January 18, 2005

Alderman, administrators address community issues

Administrators Richard Saller and Henry Webber presented publicly the University's construction plans in Chicago's fifth ward last Thursday night at the International House, fielding questions from concerned Hyde Park residents about architectural preservation, possible tenant evictions, and increased property taxes.

There was little University community tension in comparison to prior events on University expansion, which had been notable for the frustrations voiced by residents of Woodlawn, who see University expansion as an infringement on their neighborhood.

Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston did her best to put to rest the issue of University construction in Woodlawn at the meeting, emphasizing before the presentation that "if anybody is here to talk about Woodlawn, tonight is not the night. That is the 20th ward, and we're here to talk about the fifth ward."

University construction in Chicago's fifth ward follows the same premise as in other wards, said Webber, who is vice president for community affairs. "This is 100-percent-owned University property," he said, addressing the "considerable progress" that the University has made in transforming "the empty parking lots on 55th Street," the vacant Woodward Court into an entertainment venue, and the new business school complex, respectively.

Saller, University Provost, began by talking about the University's commitment to personnel. "The University has a tradition of investing in people," Saller said. "We have less endowment than Harvard and Yale…but our frugality is not at the expense of investing in people."

He added that he thinks people are the most important asset for a first-class research institution and, "to serve those people better, we need to pay attention to facilities."

The "$20 million or more" that will be invested in "about two dozen projects" will go toward an interdivisional research building, a $3.5 million Regenstein library expansion, a creative arts facility, hospital renovations, and other projects, Saller said.

Although these projects, including the 2004 purchase of the State Farm Insurance building on 52nd Street and Cottage Grove Boulevard, are all located north of the Midway and Alderman Hairston stated specifically that Woodlawn would not be a topic of discussion, Saller said that "if anything on Cottage Grove became available, the University might acquire it…to improve the Cottage Grove façade."

Woodlawn residents had expressed fears at recent events, suggesting that the University would target the Grove Parc apartment complex on Cottage Grove for acquisition and demolition, which would displace hundreds of current tenants.

A small minority of tenants on Drexel Avenue who came to the meeting raised their voices amidst fears of eviction.

Paul Parkins, a resident in the 5600 block of Drexel Avenue who rents his apartment from the University, asked if there would be any demolition or eviction of tenants from his block as a result of University expansion. Hyde Park resident Judy Lin chimed in, saying that "maybe she had missed something," as a "large house had been torn down and made into a now empty lot" on Drexel without her having known why.

Saller said, "A new research building will be built at the corner of Drexel," but that no additional demolition would occur on that street. "The last three buildings on Drexel will remain standing," Saller said.

Webber added that there are "no plans to construct on the west side of Drexel." Both administrators stressed that information about possible demolitions and evictions can be found on the University website about the Master Plan.

Hyde Park resident Laurie Burgess berated the University for doing "a rotten job of finding places for those people" who have been evicted in the past due to demolition.

"I heard personally from people evicted from their homes on Drexel that tenants not affiliated with the University, but who were renting their apartments from the University, were not offered help in relocating," Burgess said. "The University can commit itself more to aiding in that process."

Webber responded, saying that "having to move is an important thing…We will take that suggestion and implement it."

Student-tenant organizer Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, tried, but was unable to swing the discussion back to Woodlawn. Making a reference to the recent increase in property taxes and rents affecting the wellbeing of Woodlawn residents, he challenged the University to use some of its "$2.2 billion dollar composite budget to help fund research on the effects of new construction on property taxes and rents in the surrounding neighborhoods."

Saller replied that there is "no reason to think that what we do here affects those values," and that a connection does not exist.

"The area under construction is contained by geographical barriers that will not affect the other areas," Hairston said. "Washington Park to the west, the Midway to the south, 55th Street to the north, and Woodlawn Avenue to the east" will ensure that the area is contained, she said.

Other proposed projects that administrators talked about include an expansion of the Smart Museum, an underground parking lot under Stagg Field, and a new operation and patient-care tower for the University Hospital.