Neighbors Question University's Plans

September 19, 2008

Download Story
The Schulze Bakery building is being converted into lofts. The University of Chicago recently purchased nearby land. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
The University of Chicago's foray into the Washington Park neighborhood is being met with a mix of skepticism and anticipation. For decades, Washington Park has suffered from economic depression. That's beginning to change as housing is redeveloped and new housing goes up. Now that the powerful university is starting to buy land in the community, many are questioning whether what's good for the University of Chicago will also be good for them.

It's been decades since the University of Chicago supported restrictive covenants to keep blacks out of the surrounding neighborhoods of Woodlawn, Washington Park and North Kenwood. But that history still haunts some in those communities.

PATTILLO: The emotional impact was that people were bitter; people have long memories.

Northwestern University sociology professor Mary Pattillo says that's why the university's recent land purchases have caught people's attention.

PATTILLO: It's a moment where people are having discussions about that history, telling newcomers about that history. Raising that eyebrow …

Like many universities across the country, the U of C has been trying to forge a more positive relationship with its surrounding community. Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia are doing the same.

For its part, the U of C says it's given some $80 million over the last decade to communities in the area. That money has funding everything from charter schools to police protection.

ambi LANE:

That just wasn't language we used before; everything was Hyde Park, Kenwood, Hyde Park, Kenwood. And now we are really talking about university's role in Woodlawn and how significant the investment in Kenwood is.

Laura Lane is a community organizer who lives and works in Woodlawn. She says the relationship between the university and the community is growing. Lane helped bring the University of Chicago police department to the neighborhood. We talk on 63rd and Cottage Grove.

LANE: For my neighbors here on this development where we're standing, they feel good about it. We have an emergency phone that's down way right here that we can pick up and call. The comments I get from neighbors over here are that the university police often respond faster than the third district police, so it's an added benefit.

But suspicions still linger amongst those in the mostly black Washington Park, just west of the school's Hyde Park home. The busy thoroughfare Garfield Boulevard, or 55th Street, runs through both neighborhoods. It's here that the U of C bought some parcels of vacant land.

ambi

Ghian Foreman is redeveloping the iconic Schulze Bakery into lofts and first-floor retail. The $40 million project is at least a year out. And now he's on the same boulevard that the university has bought on.

FOREMAN: One positive perspective it gives hope that something in the area's going to happen. Still, from a not-as-positive perspective is not knowing, not being sure what is the plan for the area. It certainly creates more questions that I have to answer when going in to talk to the banks or talking to my investors.

And it can make some property owners greedy.

FOREMAN: We had one guy who we had been talking to about acquiring some of his property. The price we were talking about was around $600,000.
 
Foreman says the owner upped the price to $1 million so he walked away. But it's not knowing what the University of Chicago will do with the newly acquired land that irks 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell.

DOWELL: My concern is that this grabbing of land at this point without any clear idea of what they want the land for or need it for is not appropriate.

She's been vocal about her disappointment with the university for not coming to her first before buying land. Dowell says that smacks in the face of conversations she previously had with university officials.

DOWELL: Well, I would lke them to participate in a very public community planning process. Where they are one stakeholder of many stakeholders to try to determine what that corridor will look like, plan it out.

It isn't lost on Dowell that Washington Park itself is a proposed Olympic site. Nor is the university's past with the neighboring predominately black neighborhoods.

Sonya Malunda is an associate vice president at the U of C. She says it's simply trying to improve the area.

MALUNDA: The university's investment can be a catalyst to spur redevelopment in that area, that's our hope and aspiration.

Malunda says going forward the institution will work with Dowell and others. The university says it's open to coming up with a community benefits agreement for the corridor. But Malunda didn't offer specifics, saying right now their vision is only conceptual.

MALUNDA: Economic development in our minds could mean commercial, retail development, jobs. She says there are no current talks with private developers.

ambi

Garland Gantt is a vendor on wheels on Garfield Boulevard, steps away from one of the parcels the university purchased. He's pragmatic.

GANTT: Long as I can stay here and make some money I'm all right. Even if it affects me, if it's better for them, I'm still with it.
REPORTER: Do you think you'd be able to stay here?
GANNT: No, I would probably move on somewhere.
REPORTER: And you're cool with that?
GANNT: Yeah.
REPORTER: Why?
GANNT: Cause don't nothing stay the same. Things gonna always change.
 
Gantt then says the university's investment is better for the surrounding environment. After all, he can sell his wares anywhere.

I'm Natalie Moore … Chicago Public Radio.