Community criticizes lack of accessibility at Harper Court

By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Staff Writer

Like many other Hyde Parkers, Carolyn Rhodes wanted to try Harper Court’s newest restaurant, Porkchop. But when she went, she couldn’t get in.

“There’s no handicap door, no sign — not there. I waited,” said Rhodes, who uses a wheelchair. “I waited for someone, even from the outside to come and open the door for me.”

Rhodes decided to eat somewhere else, but her way was blocked by the seating at Native Foods, 1518 E. Harper Court. “I couldn’t get through without disturbing someone else’s meal,” she said.

Rhodes, a resident of Disable Adults Residential Enterprises (DARE), 1616 E. 55th St., says neighbors have complained about accessibility at Porkchop, 1516 E. Harper Court. They have also expressed concerns about the space outdoor seating takes up at A10, 1462 E. 53rd St.

“The issue is, we give back to our community because our community supports us,” Rhodes said. “However, I have a problem giving dollars to businesses or entities in the community where I can’t get into.”

But Porkchop isn’t the only retail space at the U. of C.’s new Harper Court tower without automatic doors. All except one of the currently open restaurants and shops there – LA Fitness, 5224 S. Lake Park Ave. – lacks an automatic door.

The $106 million building – which benefited from $23 million in tax increment financing from the City – was completed last year. The University of Chicago, which owned the land, picked Danville, Ill.-based Vermilion Development to complete the project.

DARE board member George Rumsey said he discussed accessibility at Harper Court several weeks ago with Jim Hennessey, associate vice president for Commercial Real Estate Operations at the U. of C., but that nothing has been done since to address the issue.

“This is new construction. There is no reason there should disabilities issues in new construction,” Rumsey said.

Harper Court complies with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements per reviews by the city and an individual contractor, according to Calmetta Coleman, director of Communications for Civic Engagement at the U. of C.

“While individual tenants may choose to install supplemental devices for access, ADA regulations do not require automated exterior doors for this development,” Coleman said.

Dave Cocagne, CEO of Vermilion Development, and Chris Dillion, the firm’s managing director, said Harper Court was designed to comply with Title III of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations against the disabled.

“We consulted with a wide variety of community groups and spoke at numerous public forums, and we attempted to incorporate feedback that was relayed to us, including comments relating to design and accessibility,” Cocagne said in an e-mail.

Cocagne did not specifically indicate by press time whether an advocate or member of the disabled community was consulted, following multiple requests for comment.

The ADA does not mandate automatic doors on public retail spaces, according to Peter Berg, a project coordinator with the Great Lakes ADA Center.

“The ADA establishes minimum access requirements and in many states they have state building codes,” Berg said. “But even meeting the minimum access requirements under the ADA, unfortunately there still may be individuals unable to independently use a building.”

Berg added, however, that advocates can make a difference by appealing to good business sense.

“From an advocacy standpoint, I think the argument is quite simple: as a business you want customers, and why wouldn’t you take steps to make your business as accessible to every person as possible?”

If you or someone you know feels she or he has experienced disability-related discrimination in a public retail or government accommodation, learn about how to file a Title III complaint by visiting ada.gov/filing_complaint.htm.

j.bishku@hpherald.com