Arts Council to solicit Harper Court suitors

By Mischa Fierer

Harper Court, the historic shopping center northeast of the University campus that serves as a commercial and social hub for many Hyde Park residents, will be put up for sale by the nonprofit Hyde Park Arts Council, which has debated the move for years.

The sale is being coordinated by Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who took over after concerns arose that the Arts Council was not conducting the sale properly.

The council, a tax-exempt, non-profit organization that runs the 57th Street Art Fair, suggested in 2006 that the property is worth significantly more than the community makes in rent from the current businesses. Proceeds from the sale would be used to fund an arts endowment.

The council has been planning to sell Harper Court since 2003, amid criticism from some community members. According to George Rumsey, president of Hyde Park–Kenwood Community Conference, neighborhood opportunity to influence the process has been “zilch.”

Harper Court was originally established in the 1960s during the tumultuous period of U of C–led urban renewal, as cheap commercial space was bought, torn down, and redeveloped. The renewal efforts revitalized some of the neighborhood’s poorer areas but also made the area unaffordable for lower income residents; Hyde Park’s jazz scene was one of urban renewal’s casualties. Harper Court was established to give space to some of the businesses that were being pushed out.

Harper Court’s mission, according to the Arts Council’s website, is to help promote “economic development” in Hyde Park by “providing retail space” for restaurants and stores at “considerably more reasonable rates” than other neighborhood locations.

Some Hyde Park residents now argue that the original mission of Harper Court is outdated. Hyde Park Progress, a blog created by an anonymous resident of the neighborhood and employee of the University, provides a forum for residents hoping to encourage economic development.

“ is as much a product—in the very design and layout of the buildings—of a ’60s worldview as the urban renewal programs against which it was a response. Those who are attached to Harper Court are in love with its mission and blind to the empirical fact that the site and the institution have not met their own goals nor met the pressing and changing needs of the community,” said the author, adding that it looks more like a “ski lodge in Aspen” than a part of Hyde Park’s distinctive architecture.

In response to a different entry on the same blog, a reader wrote, “I am thinking of opening a buggy whip & typewriter repair shop in Harper Court myself,” implying that the shops in Harper Court are outdated and not worth saving.

Others contend that Harper Court is still relevant and necessary. In an August 16, 2006 editorial, the Hyde Park Herald suggested that the council board is “tired” of running the Court and that they should step down and “let other people who still believe in Harper Court’s purpose take over.”

Many U of C students are fond of the restaurants but do not frequent the shops. “It’s just a cool place to chill,” said fourth-year Van Kluytenaar, who said that while he enjoys Mexican restaurant Maravillas, he would not miss the various shops.

The entire sale process will probably take around two years. According to Rumsey, shops in the court are on a month-to-month leasing schedule and tenants are “unofficially” being told that they are “probably going to be there for two years.”

In the sale process itself, developers will first petition to submit proposals. Preckwinkle and the Department of Planning will review the qualifying developers’ proposals and consult with the community before selecting a developer. Rumsey hopes that community involvement will be “broad and deep” but worries that too few people are currently involved in the sale.

Currently, it is unclear what kind of space Harper Court would become, although many fear that it would be converted into a residential area, contrary to the Court’s original aim of being a uniquely Hyde Park retail area.

Because the Harper Court parcel (which includes the parking lot) is so large, Rumsey notes that whatever happens, it will have a big effect on Hyde Park’s future. “Hyde Parkers had better be thinking carefully,” he said.