Businesses mull 53rd Street


Local businesses on the 53rd Street commercial strip will find themselves in a much different environment later this year with the completion of the Harper Court development.

The bulk of the project is already finished — Five Guys, 1456 E. 53rd St.; Kilwins, 5226 S. Harper St., and the reopened Harper Theater, 5238 S. Harper Ave., have opened for business in nearby buildings. The street will continue to change as Harper Court grows to include a new hotel, gym and several restaurants.

The difference between the street’s new stores and existing retail will be significant. The shrimp banh mi with sriracha aioli found on the menu at Park Tavern — a venture of chain operator Restaurants America, which has signed a lease in Harper Court — is a far cry from the casual dining options typical of 53rd Street now. An entrée at Ja’Grill, another restaurant set to move into the development, costs just under $20 at its other Chicago location, pricier than most meals on the street today.

A street-wide project

The changes Harper Court will bring are only one part of a larger effort intended to revitalize the business corridor. On the southwest corner of the intersection of Harper Avenue and 53rd Street, at the Schuster building, the university is planning a renovation. Two businesses there are closing before work begins: Kimonti Salon, located on the second floor, and Lake Beauty Supply, whose lease ends today.

Calmetta Coleman, director of communications for the university’s Office of Civic Engagement, compared the renovation of the Schuster building to the renovation of the Herald building across the street. That building’s 53rd Street frontage, which now houses only Five Guys, was once host to a number of local businesses, including T-shirt shop Propaganda and clothing store Tina’s Designs.

Although Indian restaurant Rajun Cajun, also a Schuster building tenant, declined to comment on the details of its lease, next door retailer Hyde Park Cigars will be moving to a new location on Harper Avenue.

The pattern of change is supported by some community leaders, including Will Burns (4th).

“The one constant refrain that I have heard as a longtime resident and now alderman of the Fourth Ward is the need for retail development,” he said in a written statement.

Burns pointed to feedback from the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council and a committee on economic development, saying that “the community has voiced its support for infill development on our commercial corridors through several groups.”

While development on 53rd Street will certainly satisfy a desire for a new neighborhood retail options, it is uncertain how it will affect existing local businesses.

Uncertain futures

As development of the neighborhood continues, it’s likely that the value of property on 53rd Street could increase, according to Ezekiel Morris, operating principal at Keller Williams Realty, which does business in Hyde Park.

However, if an increase in rent were to occur, he said it would be likely to happen slowly and reflect the benefits that businesses may see from new traffic on the street: “You won’t be able to charge higher rent if the businesses aren’t getting more income.”

But Ahmed Qurt, owner of the Jeffery Dollar Store, 1443 E. 53rd St., said that the increased foot-traffic Harper Court stores will bring might consist of well-off shoppers unlikely to visit his store.

“The U. of C. is looking for a certain kind of business,” Qurt said.

Burns, though, said that resources exist for business owners like Qurt.

“I can report that there are several organizations that provide technical assistance so that [businesses] can increase sales and remain viable in our community,” said Burns.

The South East Chicago Commission connects local businesses with programs of that sort run by the City of Chicago.

“If there’s a business that needs help, I would hope that they would come to us,” said SECC Executive Director Wendy Walker Williams. She agreed with Morris about the likely pace of the change, saying that “the landlords aren’t going to ask for a rent that the market can’t bear and that they’re not going to get.”

Kris Braaten, owner of decades-long neighborhood retailer Bonne Sante Health Foods, 1512 E. 53rd St., said however that during Harper Court’s development the university and community leaders did not adequately address small businesses’ concerns.

He said that past few years have been “very tough” for his store as a result of the loss of parking formerly available where the Harper Court complex has built its storefronts.

“It’s caused a lot of customers to go elsewhere,” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it. We begged the alderman’s office for some solutions, but there wasn’t any. It seemed like there was no brainstorming prior to the construction of what to do.”

Sekou Tafari, co-owner of Frontline Books, an African American bookstore and publisher located at 5206 S. Harper Ave., said business suffered as a result of the fence blocking traffic through Harper Avenue that went up in 2012 and was taken down earlier this year, while construction on the new Harper Court was taking place.

“I didn’t expect the demise in sales would have taken place so drastically,” he said.

Coleman reaffirmed the university’s commitment to local businesses. Citing newspaper advertisements and a video which she said highlighted both existing and new businesses, Coleman said that “the university has worked to promote the success of both new and established 53rd Street businesses — at no cost to the businesses.”

Looking toward the future, however, Braaten was optimistic, saying that the development could provide him with a boost in sales.

“We have for the last year been gearing up for a robust crowd coming through the neighborhood, more people walking from the building to wherever they go,” said Braaten, who is also planning to communicate with Hyatt management about promoting his store to hotel guests.

Eric Nance, owner of Litehouse Whole Food Grill, 1373 E. 53rd St., is preparing for an increase from 200 customers a day to 1,000, once “Hyde Park is fully developed.”

“I think those other businesses will bring more people into the neighborhood, and more people [will] shop and check you out, and for small business owners that’s very important” Nance said.

The impact of chains

There remains, however, the question of whether chains could beat out existing businesses for their space as changes occur and leases come up. Like some other neighborhood observers, Braaten predicted that Hyde Park “will become more generic as time goes on with more generic chain stores coming.”

That worry isn’t without some cause — according to Google Maps, an Ulta Beauty shop is located next to a Park Tavern restaurant, just as it will be in the planned Harper Court development, in Dallas, Texas.

Nance, however, expressed confidence that Hyde Parkers would keep the businesses they love alive.

“I don’t care what restaurant came in. Pizza Capri is going to be packed every night. Valois is going to be packed for breakfast,” Nance said.

Williams echoed his sentiment, saying that “everyone is very conscious and concerned about keeping local businesses local.”

Meanwhile, Ethan Currie, manager of Hyde Park Records, 1377, 53rd St., described the area’s recent development as “the next chapter in the history” of the neighborhood.

“I think that the instinct to hold on to some golden ideal of what Hyde Park really is, is illusory. It doesn’t really mean much, because Hyde Park, the South Side, is something dynamic, it’s something that’s always changed.”