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Hyde Parkers Gear Up for Fight with Developer, University on Tower Proposal

By Sam Cholke | May 3, 2013 8:42am
 A rendering shows a 13-story tower for 53rd Street praised by many residents for its design but criticized for its scale.
A rendering shows a 13-story tower for 53rd Street praised by many residents for its design but criticized for its scale.
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Mesa Development

HYDE PARK — Plans for a controversial 13-story tower on 53rd Street will be the subject of a number of public meetings this month, starting with a forum on zoning on Monday.

Mesa Development and the University of Chicago are proposing a hyper-modern tower to replace the Mobil gas station at 1330 E. 53rd St. Residents are concerned the building is out of scale with the mostly three-story buildings around it and said it will add to traffic problems.

On Monday at United Church of Hyde Park, the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference will hold a forum on zoning with a panel of experts who can answer questions on the proposed zoning for the project and the purpose zoning serves in urban planning.

“This isn’t supposed to be anti [redevelopment], it’s supposed to be a pro rational zoning and best practices in urban planning forum,” said Jack Spicer, a member of the community group who assembled the panel of experts.

Tim Barton, a Hyde Park resident and former staffer in the city’s Zoning Department who played a major role in drafting the last major revision of the city’s zoning laws in 2006, will join Adam Kingsley of the O’Donnell Law Firm, an attorney who has worked on planned development zoning issues in Hyde Park, to talk about the ideas behind various zoning designations and the public process for each.

John Norquist, president of the Congress of New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee, will discuss urban planning, particularly how proximity to public transportation can impact traffic.

“The idea was to get some outside information that was unbiased and free from arguments,” Spicer said of the meeting, which will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the church 1448 E. 53rd St.

Spicer said the intent of the forum is to get back to the basics on how zoning can be appropriately used by city governments. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled zoning must be a rationally organized system that serves a clear social purpose and must be evenly applied within the municipality.

“None of these things are really at play here," Spicer said of the zoning change requested by Mesa Development for the 53rd Street tower. "Essentially what is happening here is not constitutional."

Mesa and the university are pursuing a planned development, a zoning designation the city requires for projects that are too big and complicated to fit into normal zoning categories. The change is mandatory to allow a 130-foot-tall building to be built in an area that's currently zoned for three-story buildings. 

All planned developments are reviewed by the Chicago Plan Commission, which must determine whether a project’s uses and scope diverge from the surrounding community in a negative way.

The commission is expected to review the project at its May 16 meeting.

The design of the building will be reviewed by the 53rd Street TIF advisory council at a Tuesday night meeting at Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave.

Residents and the committee on planning and development will be able to hear about the features of the building and ask questions at the 7 p.m. meeting.

Citizens for Appropriate Retail and Residential Development is encouraging neighbors to attend the meeting to voice their opposition. The group of approximately 100 Hyde Parkers oppose the project because of its scale and the potential traffic problems.

The group has started a petition asking Ald. Will Burns (4th) to oppose the project because of the potential hazards increased traffic would pose to students at neighboring Murray Language Academy elementary school.

As of Thursday evening, 118 people had signed the petition.

“I want to see improvements to 53rd street, but not at the cost of all the problems this proposed building will certainly cause,” Harvey Strauss said about his reason for signing the petition.

After the community meetings and Chicago Plan Commission hearing this month, the project will head to the City Council for review.