November 16, 2004

Women's Workout World will be Checkerboard's new home, Meridian plans remain unsettled

More than two years after purchasing the Meridian theater, the University has not announced plans for the property, located at 53rd Street and Harper Avenue. But University officials confirmed that Harper Court will be home to the Checkerboard Lounge, which will occupy the former site of Women's Workout World at 5201 South Harper Avenue.

"A lot of very careful planning has been going on," said director of Real Estate Operations Jo Reizner. "This is a great corner and we want to make sure that we get this project right."

Though plans have yet to be formalized, Reizner said that the theater building, which is attached to retail stores stretching around the corner, would probably not reopen as a theater. Estimates pegged the cost of renovation at $9 million, and almost 40 live and cinema theater operators turned down offers to pay some of the renovation costs. "We would love to preserve it as a theater if it were feasible and economically viable," she said. "But at this point, it doesn't seem likely."

While unsure about the fate of the Meridian theater, Reizner confirmed that the Checkerboard Lounge, the first all-jazz locale in Hyde Park in 20 years, would open nearby.

According to Reizner, the three main plans under consideration propose bringing modern retail or office space to the location. One includes the renovation of the theater and neighboring buildings, another the renovation of some buildings and the construction of others, and another the demolition of the majority of the site and the constuction of something "tasteful and contextual" in its place.

The main issue for administrators and community interest groups has become the preservation of the historic main theater building and the attached storefronts that wrap around the western corner of 53rd and Harper.

Concerned with preserving the historic character of the buildings, Hank Webber, vice president of Community Relations, brought in Royce Yeater, director of the Midwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in July 2004 to help the university consider preservation options for the buildings, Yeater said.

Webber said he brought in outside advice to get a "reality check" on the project and to get the word out to the preservation community.

He added that his "preference has always been to restore" the space and that he has tried very hard to find a theater operator despite the great expense to renovate. He said that a theater option that would yield "even somewhat reasonable economic returns" would be pursued.

Webber cited the University's ablility to rent out the building's retail spaces to good tenents has alleviated the pressure on him to fill the theater space. He said that by winter the University will "have direction" for this project.

The preferred option would include renovating the theater building and courting a unique retailer who could utilize that space. The other option would preserve only the fa├žade of the theater while all new retail or split-use spaces would be built behind it.

Reizner stressed that this project is "a very high priority, " though, according to Yeater, Webber made it clear to him that he was "not in a panic to get this done" nor under "a harsh deadline."

When reminded of this comment, Webber explained he does not believe that panicking does leads to the best overall outcome.

Yeater characterized the project as "very preservable," and said that "the hard part is the theater, but we feel that we can find a way to do it."

Hyde Park Historical Society preservationist Jack Spicer, who met with Webber about the project earlier this year, said that the University is "sincerely trying to find an adapted use for the building," and is making a "good faith effort to avoid tearing down either all or part of the buildings."

Most University and other Hyde Park community members seem to agree that they want something vibrant to add to one of the major commercial intersections in Hyde Park.

Cheryl Heads, executive director of the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, said, "I'd like to see a theater or some type of entertainment venue there to complement the Checkerboard Lounge. I think we're lacking [entertainment venues] in the neighborhood."

Reizner said that a community presentation including a lot of information on the planning process can be expected in early January 2005.