January 30, 2007

U of C an active player in 53rd Street development

[img id="80141" align="alignleft"] The University is moving forward with development plans to bring restaurants and retailers to 53rd Street and Harper Court in what U of C Vice President for Community Affairs Hank Webber called “an active period of development.”

At a recent town hall meeting, University President Robert Zimmer said the ultimate goal is to make Hyde Park “safe, comfortable, and pleasant” for members of the University and the community.

“I think everyone would like to see better commercial and retail opportunities in Hyde Park, and we share that view,” he said.

Despite University backing, developers still face the challenge of satisfying local residents, many of whom look forward to new services in Hyde Park but worry about displacing local culture.

Developers should strive to strike a balance between chain retailers and local boutiques, said Wallace Goode, associate dean of students and director of the University Community Service Center (UCSC).

“It doesn’t have to be either/or,” said Goode, who grew up in the area. “There is a flavor and a quaintness in Hyde Park…. The small boutiques help add character and maintain character. I’m a strong supporter of that. [But] there are times when having a one-stop kind of shop is advantageous. If you want to go buy a pair of socks in Hyde Park, where do you go? A boutique to buy socks isn’t prudent.”

Baum Brothers LLC is working in a joint venture with Brinshore Developers to bring fashion retailers, a restaurant, and office space to a 53rd Street building currently owned by the University. The developers are “finalizing their plans for the building,” Webber said, and plan to buy the property from the University in June.

David Baum, co-founder of Baum Realty, said new retail options will not detract from the community’s character if they are integrated artfully.

“I think you just have to have a mix. A great mix of locals and nationals is positive for everyone,” Baum said.

In past years, Baum brought Kinko’s to 57th Street and Starbucks to 53rd Street. Baum said he targets Hyde Park because it is “way underrepresented in terms of retail,” even though “it’s an educated, affluent community.”

“I’m very positive about the area and that the people that we put in will do very well,” he said.

Baum said his efforts to bring retailers to Hyde Park could have a domino effect, attracting additional businesses.

“Retail is a herd mentality. No one wants to go in by themselves. Slowly but surely, [new retailers] come,” he said.

Some local residents, however, are convinced that introducing national retailers to the area will threaten Hyde Park’s local flavor.

Duane Powell, an employee at Dr. Wax Records in Harper Court, said small businesses will close as chains come to the area.

Harper Court and 53rd Street provided “a kind of renaissance where the older and the younger generations were learning from each other,” Powell said. “This is a historical place, but Hyde Park is losing its cultural edge.”

Others are more enthusiastic about the prospects of commercial development. Dave Jeff, owner of 53rd Street’s Phli Store—a backwards acronym for “I love Hyde Park”—said chain retailers provide an opportunity to inform a new crowd about Hyde Park culture.

“I think with chains coming in, we’ll be putting a lot of people on to our culture,” Jeff said. “We look at Hyde Park in a certain way. They’ll see what we know already from being Hyde Parkers.”

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle of the 4th Ward, north of campus, echoed Jeff’s attitude. “Nothing ever stays the same over time,” Preckwinkle said. “The challenge is to have a vibrant commercial strip that mixes national businesses and local chains.”

Restaurateur Jerry Kleiner, who plans to open the Hyde Park Grill in Harper Court this April, said he’s “betting on a hunch” that 53rd Street can be just that: a thriving strip where a higher-end restaurant can survive. Kleiner is leasing the property from the University.

“Something is needed…in that community,” Kleiner said. “I like the fact that there’s good opportunity in Hyde Park.”

Kleiner said he is aware of concerns about preserving local culture. “I’m not just your guy coming in to rape and pillage a community,” he said.

The Hyde Park Grill will “add to the fiber of the community” by attracting Chicago residents who are not familiar with Hyde Park, he said. “I want to turn people on to a new neighborhood in their city,” Kleiner said. “I feel it’s time to expose the rest of the city to Hyde Park.”

Kleiner has a history of opening restaurants in areas that lack dining options. “One of the things that’s very impressive about Mr. Kleiner is his record of helping establish additional restaurants [in neighborhoods],” Webber said.