Clearing the air on Harper Court

To the Editor:

In recent days, some discussion has arisen about Harper Court that would benefit from a clearer recollection of the project’s history and the role that tax increment financing played in making it possible.

For years, Hyde Park residents had asked for amenities the market was unwilling to provide. In 2008, at the request of the City of Chicago, the University of Chicago purchased the old Harper Court and agreed to work with the community, leading a public-private partnership that would bring new retail activity and new economic opportunity to the neighborhood. In the face of a global financial crisis that put a halt to projects in Chicago and across the nation, Harper Court moved ahead to a successful opening only through extraordinary efforts from the university, the city, the community and the private developers. Among the university’s contributions were the donation of a property that had cost the university $10 million, the university’s credit rating, and years of time and expertise from staff and outside professionals, worth millions more.

Another critical contribution came through tax increment financing. TIF districts capture additional real estate taxes generated by new development, beyond existing real estate taxes, to catalyze economic development in underserved neighborhoods — exactly what has happened at Harper Court. Through the 53rd Street TIF district, the city invested $2 million to help launch Harper Court. The promise of $17.5 million in new real estate taxes generated by the new development allowed the developer to obtain financing critical to the project. The real estate taxes paid by the university and the retail stores will repay the TIF investment by the city. Without this public-private partnership, the developers would not have had the financing to move forward, and Harper Court never would have been launched. 

Last month, the University of Chicago exercised an option to purchase Harper Court, to assure that the development will continue to support a balance of quality national, regional and locally owned businesses, consistent with community values and the vision articulated by neighbors through the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council, visioning workshops and other planning processes. Rather than claiming exemption from property taxes, the university committed to pay full market rate real estate taxes through 2024, when the 53rd Street TIF district expires. After that, the expanded tax base will remain, generating new support for schools and city services. In the meantime, Harper Court’s success has catalyzed new businesses nearby that are already providing additional support to schools and city services through their ongoing tax payments.

The university has invested a great deal in Harper Court and 53rd Street to help attract amenities, create jobs and support new business opportunities. As neighbors, we are committed to seeing Hyde Park flourish, now and in the future. But this represents only a small part of our engagement and investment in the community. Take public schooling: the university operates four standout charter school campuses on the city’s South Side serving 1,800 students and provides enrichment programs for more than 900 high school and middle school students. At the same time, more than 400 U. of C. students volunteered with Chicago school students last year, donating more than 35,000 hours last year as teaching assistants and support staff at more than 50 partner sites. UChicago Promise helped 1,100 local high school students apply for college, waived $89,000 in application fees for students from Chicago and committed to replacing more than $2.2 million in loans with grants for Chicago undergraduates who qualify for financial aid. Along with police protection, transportation, medical care, cultural opportunities, job training and much more, this is an important part of our civic engagement mission, and a significant mutual benefit that comes from the partnership between a great urban research university and a great city.

Derek Douglas
Vice President for Civic Engagement
University of Chicago