March 30, 2007

U of C solicits student input on campus retail

The University hosted a discussion on Hyde Park retail options for a group of undergraduate and graduate students Monday night.

The discussion was led by Susan M. Campbell, associate vice president for community affairs, and Lisa Prasad, a business development consultant who formerly worked with the University of Pennsylvania.

Over pizza, students addressed problems they perceive with retail in Hyde Park and how retail fits into the quality of student life.

Daniel Kimerling, chair of the student government finance committee, called for improved grocery options, a request echoed by nearly every student in attendance. “The Co-op simply does not cut the mustard,” he said.

Kimerling and other students said they frequent downtown grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods because of the Co-op’s high prices and lack of variety. Students without cars noted that traveling to buy groceries is inconvenient.

Many students also expressed a desire for greater access to grocery stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues late at night, decrying the lack of food and entertainment options available after 10 p.m. Graduate students in particular complained about the difficulty of finding places to eat that are open after long days in classes and labs.

Prasad described how retail acts as “a buffer that brings people together,” specifically the university community and surrounding Hyde Park.

Multiple students cited Seven Ten Lanes and Bar Louie, both open late, as being successful in attracting students and members of the community.

Some students questioned why broader options do not already exist and why the Co-op has little competition other than Hyde Park Produce. Hyde Park’s perceived lack of available real estate for retail development, coupled with a student demographic with a low disposable income, does little to draw chains or even small businesses to open in Hyde Park, Prasad said.

Part of the University’s mission is to show retailers that census data about student income is actually “artificially low” and that there is, in fact, a meaningful demand for retail.

Students also described the distance between Hyde Park’s 53rd, 55th and 57th Street retail areas as inconvenient and off-putting, an issue that graduate students who live south of the Midway highlighted as particularly troublesome. Students voiced concerns that construction of the new south-campus dorm could exacerbate the lack of retail options.

Campbell said the new dorm—which will provide residence for over 700 students—currently includes plans for a small convenience store similar to Bart Mart. Some graduate students said they had never been to Bart Mart, and most students agreed that while Bart Mart’s location and hours make it a convenient option, it is both expensive and limited in its selection.

In response to Prasad’s question of whether “the library is the center of student life,” Kimerling joked that in fact, it is. Other students cited the local music scene, Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, and Doc Films as affordable and entertaining places to go, but otherwise, said they found most entertainment elsewhere in Chicago.

Campbell explained the University’s retail development as a way to increase the quality of student life. This balance of “retention and attraction” helps motivate the University to continue looking into student preferences and opinions on Hyde Park retail, she said.�