July 8, 2002

University purchases former Meridian theater

The University has recently purchased the theater located on 53rd and Harper, former home of Loews Cineplex. Although possible alternatives for the venue are ambiguous at this point in the planning process, University administrators are considering using the space to bolster commercial interest in the area.

"We are just at the beginning of an extensive planning process. There are no specific plans for the moment," said Jo Reizner, head of University Real Estate, "The overall goal will be to bring improved retail on that corner."

The theater, situated near Harper Court at the center of the business district, is one of several 53rd street businesses to close in the past few months. The building has been vacant since this April when Loews nationwide movie chain declared bankruptcy and foreclosed on all its theaters.

"That area is prime retail property. It holds a very important place in the community. Obviously, the building needs some attention, but we're hoping to fix it up," Reizner said.

The University intends to appeal to the Hyde Park community at large to determine the kinds of facilities that would be most needed in this space. Community meetings are in the process of being planned for sometime after Labor Day to ask students and residents for their comments and suggestions. "All are welcome to attend," Reizer said.

Local official Laurie Alspauth, executive director of the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, was very enthusiastic about the purchase. "I think it's wonderful," Alspauth said, "We are very excited about the upcoming community meetings for the project."

The interests of officials, residents and students have already produced a wide variety of possibilities for the site. "I would like to see more goods and services types of stores [come to Hyde Park], like a Bed Bath & Beyond. We're very pleased with the Borders that's coming in, and I hope we can preserve the eclectic group of stores we have in Hyde Park," Alspauth said.

Apparel outlets like the Gap have also been a popular suggestion among community members. "A lot of people come into our store and ask where they can by sneakers and athletic clothing. I have to tell them to take the Dan Ryan, " said an assistant manager at 53rd street Coconuts Music and Movies, "I think that [a clothing store] would be good for the neighborhood."

Despite this praise, the attitudes of some students toward the recent real estate purchases of the University were not as positive. "I don't want the University to own it [the theater] in the first place. I want them to stop owning all the buildings around Hyde Park," said Eleanor Tutt, a fourth year in the college.

There has been some fear among students and residents that the University will over-commercialize the area instead of bringing independent stores that would add character to the neighborhood. While University administrators have denied any current or future plans to buy any more 53rd street property, officials were not completely opposed to the idea given the right circumstances.

"I would have to think about [further purchases]. We've been very pleased with the purchases of the University so far," Alspauth said, "As long as we're all working together so we're on the same page."

Until the community meetings in September, the University does not plan to take any definitive action. "We want what the people want," said Reizner, "right now there's not too much more to say."