After renter refuses to leave, Harper Court leases extended

U of C willing to buy out Harper Court leases, but some owners say they need more assistance

By Ella Christoph

The University of Chicago will extend the leases of businesses in University-owned Harper Court through June 2009, Associate Vice President of Civic Engagement Susan Campbell announced at a Tax Increment Financing meeting Monday evening. The University extended the previous deadline of January 31 after concerns arose over the ability of the businesses currently occupying the retail site to find new sites by that date.

Most of the businesses’ leases expired at the end of December, but some last for several years. Carol Andresen, the owner of Calyspo Cafe and Dixie Kitchen, two businesses with longer leases, had planned on staying past January even before the University announced the extension. But even this extension will not appease Andresen, she said. Her main concern is that althogh there are a number of retail spaces available on East 53rd Street, unlike Harper Court, they don’t provide customers with a parking lot.

“I have worked with their real estate department, and they have given me a list of properties around Hyde Park. However, we need a specific size and parking…. You can’t go forward and say, ‘I’m going to have a 130-foot restaurant here,’ and have no place for people to park,” she said.

Andresen was also concerned about the costs of moving to a new location and buying new equipment, estimating it would run between $700,000 and $1million dollars.

“We just can’t afford that,” she said. “The University is willing to buy us out of the lease, but at this point in time it isn’t going to be sufficient for us.”

The University had hoped to find a mutually beneficial solution so plans for redevelopment could move forward after the majority of the businesses’ leases ended in December. Many of the businesses still plan on leaving by the end of the month, especially those whose leases were on a month-to-month basis.

Other businesses will take advantage of the extension, especially those with longer leases. Calypso Cafe’s lease runs through June 2012, and Dixie Kitchen and C’est Si Bon’s run through June 2009. All three restaurants plan on staying past January.

“[The University administrators] have been willing to help me find another spot,” said Andresen, but the options, she said, were not financially feasible. “We’d love to stay in the neighborhood because we were one of the first restaurants that were in the neighborhood, but it may not happen,” she said.

Fans of the Dixie Kitchen and Calypso Cafe have offered to sign a petition to help ensure the restaurants’ livelihoods, but Andresen said she declined the offer. “We haven’t done that yet. We don’t want to be bad neighbors,” she said. “We want this negotiation to be appropriate and pleasant and good for both sides.”

A 2001 episode of the amateur food-critic television show Check, Please! featuring Barack Obama reviewing Dixie Kitchen was recently released onto YouTube, generating national attention for the restaurant. On the day of his inauguration, the restaurant will offer an Obama special, featuring the two dishes he recommends on the show: the Southern sampler and peach cobbler.

C’est Si Bon’s owner Renee Bradford is currently looking for a new site for the restaurant and catering service, but she is not collaborating with the University to find a new location. “We’re looking every day,” she said, adding that she hopes to move out before the June 2009 deadline.

The University purchased Harper Court in May 2008, working with Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle to merge the site with an adjacent city-owned parking lot. The University plans to generate more retail for both local and national retailers, as well as increasing community density and housing options.

The request for proposal (RFP) deadline for Harper Court has also been extended to January 26 to account for Martin Luther King Day. The RFP is a city document that solicits responses from developers on how they would develop the site. After the RFP proposals are submitted, the city and University will select a developer, who will meet with the community to determine itsneeds and desires for the site.