The New 53rd Street: Will the University’s plan for Harper Court reflect the neighborhood—or redefine it?

In May 2008, when the University of Chicago completed the $6.5 million purchase of Harper Court, President Robert Zimmer heralded the moment as an opportunity. “Ideally,” he said in a public statement on the purchase, “this project will be reflective of the distinctive nature of Hyde Park and represent the best of Chicago’s mid-South Side.” This January, after Vermilion Development was selected by the University to redevelop Harper Court, its CEO, David J. Cocagne, was quoted by the Chicago Maroon echoing the same sentiment. “We’re very excited to be undertaking this project,” Cocagne said. “We think it will be very transformative for the commercial core of Hyde Park and will really celebrate all that Hyde Park is.”

The idea that Harper Court, once it is redeveloped, will represent the essence of its neighborhood has garnered considerable backing from both the University and its developers, who also market the redevelopment as bringing a much-needed retail and entertainment district to the area. But what is the “distinctive nature” of Hyde Park, and how do the redevelopment plans celebrate it? What is going into the Harper Court redevelopment? What will come out of it? Currently, the University is working with Vermilion Development (which could not be reached for comment) to prepare financial proposals for the project that are due in mid-June, according to Susan Campbell, Associate Vice President for Civic Engagement at the University. Once the funding is approved, Vermilion will begin work on a final redevelopment design, which will incorporate retail and office space, a hotel, a parking garage, and possibly a movie theater, and deal with structural changes such as the rerouting of streets as thoroughfares. While there have been no changes to the planned groundbreaking in early 2011, the financial climate is making it difficult to find funding for some aspects of the development, especially the housing project that is proposed for the second phase of construction, scheduled to be completed in 2015.

The funding issue highlights an important issue surrounding the redevelopment of Harper Court: gentrification. If the housing units of the redevelopment were priced at market rate, it is likely that many current residents of Hyde Park would not be able to afford to live there, while those with bigger pocketbooks would. Although the intent is to eventually offer affordable mixed-income options for sale and for rent, right now money is tight. “It’s hard to find funding to build housing, let alone mixed-income housing, “ Campbell says.

There are also questions about the displacement of local businesses from the revitalized Harper Court, a concern embodied by the departure of Dixie Kitchen in June 2009. Though Dixie Kitchen was not actually forced out by the university—Campbell quickly points out that they were offered relocation assistance by the University and that “it was a business decision” to close the Hyde Park location—it was an unsettling indicator of the potential negative effects that redevelopment could have on locally owned businesses. Campbell, however, points to measures to be taken by the University to engage with the community and local businesses to make sure that the final redevelopment plan is equitable. Her office is partnering with the Southeast Chicago Commission and the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce to plan events like a July 4th neighborhood fair at Nichols Park, which is intended to “highlight businesses that have stayed in Hyde Park.” The project’s declared goal is revitalization that works for Hyde Park residents. “We have a vision of making a more vibrant commercial corridor, including retail that appeals to everyone” while at the same time “always trying to help [local] businesses,” Campbell says. “Hyde Park has a uniqueness, a diversity that people enjoy. Our key claim to fame is our people.”

Community response to the proposed redevelopment has been markedly more positive than it was when the University first announced its obtainment of the Harper Court property, and certain elements of the designs, like open spaces for farmers markets, suggest there is a real possibility of keeping a local sensibility in the new developments.

The Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), a local association, has grown to support the redevelopment plans. According to HPKCC’s president, Jay Ammerman, what was once a controversy about whether to do anything with an underperforming Harper Court became a compromise, and what was once a community-run commercial center was turned over to the University with the promise of future revitalization. “Over the course of several years, we came to the conclusion that a change was necessary,” he says. “I don’t think we have an argument about where this is headed.” He adds, though, that HPKCC, in its capacity as an organization working on behalf of the community, would continue to critique University involvement so that community concerns would be heard.

Underlying the whole project is the question of whether or not the University would transform Harper Court the same way that it had redeveloped neighborhood spaces in the past. “When urban renewal was initiated in 1958, it meant drastic change, and a lot of displaced people with low incomes, small businesses, and people involved in the arts,” says Bart Schultz, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the UofC and director of its Civic Knowledge Project. The development of Harper Court in 1965 was a response to the displacement of artists from the prominent artist colony at 57th Street and Stony Island Avenue, where artists, writers (including Sherwood Anderson), and used bookstores set up shop. Harper Court was envisioned as a retail space for artisans to replace their previous haven. While it didn’t successfully replicate the atmosphere of the artist colony, Schultz argues that open space and elements of local authenticity like public chess tables made Harper Court “innovative” in its own way.

For Schultz, a successful development will keep those aspects of Hyde Park that set it apart from other neighborhoods in the city. According to, for example, Hyde Park is one of the top 10 most walkable neighborhoods in the city, rivaling the Loop and Lincoln Park. Institutions like the Seminary Co-op—which Schultz calls “the best bookstore in the country”—should be treated like “treasures to be preserved.” How, he asks, will plans for a hotel, which brings in road traffic, be reconciled with Hyde Park’s walkability? How will it be guaranteed that local business not suffer if chain retailers move in? “In all honesty, it’s hard, when you have what’s essentially a 12,000-person corporation, to engage the community,” says Campbell. “We try hard to help and to not overstep our bounds.” To that end, the University is working through its Civic Engagement office to be far more open with the community on the Harper Court redevelopment than with other projects currently underway. Just last week, for example, the University announced their selection for the architect of the new Milton Friedman Institute without any faculty or community input. Schultz says that measures like soliciting art installations from the Hyde Park Art Center are a move in the right direction, but he cautions against rejoicing too soon. “It’s very easy to announce a project with great fanfare, when really it’s a constant process,” he says. “I worry about that.”

The chess tables that once lined the open space at the center of Harper Court are more significant than they might appear. In the original plan for Harper Court, a chessboard prominently backdrops its logo, and its outdoor tables were a meeting point for neighborhood chess enthusiasts. Upon the removal of the chess tables in 2002, community groups like the Friends of Harper Court Chess staged protests and encouraged boycotts of the shopping center. Chess, they said, was something that made Harper Court unique, something that was a part of “all that Hyde Park is.” Maybe the powers-that-be are listening. At the February 8th meeting of the 53rd Street TIF (tax increment financing) district, Vermilion presented plans to include a small pavilion in the redevelopment, complete with chess tables. It’s a start, but Schultz encourages restraint and patience. “When a community gets into something like this,” he says, “the discussion is just barely starting to get along.”