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Harper Court rebate?

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.

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Harper Court For Sale?

Community groups in Hyde Park are demanding open discussion of the future of Harper Court after learning that the nonprofit foundation which owns the neighborhood shopping center has taken steps to sell it to a developer.

Representatives of community groups are scheduled to meet with the attorney general’s office to discuss the sale, and the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference has requested a meeting with representatives of the Harper Court Foundation, said HPKCC president George Rumsey.

Harper Court tenant Dr. Tom Wake of the Hyde Park Animal Clinic said he was informed in mid-December that downtown developer JDI Realty had signed a letter of intent to purchase Harper Court, according to the Hyde Park Herald. Later it was learned that the foundation had deeded the property to the Harper Court Arts Council, an offshoot of the foundation, on December 8.

The Harper Court Foundation was established in 1965 to provide affordable retail space for some of the 600 small businesses displaced by urban renewal, including residents of an artists’ colony on 57th Street that had been demolished. Construction of the multilevel off-street shopping center, located on Harper between 52nd and 53rd Streets, was financed with federal small business loans and bonds bought by hundreds of Hyde Parkers.

The arts council was established by the foundation in 1990 to run the annual Hyde Park Community Art Fair and promote artistic activity in schools and the community. Its independent board, which included members of the Artisans 21 cooperative located in Harper Court, was replaced in November when members’ terms expired; new arts council officers are all individuals previously listed as Harper Court Foundation officers.

A former arts council board member said that group had never discussed buying or selling Harper Court.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Attorney General said the Harper Court Foundation has never filed an annual report with that office and was recently asked to do so.

“There are just so many unanswered questions,” said Rumsey. “What’s happening? What’s the future of the Court? Which board controls it? Why was this decided? What happens to the businesses there?” Another question he has: what process led to the selection of the developer?

“It seems like they’re going out of their way to avoid informing the public,” Rumsey said. “Whatever happens there is going to have a significant impact on Hyde Park for the next 50 years.”

An ad-hoc group called Neighbors to Save Harper Court has scheduled a meeting with Therese Harris, Assistant Attorney General for Charitable Trusts. The group is also petitioning Alderman Toni Preckwinkle to help “preserve Harper Court.”

The shopping center’s troubles have resulted because “it’s been so mismanaged for the 25 years I’ve been here,” said Wake. With rare exception, he said, “there’s been no management.” The center’s affordable rents have allowed him to run a practice which serves animal owners of all income levels, he said.

Calls to Harper Court Foundation executive director Leslie Morgan and president Paula Jones, an officer of Hyde Park Bank, were not returned. David Rattner of JDI Realty declined to comment.

There is “no connection” between the sale of Harper Court and the University of Chicago’s recent request for proposals to develop the historic Hyde Park Theater building directly north on Harper Avenue, said Hank Webber, the University’s vice president for community affairs. The University is the leaseholder for the new Checkerboard Lounge in Harper Court, and a University official sits on the Harper Court Foundation board.

If the Harper Court Arts Council sells the property and disburses the funds to nonprofit cultural institutions, the University of Chicago could be a major recipient, observers say.

Harper Court was in the news in 2002 when Morgan removed chess benches that had been a traditional gathering place; community protests at the time were unsuccessful. “That to me was the beginning of the end,” said Sonya Csaszar of Neighbors to Save Harper Court. “They never listened to the community.”

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