Community groups convene over fate of Harper Court

By Emily Alpert

The recent sale of Harper Court has stirred controversy among Hyde Park residents, prompting a meeting last week between community organizations and the Illinois Assistant Attorney General’s Office.

“It happened so quickly with so little warning, with no discussion,” said George Rumsey, president of the Hyde Park–Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC). “No one anticipated it. It seemed very unfair to people, especially considering that Harper Court was originally set up as a community asset.”

“A lot of people are disappointed with the process,” said Gary Ossewaarde, secretary of the HPKCC. “They chose to fall back on ‘it’s my right not to tell anything.’”

In a recent statement to the Hyde Park Herald, Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle said, “All of the people on the board are my neighbors and some are my friends. However, they chose to proceed with this sale without any public input and they are reaping the results.”

A representative of the Harper Court Foundation declined to comment, and said that the group will issue a press release within the next two weeks with further information.

Established in 1965 as a haven for artisans and small businesses displaced by the Hyde Park urban renewal project, Harper Court was owned and operated by the nonprofit Harper Court Foundation until December.

Two months ago, the Foundation transferred the property via quit-claim to the Harper Court Arts Council, a smaller nonprofit established in 1990 whose mission statement is “to stimulate, promote, encourage, and enhance public appreciation of various art forms,” according to the HPKCC website.

According to representatives from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, all but two of the current Arts Council members joined the group on November 4, 2005, effectively placing the Council under the Harper Court Foundation’s control.

Therese Harris, assistant attorney general of the Charitable Trusts Bureau, met with representatives of the Hyde Park Historical Society, HPKCC, and Neighbors to Save Hyde Park last week to discuss residents’ concerns on the sale.

JDI Realty LLC, a for-profit company based in the Loop, signed a letter of intent in January to purchase Harper Court. Senior Vice President David Rattner declined to comment on the sale, citing “contractual restrictions.” Preckwinkle, who spoke with JDI representatives, said the group claims they have no plans to change Harper Court in the near future.

A local resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the sale to JDI has been temporarily halted as of this week. Still, the prospective sale alarms some Hyde Park residents.

“We don’t know anything about this developer,” said Lab Schools nurse Peter Page, a member of the community group Neighbors to Save Harper Court. “Maybe he’s intending to keep these businesses here, but it’s hard to believe that the rents won’t go up.”

Veterinarian Tom Wake, who operates the Hyde Park Animal Clinic, says that Hyde Park residents would lose services if Harper Court’s rents change. “Should there be new construction here, the rent would go up considerably,” Wake said.

Neighbors to Save Harper Court is circulating a petition to Preckwinkle asking her to “do everything in power to preserve Harper Court.” Page said that the group is seeking a public hearing on the issue.

In addition, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has been investigating the legality of the Harper Court transfer and the pending sale. Recently, her office disclosed that the Harper Court Foundation has not filed mandatory 2006 paperwork.

At last week’s meeting with Assistant State’s Attorney Harris, community groups raised concerns about a lack of community representation on the Harper Court Arts Council’s board. Rumsey said that conflicts of interest may arise with the current board, which includes two members affiliated with local banks and two others with University affiliations.

“The University has been seen as one of the possible beneficiaries if a sale were to go through,” Rumsey said. “Those issues have not been resolved yet.”

The HPKCC is currently planning an executive committee meeting to determine its next steps. Like Neighbors to Save Harper Court, its top priority is to understand the current ownership status of Harper Court and its future implications.

“There are so many unknowns here,” Page said. “The really frustrating thing is the lack of information.”