May 22, 2001

Marooned south of the Midway

The South of the Midway Study, developed by the Bruckner Studio, first saw the light of day in the spring of 2000. Since its release, the study has not received the attention of any local newspapers or journalists, and has largely gone unnoticed. While some of my fellow commentators have seen fit to dismiss the South of the Midway Study out of hand, without giving its full due, I believe certain aspects of the study reflect prevailing attitudes within the University community towards outside community involvement and active participation in large-scale master plans that ultimately also have widespread ramifications for members of the Woodlawn community. This is not to say that I found anything particularly novel or unexpected in this brief study, but rather that there are several important pieces of this study that are worthy of close scrutiny and investigation.

Here is one particularly interesting sentence from the initial pages of the Midway study that caught my eye: "With these opportunities in mind, Provost Geoffrey Stone convened a study group to produce a set of principles to guide decisions about the future development of the area south of the Midway." For me, this sentence conjured up images of smoke-filled rooms, with various concerned parties sitting around a marble fireplace deciding what possible intervention might be developed with an uncooperative member of some political faction or unruly tribe. This remark is not meant to slight Provost Stone, or any other member of this study group, but rather to suggest that a bit of direct community involvement might be in order for such an ambitious project.

I held my breath to see whether or not a broad base of potential constituents might in fact be consulted with for such an undertaking. As I turned the page of the study I read on: "This process began with interviews of the Study Group members, and other constituents of the area." So who exactly are these "Study Group" members and who are their partners, the fabled "other constituents?" Seeking immediate gratification, I skipped ahead in the study to discover that the Study Group was composed of various academic deans and a clutch of other equally important and influential University administrators. So it wasn't a particularly rigorously designed sociological study that was designed to elicit a range of opinions that included people from Woodlawn. Does this matter at all, especially considering that the study area only extended southward to 61st Street? In my opinion, it matters a great deal, particularly when you consider that any prolonged University intervention in this area will have ramifications on the community south of 61st Street.

While the study contains several references that imply the University should welcome the opportunity to be part of the Woodlawn community, there are several approaches to physical planning espoused within this document that stand in stark contrast to each other and to any meaningful healing process between the University and the Woodlawn community. For example, there is a great deal of attention paid to the concept of "interconnected precincts" within this document. This idea is primarily related to establishing some sort of cohesion between different parts of the South Campus expansion and the Woodlawn community. Strangely enough, the final section that articulates a few additional recommendations ends on this note: "The Study recommends the full or partial closing of the secondary avenues that cross the South of the Midway... " How is the University supposed to build any proverbial (or literal) bridges to the Woodlawn community when the streets are partially closed? I can see the designer's logic and reasoning behind creating pedestrian passageways, but on the other hand it seems a bit premature to shut these traffic avenues down.

The South of the Midway Plan also speaks from a vantage point that claims to have a great deal of interest in renewing a symbiotic relationship to the Woodlawn community through site design and physical planning. This is discussed in the first few sections of the plan where the designers talk about the "suburban parkway" design of many of the University buildings which address 60th Street with a sense of style and sophistication and stick their unattractive backsides to the Woodlawn community. The plan goes on to mention that one of the planning principles should be to "establish an attractive campus edge on 61st Street" that [will] have the structure and character of other streets and avenues in the Hyde Park neighborhood." Now when I think of the best elements of Hyde Park streets I think of Hyde Park Boulevard between 53rd and 55th Streets: A mix of building types which bring their front doors close to the sidewalk, beautiful tall shade trees, and the odd retail establishment tucked into the first floor of a residential apartment building. I think that the people at the Bruckner Design studios had the urban vitality of 55th Street west of Woodlawn when they made this next recommendation: "The Study recommends that all new buildings constructed on the north side of 61st Street should be placed at least thirty feet from the street -- twice the required setback." Huh? I thought we were striving for continuity between the surrounding community (the setback on the south side of 61st Street is about six feet) and looking to emulate the early 20th-century style of mixed-use building, not the best in circa 1955 shopping mall design principles.

One of the appendices to the South Campus plan includes one suggestion that I felt might be a valuable addition to the mix of future activities and uses in the immediate area. The designers mentioned that the Illinois Bell Building might be transformed into a residential development with artist studio or workspace. I immediately fell into a hypnotic trance, imagining a community of artists, in the best tradition of the former Artists Colony on 57th Street or the Tree Studios in the River North neighborhood. Such a development is most likely not to occur for several years, but regardless it is probably the most courageous and creative idea in the whole document.