Status of Harper Court sale in limbo

By Emily Alpert

Hyde Park’s most active civic organization, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), has received no response to its request for a private meeting with the two groups—the Harper Court Foundation and the Harper Court Arts Council—involved in the recent process of transferring ownership of Harper Court, a neighborhood shopping center.

Harper Court was established in 1965 with a mission to retain Hyde Park’s small businesses and artisans in the wake of urban renewal. The property was managed by the Harper Court Foundation until December 2005, when it was transferred to the Harper Court Arts Council, a smaller, younger nonprofit operating out of the same office.

“We haven’t heard a word from them,” said George Rumsey, president of the HPKCC, adding that two weeks have passed since the HPKCC made its initial request to the groups.

Harper Court Arts Council executive director Leslie Cole-Morgan and board member Duel Richardson, also the University’s director of neighborhood relations, declined to comment further on the issue.

The transfer has frustrated some residents, who say that the process lacked transparency and community input. Others fear that the sale of Harper Court to a third party will raise rents, ejecting the shopping center’s small merchants and services.

Though the Harper Court Arts Council has not responded to requests for a private meeting with the HPKCC, it stated in a press release issued last Friday that it would make a presentation and take questions at the March 13 Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district advisory council meeting. The council meets regularly to discuss the distribution of business taxes for neighborhood improvements such as new storefronts.

The Arts Council press release also confirmed rumors that the sale of Harper Court to JDI Sr. Realty, LLC., a for-profit realtor based in the Loop, had been halted.

“As I understand it, JDI made an offer, but the board rejected it,” said Peter Page, a member of Neighbors to Save Harper Court, a community group formed in response to the prospective sale. “It looks like there’ll be more time for us to form a strategy.”

According to the HPKCC, Harper Court is now closed to new tenants, and current tenants have signed monthly leases with short-term commitment provisions.

Responding to charges of opacity, the Arts Council press release stated, “It has never been our Board’s intention to be secretive about this process…In fact, over the last several months both board members and David Rattner of JDI have talked with members of the business community, Harper Court tenants, the alderman, and members of the University of Chicago community.”

The Arts Council press release added that since 2003, the Harper Court Foundation has discussed ways to balance the needs of Harper Court businesses with the area’s purpose of promoting artistic activity.

“Ultimately felt the best strategy was to transfer the assets of the Foundation to the Harper Court Arts Council,” the press release said.

A major question raised by Neighbors to Save Harper Court is who will benefit from the Harper Court sale. The Arts Council said in the release that the sale’s proceeds “will be used to fund an expanded Harper Court Arts Council program.”

In response to the Arts Council, Rumsey and the HPKCC executive committee sent an open letter to the Arts Council board, published February 24 in the Hyde Park Herald, criticizing the Council’s decision to sell the property to one developer “without utilizing a process that permitted community input.”

The HPKCC letter posed seven questions to the Council, including “what is the Council’s vision or idea for appropriate ‘development?’” and “what steps are you taking to eliminate possible conflicts of interest?” Rumsey has also expressed concern that two Arts Council board members are affiliated with the University of Chicago, a significant leaseholder in Harper Court.

“These are the questions that need to be answered first,” said Rumsey, adding that much will remain to be seen even after addressing these issues. “I expect there’ll be a lot more questions,” he said.