Silver screen stays dark at former Meridian site

By Usman Ahmed

The corner of 53rd Street and Harper Avenue, the site of the abandoned Harper Theater, will never again screen movies for Hyde Parkers and others on the city’s South Side.

Negotiations recently fell through with an as-of-yet unnamed firm, which specializes in restoring theaters, according to Jo Reizner, director of Real Estate Operations. The New York City based firm’s proposal had been the only plan to renovate the building as an entertainment venue that the University was still considering.

While University officials refused to comment on the specifics of the failed negotiations, Hank Webber, vice president of Community and Government Affairs, said that this last proposal, like all serious proposals the University has received to redevelop the site over the past few years, was turned down after the firm demanded subsidies from the University of several million dollars.

“That level of subsidy is not realistic,” Webber said. “Several professorships could be endowed with the same amount of money.”

“What’s clear is that the market will not support a movie theater on this site,” he added.

The University has made little substantial headway in redeveloping the theater site since its purchase because the costs associated with redeveloping the historic theater are high and could run around $9 million, according to University officials.

“It’s back to the drawing board,” said Bob Mason, director of the South East Chicago Commission (SECC).

Though University officials are uncertain of what will become of the derelict space, they plan to try and redevelop the site as a mixed-use space that could include new, ground-floor retail space and residential units.

Webber explained that the University wants to develop requests soon for proposals for the building. “We want to solicit as many good ideas as we can get to redevelop the site,” he said.

This latest twist in the fate of the Harper Theater—known by Hyde Parkers as the Meridian Theater—puts the University essentially where it was in the autumn of this year, after talks with some 37 theater and entertainment operators over the spring and summer failed to mature.

The property, which as late as 2002 was screening movies under the proprietorship of Loews Cineplex, was purchased by the University subsidiary Lake Park Associates for nearly $3 million in April of that year, after Loews declared bankruptcy and foreclosed on many of its theaters across the country.

Any redevelopment of the historic building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, will almost necessarily require a complete gutting of the interior, according to Webber.

Webber added that he was aware of the community’s strong interest in preserving the exterior façade of the building, and said that such concerns would be taken seriously.