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February 9, 2010

Harper Court plans get off the ground

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The new Harper Court will include a 200-unit hotel, Vermilion Development announced Monday when it unveiled its plans for the shopping center’s renovation. Vermilion, which was selected by the University and the city last month to develop the former commercial hub, presented the plans during a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) meeting at Canter Middle School.

The project, which will also feature retail stores, office space, apartments, and possibly a venue for showing movies, was influenced by comments solicited from Hyde Parkers over the past several months, Vermilion said.

“We saw that Hyde Park really needs a good hotel,” project designer and architect James Plunkard said. “Our project includes a 200-unit hotel that will be at the development’s center.”

The design creates two new streets through Harper Court that will act as venues for events like the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Their 30-feet-wide sidewalks will also provide ample space for farmers’ markets, designer Sophie Bidek said.

Two apartment complexes and a condominium building will surround the two streets. An office building will be located at the corner of the development and an attached garage will help ease congestion. “We also pulled our building back to improve the walkability of Lake Park Avenue,” Plunkard said.

The redevelopment aims to be a hub for student recreation as well. “When I was a student there were no coffee shops on campus, and Hutch didn’t even have food. The campus was a much less sociable place,” said Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle (A.B. ’69, M.A.T. ’77), who partnered with the University to select a developer and oversee the project. “This is definitely going to make student life more exciting.”

While the area around Harper Court has not always thrived financially, Vermilion expects the new designs to create a social center in Hyde Park. “The planning felt like being a doctor,” said urban planner Doug Farr, who worked with Vermilion on the project. “[Harper Court] wasn’t well and we needed to figure out why.”

Redevelopment plans for Harper Court started in May 2008 when the University bought the property for $6.5 million. Vermilion was selected as the developer January 14. “We picked Vermilion because of… their experience in large-scale, university-related projects,” Chicago Project Manager James Wilson said.

Hyde Parkers applauded the plans and voiced their support for them during the Q&A period.

“This is the biggest thing to talk about since the Olympics didn’t happen,” TIF Board Chairman Howard Males said.

But many audience members were wary of the company’s ability to finance the $250 million project while coming out of a recession.

“My main concern is financing. Are the banks behind it? It will be tough,” said Hans Thilenius, a local contractor.

Construction is scheduled to start next year, with the first phase completed by 2013.

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