Oct. 4, 2008

Arrested developments

Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics has the potential to alter dramatically the current landscape of the neighborhood west of Cottage Grove. Currently littered with vacant lots and the odd Harold’s Chicken Shack, the area could receive an influx of new businesses if the city goes through with its plan to construct a temporary 80,000-seat stadium in Washington Park.

In light of this, the University’s decision to quietly buy up property along the East 55th Street corridor seems particularly farsighted. But even if the city fails in its Olympic bid, the area is an important gateway to Hyde Park that the University has rightly targeted for development. Still, in Chicago, traditions and conventions, for better or for worse, are firmly entrenched in the political culture. It’s unsurprising, then, that when news of the purchase reached the public, third-ward alderman Pat Dowell was quick to express her outrage.

Rather than staying committed to the ideals of renewal and progress that got her elected in 2007, the alderman has slipped back into red-meat rhetoric that pits the surrounding community against the U of C—at the expense of development.

Dowell’s grievances stem from concerns that University administrators didn’t inform her before making the purchase, refusing also to tell her what they planned to do with the land. Banking on traditional distrust of the University, the alderman began a feverish letter-writing campaign and tried to whip the neighborhood into a heated frenzy, painting U of C administrators as “greedy” and manipulative “liars” at every turn.

While keeping Dowell in the loop might have been the more diplomatic move, the University was under no obligation to do so, nor can it be faulted for not turning over plans that have not yet been created. Most importantly, the alderman’s disproportionate response now jeopardizes a redevelopment effort that could have benefited both the University and third-ward residents.

Dowell might have scored some quick political points with those who warily remember University expansionist efforts in the 1960s, but they come at no small expense. Her emboldened constituents will now expect her to obstruct University efforts to bring in businesses and commerce to the garbage-strewn lots that now dominate the area. If she continues down this path, neither University students nor the third-ward residents who would work, shop, and eat at these new establishments will benefit.