U of C plans to resell 53rd St. property

By Aaron Brown

The University unveiled plans to redevelop its properties at East 53rd Street and South Harper Avenue into new office, retail, and restaurant space at a meeting Monday with residents and local officials.

The redevelopment site, on the north side of East 53rd Street and west of Harper Court, includes two buildings. Along East 53rd Street, a two-story structure houses mainly small, local retailers. To the north sits the much larger Harper Theater, also known as the Meridian Theater, which has remained unused since April 2002.

Under the new proposal, the University would sell the property to developers Baum Brothers and Brinshore Development, which would replace both buildings with a single structure, creating a more functional space. The redevelopment would preserve the distinctive 53rd Street facade but would demolish the remainder of the property for new construction.

The new two-story building would feature an upper level of office space and a ground floor of four to five retail locations. Baum Brothers and Brinshore Development plans to use this property for what it terms “destination retail,” including an upscale restaurant and boutique stores.

No occupants have been announced for the redeveloped site, and developers are still soliciting potential lessees. They envision a mix of local businesses and national chains, focusing specifically on fashion retailers. While the chain stores are necessary for financial success, smaller boutiques will maintain the unique quality of Hyde Park, the developers said.

David Baum, a project developer, said the purpose is to create a major neighborhood destination. Noting that Hyde Park residents currently must travel to other communities to shop for fashionable clothing, he emphasized the untapped opportunities for local retailers.

David Brinshore, his partner on the project, agreed. “This is just something that doesn’t exist in Hyde Park,” he said.

In addition, University officials and developers said the project could serve as a catalyst for future retail expansion in Hyde Park. The success of this project will lead other businesses to recognize the attractiveness of the community, the U of C officials and developers added.

Baum even compared Hyde Park to the trendy Wicker Park neighborhood, which has blossomed with businesses—especially local boutiques—in the past decade.

“Fashion is something that can fill and expand the neighborhood,” he said.

Hank Webber, vice president for community and government affairs at the University, said this project marks the beginning of further development along 53rd Street, including the revitalization of Harper Court. The goal is to make 53rd Street the “heart of Hyde Park.”

“This is a big, positive step in the right direction,” he said.

The development of this property has been a long and often difficult process for the University, which purchased both buildings in 2002 after the Loews theater chain filed for bankruptcy and shuttered Harper Theater. University officials hoped to develop the property as part of an economic revitalization plan, but local residents urged the U of C to find an operator to reopen the theater, preserving both the historic building and its original function.

The University solicited plans from a wide variety of developers and received proposals ranging from a health club to an artist loft apartment. University administrators selected three finalists, including a theater and a hotel, but ultimately chose retail development.

Despite serious attempts, a theater was unfeasible, Webber said. The Harper Theater building required extensive renovations, and any theater operator would have needed heavy University subsidies.

“The economics didn’t work,” he said. “There was a substantial, seven-figure difference .”

As the next step in the process, Webber will present the proposal to the University Board of Trustees. If approved, he expects to finalize planning and tenant arrangements by July 2007 and begin construction in the fall, with the hope of opening a year later.

Webber and the developers anticipate a smooth approval process and said they believe the project will proceed on schedule. They also appeared optimistic about its potential economic success, despite reservations from some community members about the financial prospects for such a large development.