A question of TIF money for a U. of C. Harper Court

Staff Writer

Harper Court was built using $23.4 million in tax increment financing (TIF) dollars, a publicly funded tax subsidy that is used to help spur development.

But Jo Reizner, who served as co-chair of the 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council when the money was granted, questions if the board would have given approval to spend it if they had known of the university’s plans to buy the development.

The University of Chicago purchased the 12-story office tower, 150,000 square feet of retail and two parking garages for $98 million on Nov. 14, five days after the ceremonial ribbon cutting.

“I think that had the council and or the community known that the university was going to buy the Harper Court from Vermilion, and [Harper Court Partners], I wonder if the vote to allocate the money, or the sentiment toward allocating the money, would have been different had people known that $23.4 million would ultimately benefit the university,” Reizner said. “The university is a multibillion dollar operation and I think that, for myself, I would have thought the university would fund that themselves. That $23.4 million could potentially have been seed money for a lot of other development and improvement in the area.”

The university included in the original contract for Harper Court the ability to purchase the development at a price set at the time the documents were written in 2011.

Dave Cocagne, CEO of Vermilion Development, said the university had the right to purchase the property at a price negotiated when the contract was signed. But he could have sold the building to another developer if the university had passed on the option to buy.

“I think this was a favorable outcome for the city, for the university and for us,” Cocagne said. He declined to speculate on the fair market value of the property in 2013 dollars.

“At the end of the day I think what’s most important is that we have a great project that will serve the Hyde Park and broader South Side community for the decades to come, and it fulfilled many of the things the community set forth in those visioning workshops,” Cocagne said.

Visioning workshops gathering public input for Harper Court began in 2007.

The university said it does not plan to keep Harper Court in its real estate portfolio and will begin searching for another long-term owner.

In a statement announcing the property’s sale the university said that it plans to pay all appropriate property taxes, including contributing back into the TIF fund, until it is sold to another entity.

Roderick Sawyer, who served on the TIF council at the time the millions were granted, said he was satisfied with promises Harper Court Partners, which also included JFJ Development and Canyon Johnson Urban Funds, made to the community.

“They went and did their homework,” Sawyer said. “They said ‘This is what we expect the TIF to generate and there would be this kind of money that would be put back into this project.’ So they did what I asked them to do personally and the community seemed to be a lot more at ease.”

Sawyer voted in favor of spending TIF money on Harper Court.
Sawyer said if he had known at the outset the university had planned to buy the property he may have asked a different set of questions but he could not say if he would have voted differently.

“I wanted to know how the community is benefitting from this. Other than you bringing in this store or that store,” Sawyer said. He wanted to know how the project and TIF district would benefit the area parks and schools.

“That was one of the biggest focuses that I had,” Sawyer said.