Hyde Park groups balk at possible sale of Harper Court

By Emily Alpert

Following 14 weeks of near-silence, the Harper Court Arts Council confirmed its intention to sell Harper Court to a for-profit developer at a public meeting with community members on March 13.

The Council has come under fire for its failure to communicate with neighborhood residents about the sale, raising fears that the new Harper Court will not reflect the center’s original mission of protecting Hyde Park’s artisans and small businesses.

Supporters of the sale, however, argue that Hyde Park has changed since Harper Court was first created. “We have outgrown the purpose and intent of Harper Court,” said Kenneth Grant, vice president of the Harper Court Foundation. “Hyde Park is not in urban renewal anymore.”

Robin Kaufman, a member of Neighbors to Save Harper Court, said the center still remains important. “Certainly circumstances are different now, but I think low-rent retail is needed now more than ever,” she said. “The Internet and the big-box stores have totally changed what goes on… If we want to have neighborhood stores to meet our needs, we really need what a community-owned shopping center provides.”

The Harper Court Foundation transferred the property in December to the Harper Court Arts Council, a smaller nonprofit that shares the Foundation’s office and most of its members. The Council attempted to resell the property to JDI Realty LLC, a real estate developer, but JDI withdrew from the sale in February.

Grant said the Arts Council had begun to create a Request for Proposals (RFP) about how to develop Harper Court and that Alderman Toni Preckwinkle had agreed to handle the process. Grant said the group plans to take public comments on the RFP draft before submitting it to developers.

Funds from the sale of Harper Court will be reinvested “to support tax-exempt cultural organizations that contribute to the quality of life in our community,” according to Arts Council officials.

With the exception of a letter printed in the Hyde Park Herald, the meeting constitutes the Arts Council’s first public comment since December. The Council’s reluctance to address the issue prior to the March 13 meeting has compromised the group’s image for many.

Grant apologized to attendees at the meeting for the Council’s failure to communicate its plans earlier and promised that Council representatives would regularly attend Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Advisory Council meetings to keep residents informed. The group will present its RFP draft at the next TIF meeting, scheduled for May 8.

Despite the public meeting, some residents are critical of the Council’s plans.

“I don’t think they answered any questions,” said George Rumsey, president of the Hyde Park–Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), Hyde Park’s largest community group. “They agreed to an open RFP process, but their idea of an open RFP process is to turn it over to the alderman.”

Rumsey said that he has lost confidence in the board’s capacity to manage the sale.

“A small self-appointed board of six or seven people is entirely inappropriate to handle a transaction that will change the face of Hyde Park for the rest of our lives,” he said. “They need more people—people with background in the arts, people who know how to manage real estate… [T]hey’ve repeatedly said they had trouble managing Harper Court, so why do they think we’ll trust them to sell real estate?”

“If we leave things to the free market, as some have suggested, we could end up a neighborhood full of fast food and hairdressers,” Kaufman said.

To address such concerns, the HPKCC is coordinating a series of community meetings on the Harper Court sale. The HPKCC hopes these meetings will produce a draft of the RFP as well as a set of guiding principles for the future of Harper Court.