By LINDSAY WELBERS
Above photo: Left to right: Anthony Beach (General Manager, Hyatt Chicago-South / University), David Cocagne (President and CEO, Vermilion Development Corporation), Robert J. Zimmer (President, University of Chicago), Ald. Will Burns (4th), Rahm Emanuel (Mayor, City of Chicago), and Andrew J. Mooney (Commissioner, Department Housing and Economic Development, City of Chicago) participate in ribbon cutting ceremonies marking the official opening of Harper Court, 5235 S. Harper Ave., last Friday morning. Photo by Marc Monaghan
It’s a far cry from the former Harper Court that hosted local arts-related businesses, but it’s hard to deny the new Harper Court has changed 53rd Street fundamentally.
Top brass from the University of Chicago, Vermilion Development, the City of Chicago, Hyatt Hotels and others that helped fund it cut the ribbon on the $139 million development Friday morning.
The university first bought the old Harper Court building in May of 2008 for $6.5 million. It announced shortly thereafter that three of the four buildings would be razed to make way for a large-scale, mixed-use development.
Dave Cocagne, CEO of Vermilion, called the entire development, beginning in 2001 at the creation of the tax increment financing district to the ribbon cutting, “a thoughtful and deliberate development process.”
“It marks the beginning of a new era for Hyde Park itself,” said U. of C. President Robert Zimmer, who also called the 518,000 square foot development an “economic engine.”
In January of 2010 the university announced it had selected Danville, Ill.-based Vermilion Development to lead the project. Vermilion, which has a portfolio of previous work in university-towns, edged out 10 other developers in a competitive bidding process.
The firm presented a $200 million plan for a mixed-use complex, to be built in three phases, at Harper Court, 5211 S. Harper Ave., the former Hollywood Video at 1530 E. 53rd St., and a city-owned adjacent parking lot.
“We obviously want to create a destination for Hyde Park and the surrounding area, one that celebrates the rich heritage of the area and brings something new to the community,” said Cocagne, in the Jan. 20, 2010 edition of the Herald.
The developers sought and were approved for $23.4 million in tax increment financing (TIF) dollars to subsidize the first $114 million phase of the redevelopment.
Then Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) supported spending the TIF dollars to redevelop the site and hoped to speed the process along so that Vermillion could qualify for federal tax breaks from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. ARRA was commonly known as the stimulus and was instituted by President Barack Obama in response to the Great Recession.
Harper Court was later denied federal stimulus money because the remaining funding was not secured by the deadline. The funding gap was later filled with private capital.
In July of 2010, at the time Vermilion requested the $23.4 million in TIF funds, Harper Court was expected to have 15 to 25 retailers but a movie theater initially had been ruled out.
Harper Theater reopened last December after a $13 million renovation.
Vermilion also presented a plan that called for a below-ground parking garage, that entered the building off 52nd Street, and a second parking garage off Lake Park Avenue. The development has two levels of parking that can be accessed by Harper Avenue, and a separate parking lot adjacent.
In June of 2012, the City Council approved spending an additional $2.9 million in TIF dollars to help develop the Hyatt Hotel. Hyatt began serving guests this summer.
Hyatt’s remaining funding came from a $21.5 million loan and $7.3 million in equity.
The construction site became the center of controversy in August of 2012 when the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign protested Harper Court for using TIF money.
Teachers, parents and union members picketed and chanted on 53rd Street, because the university-supported development was using public tax money to construct the building. They also opposed Hyatt Hotels accepting TIF money because billionaire Penny Pritzker sat on both the Hyatt board and the Board of Education. She resigned from the Board of Education in March 2013.
“We don’t need money for hotels; we need money for schools,” said Victoria Cryder, a 16-year-old student at King College Prep, 4445 S. Drexel Blvd., who was quoted in the Aug. 15, 2012 edition of the Herald. Cryder spoke to the crowd about how teacher cuts caused the school to lose an English teacher, who took the time to motivate her to do better in school.
Ald. Will Burns (4th) spoke at Friday’s ribbon cutting, saying the process of constructing a building of this size in Hyde Park wasn’t without its difficulties.
“In Hyde Park you have, like, 20 meetings for everything. If you have two Hyde Parkers in a room you have three opinions,” Burns said. He said the development of Harper Court brought a variety of retail and epicurean options to the neighborhood.