May 22, 2008
Could the University of Chicago get a few million dollars back on the $6.5 million purchase price for Harper Court
The Harper Court Arts Council, which is selling the nonprofit shopping center to the University, has said it will disburse its assets to local cultural charities, and earlier listed the University’s multimillion dollar drive to build a new performing arts center as a possible recipient.
A spokesperson at the Attorney General’s office thought that might be legal.
The bigger question, though, is whether the resulting redevelopment will be worse than the University’s first development disaster, the urban renewal program of the 1960s (see Jane Jacob’s “Death and Life of Great American Cities” for details; Arnold Hirsch explores the racial motivations in “The Making of the Second Ghetto”).
The track record of the dominant parties is not promising.
Fourth Ward Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, who has said she “brought together the parties” to complete the sale, has developed a giant shopping center on 47th Street which for years has lacked an anchor tenant. Other than that, she’s facilitated a drive-through McDonalds and a Borders bookstore, which doesn’t seem to have hurt locally-owned bookstores much, but which was recently making noises about closing due to low profit margins.
In recent years, the University of Chicago bought the Hyde Park Shopping Center at 55th and Lake Park and redeveloped it into an even worse example of the sprawl esthetic. Then several years ago, they bought the historic Hyde Park Theater (adjacent to Harper Court) — and last week announced they had fired a developer who had successfully located a number of solid and worthy potential retailers and restaurants. The problem? They weren’t the national chains the University wants.
(The University is said to want “name” stores that are recognizable to parents of prospective students — though the Border’s experience shows that the commitment of such enterprises to the communities where they’re located is minimal.)
The ultimate irony is that all of Hyde Park’s commercial shortcomings stem from the University’s disastrous urban renewal program, which completely levelled the neighborhood’s commercial strip on 55th Street and replaced it with a sterile modernist wasteland.
“The best thing would be if the University got out of real estate completely,” said local activist Jack Spicer, who recently worked with the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference on a community planning process for Harper Court (results are here, and much more at HPKCC’s site). “The University doesn’t have to make a living at it, so they can afford to make every mistake in the book.”
He expects the Alderman and the University will use eminent domain to demolish the stores and offices on 53rd east of Harper (which include the storied Valois restaurant), creating a megablock for the Harper Court project.
“We need incremental, regular, ongoing development,” Spicer said. “Instead we get a big burp every 50 years, and then we’re stuck with a massive development that will go out of style, but it’s so big there’s nothing you can do with it.”
He points out: “Fifty years ago, 55th Street was very similar to Belmont Avenue; both of them were crowded and messy.” Then the University worked its magic, while Belmont developed incrementally. “Today no one would take 55th Street over Belmont.”
There are also questions about the Harper Court Arts Council, which “has pushed aside” its original purpose, according to Charlotte Des Jardins in a letter to the Hyde Park Herald. Des Jardins writes as one of hundreds of Hyde Parkers who bought small bonds in the early 1960s to finance Harper Court as a refuge for artisans and small businesses pushed out by urban renewal.
Arts Council board members “began to think and act like Harper Court was their own private property,” she writes. “They met secretly, without public notice, to plan its demise, with representatives from the University and the 4th Ward alderman, who never asked her constituents for their input.” She cites Arts Council minutes which she tells Newstips she obtained through an FOIA request to the Attorney General’s office.
Here’s a Newstips report from 2006.