Learning from the unexpected delay of Harper Theater

The city of Chicago put some coal in Harper Theater owner Tony Fox’s stocking this Christmas, and we are all paying for it.

Despite what he says were his best efforts to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on his new project in the long-shuttered Harper Theater on Harper Avenue at 53rd Street, Fox was recently informed that he has to go through a public comment period before opening the theater by the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protections. This will delay the opening of the theater by at least 60 days, and Fox says it is news to him and that we would have had a fully operating theater over the holidays had it not been for this red tape.

Although we are disappointed that we missed a chance to enjoy “Lincoln” over the holidays without leaving the neighborhood, we have bigger concerns. Is this a harbinger of things to come? The University of Chicago made a bet on the future of the neighborhood in its redevelopment of the theater building along with the massive Harper Court project. Working in sync with the city will be an essential element of successfully coordinating the opening of the many businesses that will be needed to fill Harper Court. In a tough economy, delay can be deadly for new business ventures.

The city and the university announced not too long ago a new policy whereby the university is able to essentially go to the front of the line when dealing with the city in planning and executing its development projects. Will that largesse be extended to the university’s development partners? We certainly hope so; signs of a tangle at city hall might give some out-of-town businesses cold feet, and projects of the size of Harper Court require expert coordination to even have a chance to succeed.

We are certainly not criticizing the need for public meetings as part of the process of major developments in the neighborhood. What concerns us is that somehow the city, the university and Fox were unable to reach a mutual understanding of the timetable and the steps that would be needed to open the theater. Those sorts of missteps simply cannot happen at Harper Court.

Meanwhile, Tony has to hold at least two public meetings for the roughly 20 residents close enough to the theater to have the right to give input on the project. If they’ve been reading their Heralds, none of the details of the theater will be news to them. We expect the comment period to be little more than a formality — if there are concerns, though, we advise Fox to take them seriously. Twenty Hyde Parkers can make a serious noise if we feel neglected.

We should all be doing whatever we can to bring this group, whose North Side New 400 Theater is a promising indication of what we can expect, into Hyde Park as soon as possible. This establishment will bring much-needed life to 53rd Street — and a desperately needed theater to the South Side.