Updated plans for Harper Court Phase II expand its role as a hub for science and technology

Ald. Sophia King listens as Alyssa Berman Cutler, Executive Director of Community Development, University of Chicago, describes the connecting structure between Phase I (constructed) and Phase II (proposed) buildings of the Harper Court development. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

The latest plans for Harper Court Phase II promise to generate more laboratory and research jobs while offering educational opportunities for students in the area interested in science, technology, engineering and math fields and office space for community members.

On Wednesday evening, Ald. Sophia King (4th) hosted a community meeting at Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., on Phase II. Representatives from the University of Chicago and Wexford Science and Technology, the project’s developer, presented an update on current plans for the development.

Angie Marks, associate vice president at U. of C.’s Office of Commercial Real Estate Operations, provided residents with a previous plan for Harper Court Phase II. Since the development will be built over the LA Fitness and Harper Court, the university is leasing air rights to Wexford who will develop and manage the property. The plans for the building have been to expand the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation into the space. According to an article in the Herald from August, the Polsky Center will take up a 25,000-square-foot space on the fourth floor of the new development. While the university will not have much to do with the property, they will be a tenant in the space.

“The university’s role in the actual building is that we will be a tenant,” Marks said. “We will lease and occupy about 50,000 square feet of the 300,000-square-foot building. We’re about 18% of the building. We will have a floor of office space and a floor of lab space.

“The project is being designed to promote collaboration and innovation and attract a diverse set of tenants ranging from corporate tenants to startups to entrepreneurs and space being specifically designed to accommodate a broad range of uses from an office floor to coworking to a lab floor, to a lab bench to really promote collaboration, innovation, and flexibility.”

Langdon Neal, a zoning lawyer representing Wexford, talked about recent changes to the plan. As proposed in 2017, the building was supposed to be about 28 stories tall. However, the height of the building has been reduced to 17 stories and it will be 241 feet tall. Wexford has promised to have 40% of construction to be built by minority business enterprises and 6% by women business enterprises. One of the contractors on the project, UJAMAA, is one of the largest African American-run contractors in Chicago. There will be 600 permanent jobs once the project is complete and 500 construction jobs.

“We want to be good neighbors with the community and work in a collaborative partnership with the community,” Neal said. “We’re not developers who build and leave; we continue to own, we continue to manage, we continue to operate. So, it is important for Wexford that we are authentic in our principals and that we represent ourselves well to the community in terms of being an active community participant and try to strive for what is important to community members.”

Wexford is currently exploring changing Harper Court into a primarily pedestrian friendly walkway. The developers will aim to start construction in the late summer or early fall of 2020.

Alyssa Berman-Cutler, executive director of community development of U. of C’s Office of Civic Engagement, spoke to community members about the potential for partnerships between schools in the area and potential tenants of the building. The university proposes internships for high school students and older who can commit to a significant amount of hours after school or in the summer.

“We’re committed to using a fund coming off of tenants and generously from Wexford to be able to hire someone to help coordinate that and to support the students with stipends,” Berman-Cutler said. “We have committed to space within the building that students can utilize to be able to convene and have space there that’s their own. In addition, we will be leveraging the tenants and other educational resources to provide more outreach utilizing the STEM tenants in the building.”

In addition to providing space for students, the university has reserved office space at a 20% discount from commercial rates for community members who can benefit from the building’s STEM or research component and will open applications for the space once the building is open.

The university also will hire locally.

“The university has a local commitment to local hiring overall,” Berman-Cutler said, “and will be able to use the infrastructure that we’re building at the university to make sure that we can connect to hiring opportunities for those permanent jobs.

“We’ve already started talking to city colleges and some other workforce agencies that can help us build pipelines for those. So, we really think that this could be an opportunity for significant economic development in the community.”