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U of C buys Harper Court for $6.5 million

Photo: Chris Salata/The Chicago Maroon

As part of its ongoing effort to jump-start the redevelopment of 53rd Street, the University has bought Harper Court from the Harper Court Arts Council for $6.5 million, the administration announced Monday.

Harper Court, a shopping center on South Harper Avenue between East 53rd and East 52nd Streets with 23 stores and restaurants, was built in 1965 by the Harper Court Foundation in an effort to support local artisans who had been displaced by urban renewal projects. Since then, the tenants have shifted from artists to retailers. and the site has fallen into relative disrepair. In 2002, the foundation shifted ownership to the Arts Council, which began to look for buyers.

Some Hyde Parkers began to grow frustrated at the lack of progress in developing the site over several years.

No progress was made until 2006, when Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (4th Ward) stepped in and decided that the city, through her office, would take over the search. She also added a neighboring city parking lot to the parcel to make it more attractive to potential developers. Since then, Preckwinkle’s office has been active in its efforts to affect the property’s redevelopment, working closely with Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, a neighborhood civic organization, to gauge community opinion over the property’s future.

According to Associate Vice President for Community and Government Affairs Susan Campbell, Preckwinkle, who shares the University’s interest in revitalizing Hyde Park, encouraged the University to buy the property.

Preckwinkle called the University’s purchase of Harper Court a positive development, although she anticipated that many people would be upset by the announcement, according to the Hyde Park Herald.

“It’s no secret that we had expressed interest in buying the property for quite some time, perhaps a couple of years ago,” Campbell said. “Given the increased number of inquiries and complaints about retail opportunities, we thought now might be an appropriate time to act.”

The members of the Arts Council could not be reached for comment, but according to a statement released this week, they said that they would use the money from the sale to create an endowment to fund local artists.

Tenants of Harper Court were recently notified of the change in ownership and have been offered assistance in possible relocation when their leases expire sometime after December 2008, according to a University press release.

Campbell said that the University’s role would not be that of a permanent landlord nor of a sole director of the search for developers, but a catalyst for developer interest.

“We’re partnering with the city in the search, and hoping that by having our name as part of the partnership, we’ll attract developers from a wider net,” she said.

Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives David Greene emphasized the clout the University could have in the search for retail and development.

“We bring the potential to be an anchor tenet in some programs. There’s a potential for housing for members of our community in a master lease,” Greene said, referring to the possibility of having the University sublet potential apartments in the space to students.

He also noted Harper Court’s ability to provide additional University office space. New developers were enticed by the land now that the University has sponsored guaranteed renters. This interest did not exist before the University bought the land.

While the administration and the alderman are optimistic about the possibilities for redevelopments, others are more reserved about their projections.

Peter Rossi, a professor of marketing and statistics at the Graduate School of Business and a contributor to Hyde Park Progress, a sometimes-partisan blog run by Hyde Park residents interested in community development issues, said that while this is a positive first step, given the Art Council’s poor management, success is by no means assured.

“The University doesn’t have a good track record with commercial properties: the Harper Theater, Hyde Park Shopping Center, the Co-Op. They also own a portion of Kimbark Plaza. I wouldn’t call these properties successes,” Rossi said.

“The University has a tremendous stake in the neighborhood,” Rossi said, “but the problem is scale. You need large blocks of retail space to make these projects successful.”

Greene agreed wholeheartedly.

“We’re going to talk to developers about overall plans about retail in the area, not just one or two stores. We need to develop a critical mass,” Greene said.

“We don’t want a one-off project, but a larger vision,” he said. He suggested that Harper Theater, another University-owned property on 53rd Street whose retail spaces are currently empty and awaiting tenants, could play a role in future development deals involving Harper Court.

The University and the city are soliciting detailed proposals from potential developers of the space. The finalists they select will be presented to the public for approval.

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