanted to open up a bar-themed arcade, but her plans were compromised by Hyde Park red tape.

By Gabe Valley

When Laura Green, former member of the Chicago-based band I Fight Dragons, wanted to open an arcade-themed café and bar, she thought U of C’s campus would be the perfect place. But shortly after she began her search for real estate in Hyde Park she realized she was fighting a losing battle.

Green grew up visiting Hyde Park to see her grandparents, who were neighborhood residents and local business owners. She revisited the area when she took a job at the Court Theatre after graduating from Roosevelt University. She then realized she wanted to continue the family legacy by opening her own business in the area.

Her business venture, a “barcade,” would be a bar-arcade combo by night and a café by day that would fit with the college community.

“It would be a cross between nerd and awesome, which seems like exactly the kind of thing that the University of Chicago would want,” Green said.

But when she came to scope the neighborhood, she was met with swift rejection of the idea by local business owners. Soon after, she learned that zoning laws would make her venture even more difficult.

“It was scary for me as a twenty-something wanting to open my own business to have multiple people say, ‘You should not open it down here,’” Green said. Furthermore, she consulted a commercial real estate agent who “told me that I would be throwing my money away [if I tried to open a bar in Hyde Park], and that was very shocking,” she said.

Business owners along East 53rd Street confirmed these assertions. Greg Estrada, the owner of Futons-n-More on East 53rd Street and South Dorchester Avenue, doubted the success of another bar. “It would be very difficult [for a bar to do well in Hyde Park because] there are plenty of bars already,” Estrada said. “People don’t really like the idea of a bar in a college neighborhood like this.”

John Lathouris, the manager of Valois Cafeteria at East 53rd Street and South Harper Avenue, agreed opening a successful bar in Hyde Park would be difficult. “People don’t drink here,” he said.

But some U of C students disagree. According to Leigh Ann Smith-Gary, a graduate student in the humanities, the reason people don’t drink is because choices are limited. “I often go to another neighborhood because there aren’t very many options in Hyde Park,” she said.

Smith-Gary pointed to Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap as the usual student drinking hole. But she said increased nightlife options would offer an incentive for students to stay in Hyde Park. “It would be nice to have a bar where the walls aren’t completely black,” Smith-Gary said.

Many undergraduate students echo Smith-Gary’s sentiments, wishing for a wider range of activities during the weekend. “There are frat parties and some apartment parties…and Jimmy’s, but aside from that a lot of places close,” said second-year Jen Cohen. “It’s not the most fun place to be on the weekend.”

According to Cohen, a closer location would help students avoid the hassle of commuting at night. “There are a lot of students who would like to go out and not have to go downtown,” Cohen said.

Green also found that zoning and licensing regulations made her idea seem impossible. “The zoning laws are another problem. For someone wanting to open a business, there’s so much red tape to go through anyways, and then to have the layer of the community against you, it gets frustrating,” Green said.

Licenses have restrictions on where and when alcohol is served, as well as an indoor-only policy, and all require a biannual fee. Upon application for a license, the surrounding community is notified and can make objections.

Several Walgreens locations in Hyde Park sought liquor licenses in 2010. The requests for licenses were met with strong opposition from the local police district and then-Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, according to an April 14 Hyde Park Herald article. Residents of the 39th precinct voted the precinct dry as the University considered transforming the Doctors Hospital at Stony Island Avenue and East 58th Street into a hotel, plans that were scrapped after the ban.

Hardships in getting a liquor license extend past bars and stores. The Medici on East 57th Street is located in a dry district and is therefore ineligible for a liquor license. To curtail this ban, Hans Morsbach, the owner, opened another branch of the Medici in Uptown Normal where he can sell alcoholic beverages and achieve “a more spectacular vision of his ‘Dream Medici,’” according to the Medici website.

For now, Green’s project has come to a stopping point, as Green does not want to come up against any community adversity. If the neighborhood was more welcoming, she would still look into bringing the barcade here. “I would most definitely want to open it in Hyde Park,” Green said. “You shouldn’t have to hop on the Metra or the 6 bus to hang out.”