An office building at 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue will be the cornerstone of a neighborhood revitalization. (Rendering courtesy Vermilion Development)

Developing story

A University-subsidized project gives Hyde Park’s Harper Court a new lease on life.

If everything turns out as planned, the new Harper Court development might frustrate a lot of alumni—because they graduated before it opened. Fourth-year Elizabeth Lebling’s mother tells her that she’ll be “annoyed at how they have changed things.”

Hints of the changes to come are already evident  at the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue. In November construction began on the University-subsidized plan to redefine Harper Court and make the area a shopping, dining, and entertainment hub. When completed in late 2013, the $130-plus million 3.3-acre Harper Court project will include a 131-room Hyatt Place hotel, an LA Fitness health club, and a 150,000-square-foot University office building.

“This is an anchor intended to catalyze additional development,” says Dave Cocagne, president and CEO of Vermilion Development and a manager with the project’s developer, Harper Court Partners, LLC, a joint venture of Vermilion and JFJ Development Company. “I think it is working.”

The area already has attracted new businesses: burger chain Five Guys opened in September and the 24-hour Clarke’s diner in February. Akira, a clothing boutique, arrives this fall on the ground floor of the former Borders bookstore building that the University purchased last summer. The University also has leased space at 5226 South Harper Avenue to a Kilwins ice cream and candy shop, expected to open in the fall. And a five-screen movie theater is planned for late this year in the renovated former commercial and theater buildings that the University owns on the northwest corner of 53rd Street and Harper Avenue.

The University and the city have overlapping interests in spurring revitalization—making the area attractive to faculty and students and generating new business in an underserved neighborhood—and worked together to bring the plan to fruition. “The commercial strip seemed to be lagging behind the general economic rebirth in the neighborhood,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, AB’69, AM’77, told the Chicago Tribune in February. When she was the 4th Ward alderman, Preckwinkle supported the city’s 2001 designation of 84 acres in the area as a tax-increment financing district. “Neighborhoods that have strong commercial activity are more exciting places to live and to visit.”

Over the past decade, community workshops have helped create a vision for transforming 53rd Street—a process, University spokesman Steve Kloehn says, that resumed in late April to consider other additions to the street. In 2008 the University bought Harper Court for $6.5 million from the Harper Court Arts Council. The mix of restaurants, shopping, and entertainment venues, says James Hennessy, the University’s director of commercial real-estate operations, “will bring added value to Hyde Park that residents have been asking for.”

The $106 million project—not including the hotel, which has a separate developer—could add an estimated 350 retail jobs to the area. Hyde Park’s first new hotel in almost 50 years, the $25 million Hyatt Place, scheduled to open in spring 2013, will add at least 30 permanent positions. Ed Small, president of the developer Smart Hotels, predicts that it will have about 50,000 guests a year, adding “a little bit of energy and vitality to the mix. … If the community is successful, we will be successful.”

Early interest and investment have been positive, but the changes have caused some disruption to existing businesses. Dixie Kitchen, a Harper Court restaurant that was a favorite of Barack Obama’s when he lived in the neighborhood, closed in 2009 after the University bought out its lease. Other businesses have relocated to maintain foot traffic or parking that the project has reduced, while some have endured declining sales during the construction with the hope that it will pay off in the end. “We’re struggling to stay here so that we can reap the benefits” of the redevelopment, Bonne Santé Health Foods manager Donald Hannah told the Tribune.

The University and its partners remain confident that a thriving commercial district will redefine Harper Court for the better. “It’s creating a completely new experience for the entire corridor,” Vermilion’s Cocagne says, “that will draw people to the area and create a new sense of place.”