By Deva Woodly

From Little Black Pearl to the Hyde Park Art Center, the DuSable Museum to the Midwestern White House, Hyde Park is riding a wave of cultural and intellectual energy.

At the same time, the famously diverse neighborhood with a small-town feel continues to struggle to find commercial momentum and the right mix of amenities for its residents.

In current economic times, Hyde Park is not alone in confronting a challenging development market. However, the University continues to engage in a long-term effort to engage with fellow stakeholders in the Hyde Park community to address these challenges. That partnership has already helped bring in needed businesses such as the grocery store Treasure Island.

Now the University is working with the City of Chicago and 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle to redevelop the Harper Court area known as the “Heart of Hyde Park”—a year-long collaborative project that could soon bear fruit. Five development teams are currently working on development proposals for the area, and a decision could be made by early fall.

Deepening Community Involvement

The process of bringing Hyde Park’s diverse residents together to re-imagine the neighborhood has required a sustained effort from many different groups including the Hyde Park Community Council, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, and the Alderman. For example, in 2007, the University commissioned a study of the retail needs and desires of South Side residents, and in 2008, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference conducted a survey exploring community priorities.

In addition, the University has sponsored several community workshops organized by a collective of dedicated community groups and the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council, to deepen resident involvement in re-envisioning the neighborhood. The University used the information gleaned from these diverse sources of input in the Request for Proposals issued to developers on Dec. 8, 2008.

It is clear from the community conversation that has emerged that although Hyde Parkers cherish the way their neighborhood fosters diversity, creativity and intellectual life, there is also an eagerness for more restaurants, more retail, and better access to transportation and parking. David Hoyt, a contributor to the popular “Hyde Park Progress”blog, notes that “Right now there is no place to buy clothing anywhere near Hyde Park.”Hoyt, like many Hyde Parkers, envisions 53rd Street as an “eclectic mix of small businesses. Ideally, the specialty, quirky, and boutique shops that you associate with a vibrant campus neighborhood with one or two national chains in the mix to anchor the whole thing.”

More Retail for Residents

Irene Sherr, a Hyde Park resident and professional urban planning consultant, puts it simply: “Hyde Park would benefit enormously from development. Our retail districts do not adequately meet the needs of residents and students.”

As a part of ongoing efforts to address this need, in 2008 the University purchased Harper Court as a part of a community planning process to revitalize 53rd Street. Since that time, the University has been working with numerous community groups and the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council to engage the entire neighborhood in the conversation about how to make Harper Court smart, sustainable, and successful.

Sherr and a number of Hyde Park organizations put together four “vision workshops,” in which residents could learn about neighborhood density and share their ideas for improving Hyde Park’s retail, entertainment, and housing offerings. Though most everyone agrees the revitalization would greatly benefit Hyde Park, some residents have expressed some uncertainty about how to best proceed.

George Rumsey, President of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, a community improvement group active since 1949, explains a common concern about “the type of development that will be invited into Hyde Park. Everyone wants to make sure that the businesses that set up shop here are sustainable for this neighborhood. Several years ago a United Colors of Benetton opened up here. There also was a Pier 1. Where are they now?”

‘We do not want to see Hyde Park become another mall’

Susan Campbell, the University’s Associate Vice President for Civic Engagement, shares Rumsey’s concern and reports, “I think uniqueness is important for creating a destination. People will come some place that they feel is exciting and different. We do not want to see Hyde Park become another mall.”

Rumsey also points out that some residents are concerned about the economic downturn and the decision to terminate the leases of current business owners in Harper Court in order to clear the property for demolition.

“I just have this fear that we’ll be staring at vacant lots for a while, and that is not very attractive.”

Campbell notes that since June 2008, the University has been working with tenants, the Chamber of Commerce, local landlords, and the city to assist with a smooth transition for both Harper Court businesses and their customers, while also maximizing developer interest. In order to show its understanding of the needs of community residents and existing businesses, the University has agreed to extend the leases of the businesses currently in Harper Court until June 30, 2009. In addition, there are plans under way to engage entrepreneurs and artists from both Hyde Park and around the city in planning interim uses for properties vacated in preparation for development.

“Redeveloping a neighborhood is sometimes a lengthy process,” Campbell says, “but I think if people remain committed to the process you can actually see success in a shorter window of time.”

Many residents also have concerns about whether the slow economy will stall the redevelopment of 53rd Street, but Campbell remains optimistic. “We need to remain focused and be strategic about how we allocate our resources,”she says. “If we remain committed as a neighborhood—not just the University, but all residents—we can achieve that vision of a vibrant 53rd Street.”

Originally published on April 13, 2009.