Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Time Out Chicago wants to know: What's the matter with Hyde Park

Weekly events and culture magazine Time Out Chicago (TOC) generally focuses on providing lists of fun things to see and do in the city, and--in my experience--seems to stay away from local politics. I've been a big fan for a while because they acknowledge that the city extends beyond the loop and Lincoln Park, and often promote Hyde Park spots and events (like Hyde Park Art Center's Cocktails and Clay).

Seemingly inspired by the recent unveiling of the Harper Court redevelopment plans, this week's cover of TOC reads (all in huge, bold caps),"What's the matter with Hyde Park?" When I first saw this headline, I was a little peeved, thinking something along the lines of "Just what Hyde Park needs, some hot-shot local publication telling the world about all of its deficiencies!" Once you get past the strange, negatively-spun headline, there are actually some really great articles about the neighborhood. As I read it, the central focus of TOC's Hyde park issue (which you can check out here) is finding out what Hyde Park locals want and need, attempting to identify the barriers to the neighborhood having these things, and then demonstrating that these so-called barriers are based on misinformation and misunderstandings about Hyde Park. Writer John Slania notes:
[Hyde Park] sits on prime lakeside real estate and boasts gorgeous historic architecture. Hyde Park has all the trappings of a commercial star, so why is it a veritable retail and entertainment wasteland?
Later, he provides statistics demonstrating that Hyde Park-Kenwood is an exceptionally large community (50,000+14,000 students and 12,000 University staff-members), with a relatively high average household income ($62,500, comparable to Lakeview) and low crime rate (it's the 6th safest neighborhood in the entire city). He goes on to talk to locals about things they feel Hyde Park needs (answers include "somewhere to buy cute girl stuff," "a Trader Joe's, a "bigger variety of restaurants").

In an accompanying piece, writer Jake Malooley goes around and talks to owners and developers of local and national chains asking why they won't set up shop in Hyde Park. Again and again, he is told that the the owners have never even considered moving to the neighborhood, don't want to "pioneer" development in new parts of the city, and don't feel that Hyde Park has the spending power to support their businesses. When Malooley attempts to argue against their assertions by providing data, the owners eventually confess that they actually know very little about the neighborhood or, in the case of the Trader Joe's representative, that she doesn't really know where Hyde Park even is.

In another sideline, Bren DiCrescenzo provides a side-by-side comparison of Hyde Park to Evanston, which is further from the city center yet has historically been more successful in attracting commerce. The most surprising/interesting stats are:

Total Crimes Reported in 2008
Evanston: 24.4 per capita, Hyde Park:24.3 per capita

Violent Crimes Incidents in 2008
Evanston: 299, Hyde Park: 236

Median Family Income (2010 Projection)
Evanston: $105,318 Hyde Park: $119,565

Finally, Liz Plosser provides a good list of what is lovable about Hyde Park. Her top picks include the lake path, Promontory Point, the many local museums, and great specialty grocer Z&H.

What I found most enlightening and troubling about the TOC articles is their portrayal of just how little the general public and investors know about Hyde Park. The writers--and it's not clear how intimately they know Hyde Park-- seem to believe that the Harper Court redevelopment project could transform the community and resolve the issues outlined above.
I think that planned development in the community is, in theory, a great thing and has transformative potential. BUT, I worry that this type of progress won't be sustainable if the rest of the city doesn't know or care about Hyde Park. Moderately dense North-side communities like Andersonville and Lincoln Square don't thrive solely on locals, but on folks who drive in from a few miles away to visit. For the development to be successful, Hyde Park needs to essentially become a destination neighborhood, and that might take some work.

The Harper Court redevelopment project represents a sort of chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. The type of large-scale planned commercial development proposed has the potential to bring new vibrancy to the community. On the other hand, new commercial development will not thrive unless there is enough buzz about the neighborhood to make non-locals care. Bottom line, Hyde Park needs some good PR and marketing. The TOC issue is a great start. Right on par with what I try to do in this blog, the writers boost the community and write about what makes it special, while still thinking critically about the broader economic and social issues that come into play. They depict Hyde Park as a virtually-untapped market full of desirable real estate and affluent locals eager to spend their dough on upscale food and retail. They make a pretty convincing argument for why Hyde Park is a great place to open up shop. They tell you what's already great about the neighborhood, and where there is potential for growth. If I were an investor, I'd be sold. I'm just hoping that those with investing power see this piece and maybe give the community a second look.

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