May 30, 2008

University fires Harper Theater developers

[img id="80676" align="alignleft"] The University has dismissed Baum Realty and Brinshore Development, the two firms responsible for developing the Harper Theater Building on East 53rd Street and South Harper Avenue.

The decision to end the contract, first reported in the Hyde Park Herald last week, came just days after the University announced that it had purchased Harper Court, the retail center adjacent to the Harper Theater, for $6.5 million.

According to Susan Campbell, associate vice president for government and community affairs, the firms were fired because they were unable to satisfy certain agreements they had reached with the University.

"We have been disappointed that the development team hasn't met with deadlines and specifications they have ascribed to," Campbell said at a May 12 Tax Increment Finance meeting, according to the Herald.

The failure of meeting those agreements entailed the firms' inability to recruit tenants and acquire funds for the project, said Robert Rosenberg, associate vice president for public affairs communication.

"As part of development contracts there are milestones that have to be met in terms of the developer securing the tenants necessary and the funding necessary to develop the project," Rosenberg said.

"The University was very generous in letting the date of the milestones slip.... The developers were not successful in meeting those milestones," he said.

Representatives of neither company would comment on the decision.

"There's no point in burning bridges with the University," said Richard Sciortino, president of Brinshore Development.

The University purchased the Harper Theater building in 2002 with plans to redevelop the site into a mixed retail space that would serve as the center of Hyde Park's main commercial corridor. Those efforts were stalled after some community members urged the University to preserve and reopen the building's shuttered movie theater.

After efforts to determine the feasibility of that option, University planners scrapped it in favor of a plan featuring upscale retail and restaurant establishments. In 2006, the University hired the Baum and Brinshore firms and unveiled plans to demolish most of the existing structure and replace it with new retail spaces. Baum Realty has extensive experience attracting retailers to Chicago areas and has played an important role in the commercial development of Bucktown.

The inability of the development firms to attract tenants willing to set up shop in Hyde Park has brought to the surface some of the difficulties that have plagued retail development efforts in the neighborhood for decades. Upscale retailers and national chains have been reluctant to risk investment in Hyde Park because of the constraints of its consumer base, its relative commercial isolation on the South Side, and the limited expendable income of its majority student population.

The University's purchase of Harper Court last month came after successive failures by the property's owners to attract purchasers and developers for the site despite added incentives that included an adjacent parking lot.

Although the termination of the developers' contract for the Harper Theater building suggests that the University may have plans to consolidate its development with that of adjacent Harper Court in light of its purchase, Rosenberg said that the decision was not necessarily made for that reason.

"My understanding is that they were completely separate events," he said. "We are currently reassessing the situation with the Harper Theater."