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Preemptive strike

Over the years Newstips has covered story after story about local groups seeking input into development plans and being completely shut out.  Now there’s a group that’s found serious leverage.

Hyde Parkers who are opposed to the University of Chicago’s efforts to bring in a hotel developer to demolish the shuttered Doctors Hospital and build on the site are poised to block the project by voting the precinct dry.

In the print version of its story, the Tribune quotes Ald. Leslie Hairston calling the referendum “an abuse of the process” and suggesting neighbors should see “what the company came up with in response to community suggestions.”

In fact they’re resorting to this “nuclear option” — voting the precinct dry would effectively block any hotel options at the site — because all community attempts at influencing development plans have been rebuffed.

The Hyde Park Historical Society and Landmarks Illinois hired an architectural firm to design a creative reuse of the existing building, with additional construction in back.  (The Maroon, the student paper, published a rendering in May.)  The preservation group added Doctors Hospital to its watch list; the Chicago Historical Resources Survey rates the building as historically significant.

White Services rejected the proposal as not cost-effective.  The company came back with a slightly-tweaked design that residents say is “suburban” and out of character with the urban neighborhood.

The company has also refused the request of UNITE-HERE Local 1 for a neutrality agreement. As Jacob Lesniewski pointed out at Gapers Block earlier this year, White Lodging “not only has no union representation at its 100 or so hotels, but also has been accused of intimidation and other shady practices in its fight against worker organizing,” along with “actively attempting to prevent its housekeeping staff at its Midway hotels from taking their state-mandated breaks”; in addition the company “is being sued by the federal government for discrimination against Muslim employees.”

The public meetings seem to have been held, as is so often the case, after all the big decisions have been made.  As Hyde Park Urbanist pointed out, rather than issue a request for proposals and entertaining offers from a variety of developers in a transparent process, the University pre-selected White Lodging, which is headed by a business school alumni and major donor who serves on a University board. From there the options narrowed.

Since the days of racially restrictive covenants and urban renewal, the University has been heavy-handed in attempting to control the community, and a recent period of relative openness seems to have come to an end with the ascension of President Robert Zimmer.  Under Zimmer the University has forced the closing of the Hyde Park Co-op and bought the community-founded Harper Court.  Third Ward Ald. Pat Dowell has blown the whistle on the University’s secret efforts to buy property on Garfield Boulevard west of Hyde Park.

It could be, in some sense, that the referendum is an “abuse of the process.”  It’s not a response to a problem bar or liquor store.  Such ballot questions have become a widespread tool for smoothing the edges of gentrifying neighborhoods, and Mayor Daley continues to promote them, most recently as a threat against Wrigleyville taverns.  Here the goal is much different:  to block unwanted development.

But it may be the only recourse for a group of neighbors facing what has become a far more widespread abuse of process — powerful interests using public hearings to check off legal or public relations requirements, while taking no heed of what the public is actually saying.  Time and again, across the city (look at the hearings on school closings), the public meetings are full of residents who don’t like what’s proposed, and political and economic powers ignore what’s being said and roll right over the opposition.

Usually the public has insights that the powerful would do well to consider.  And usually the public can’t do anything about it.  But watch out, Goliath — this time little David seems to have a good-sized stone in his slingshot.

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Category: development, hotels, Hyde Park, labor, preservation

Tagged: , , , , ,

One Response

  1. […] News reports.  In Hyde Park, residents of one precinct blocked the University of Chicago’s hotel development plans by voting the precinct dry by a narrow […]


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