(Part 1 of this Jack Spicer article is here.)
There are three important ideas that were not articulated at the 53rd Street Vision Workshop but that I believe could reassure the community that the changes being discussed are thoughtful, respectful and hopeful:
1) Generally, low-rise (3-4-5 story) development is the best way to increase density on a street like 53rd without increasing congestion and grimness. The many 1- and 2-story buildings could be redeveloped to 3, 4 and 5's, and new mid-rise (8-10 story) buildings could go near (2 blocks) the Metra and the buses at Lake Park. This increases density all along the street but concentrates it where the most traffic already is and where the majority of new residents would have easy access to public transit and be able to moderate their automobile needs.
Tall buildings are a danger elsewhere -- they cause more congestion than they are worth (to the community, not the developer) and can kill the "walkability" of a pedestrian street. But the biggest danger of misplaced tall buildings (more than two blocks from transit) is that they would seriously distort what could be a steady, evenly distributed private development process on 53rd Street. A tall building would suddenly saturate the residential market (rental and condo), sucking up all the demand all at once. This strangles what could be steadily increasing development pressure on the small 1- and 2-story buildings away from Lake Park that could be redeveloped into 3, 4 and 5's in an orderly development market. We'd be left with one or two new tall buildings and the same old little buildings. Limiting, by zoning, the new buildings west of Harper Avenue to 4- and 5-stories wouldn't limit total development -- it would increase the total number of new residential units and spread them out gracefully along the street.
2) Smaller (in terms of covered land area) developments are better than big ones because they integrate gracefully into the existing neighborhood. Large-scale (land area) developments dominate and deaden the streetscape even if they are low-rise. This is because diversity of buildings (type, age, scale, use, style, residential and commercial rental cost) and diversity of people (age, race, class, gender) go together and are both essential for an urban (lively, complex) neighborhood.
3) Broad, open, meaningful, and on-going participation by the community is necessary to create a complex, but clear, set of development guidelines. Centralized, secretive, fast, top-down planning and development almost never work. Nobody is smart enough to figure it all out by themselves. And, more importantly, good citizens and good developers don't like to be manipulated. Good citizens want genuine participation in the process and good developers want clear rules and guidelines that apply to everybody without favoritism. If the governmental officials work with the community to create clear, consistent and enforceable development guidelines and then get out of the way, I believe the best developers will come to Hyde Park and will help us create the kind of increased density that would enrich Hyde Park's city life. Democracy and the market often turn out a pretty good dinner when the political chefs help set the menu and then get out of the kitchen.