South Side Story

South Side Story

In early January, the University of Chicago announced that the long-empty Harper Theater and its neighboring office buildings will be ready for a Five Guys burger joint in the fall, along with other retail and commercial tenants. The Harper Theater, acquired by the university in 2003, is just one of many local properties it purchased that is slated to become part of a new commercial corridor along 53rd Street.

The adaptive re-use of Harper Theater is an example of the university’s plans to develop Hyde Park and expand into neighboring Woodlawn in unprecedented ways. Traditionally, the university has kept its dorms and facilities close to the chest; now, its real-estate purchasing record shows how the university is developing commercial properties in Hyde Park while expanding traditional projects like residence halls and classrooms to the north-edge of Woodlawn.


“Obviously, the University of Chicago’s primary mission is not real estate development,” said Steve Kloehn, the associate vice president for news and public affairs. “But it is crucial that we help create and sustain what will attract the very best students and faculty members and staff we can.”

The University of Chicago has never had a simple relationship with its neighbors in the hundred years since its founding. Today, university projects in Hyde Park and Woodlawn garner both local criticism and support.

“There’s a perception that the university is an 800-pound gorilla coming in and doing things,” said Jane Ciacci, the president of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, a neighborhood organization. “It’s divided between people who think: ‘Yeah, we want development. We need a better grocery store,’ and other people who say, ‘What they’ve got is too expensive for us.’ So there’s a real division between whether gentrifying the neighborhood is a great thing or is ruining it.”


Harper Court, a partnership between the university and the City of Chicago, is a 1.1 million-square-foot commercial hotel and retail facility, anchored by university administrative offices, that will be built in the first phase. The project, by Hartshorne Plunkard Architects, represents what Kloehn calls “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” for commercial growth after other piecemeal efforts failed to develop a retail-based district in Hyde Park. Commercial development by big-name schools like the University of Pennsylvania has been a recent trend, as many universities look to attract top students and staff. In Hyde Park, however, community leaders have had mixed responses to the university’s acquisition of vacant or recently vacated commercial properties in the 53rd Street area.

“The neighborhood is always ambivalent about the university,” said Jane Comiskey, a member of the 53rd Street Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Advisory Council, which is responsible for advising on the use of TIF property tax money in the area where the university intends to develop a commercial corridor. “They do good things, and then they do other things.”

In late 2009, the university acquired the site of a Mobil gas station at 53rd Street and Kenwood Avenue, three blocks down from the Harper Court site. The Mobil location marks a mid-point in the 53rd Street retail corridor, which developers see as ripe for commercial or residential use. Efforts to build so far, however, have been countered with concerns from local residents about the height of the proposed schemes and the cost of the condominiums.

The university is also using its purchasing power to bring nightlife to the area, acquiring the 5201 South Harper Avenue building where the Checkerboard Jazz Club reopened in 2005, and 53rd Street Hollywood Video rental store location in January 2009.


Debate surrounds the latter property as well: According to reporting by The Chicago Maroon, the district manager of Hollywood Video claimed that the branch shut down because the university purchased the building.

“There’s a great concern in the neighborhood: What kind of development will this be?” said Ciacci. “Will there be affordable housing? Will the people who have always lived here still be able to live here?”

According to Kloehn, the commercial development is a product of “visioning workshops” with the neighborhood and university representatives that have gone on for many years. “From our point of view,” said Kloehn, “the key will be the mix: We’re all in this together, and the 53rd Street corridor should reflect that.”

The university has also sold properties in Hyde Park that are now being privately developed, such as the old Shoreland Hotel. Once a fashionable hotel, the university later acquired it for a dorm space, but according to a university spokesman, it was always too detached from campus. The university eventually sold the building, opting to build new dormitories elsewhere. Studio Gang is now converting the building into some 350 rental apartments for Antheus Capital.

Parallel to the university’s move into commercial real estate, the focus for traditional development projects like libraries, dorms, and administrative centers has moved south below the Midway. Standing by a Civil Rights–era agreement with Woodlawn community leaders not to build below 61st Street, the University of Chicago is developing the thin strip of land below the park. In the last few years, the university has built south of the Midway, a new residence hall, parking, and office facilities, renovated Eero Saarinen’s Law School, and planned on a new home for the Chicago Theological Seminary. It is in the process of constructing the Logan Center for the Arts by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

Extending the campus south below the Midway poses a few challenges, however, including questions of safety and the distance of new buildings from the main campus. Two years before the completion of the South Campus Residence Hall, a massive new dorm designed by Goody Clancy, a Senegalese chemistry student was shot on Ellis Avenue near 61st Street, prompting concerns about safety in the neighborhood.

“In terms of the relationship to the original quadrangles,” said Steve Wiesenthal, the university architect, “the center of gravity is north of the Midway, so the south campus schools are feeling quite isolated from each other—and from the rest of campus. We have this great challenge. How do we change the perception and the reality of distance to the land on the south end, so that the Midway itself can become this great intersection—the world’s largest college green?”


Architects working on the projects south of the Midway have developed different means of addressing the unique site, from a tower at the Logan Center for the Arts symbolizing a signal to the rest of campus, to visually accessible gardens at the residence halls that make the building feel less closed-off from the community.

It is unclear how commercial development in Hyde Park juxtaposed with traditional building in Woodlawn will affect the existing contrast between the already divided north and south sides of the campus. However, both the Harper Court development, with its adjacent commercial corridor, and the new projects south of the Midway promise to keep redefining the relationship between the University of Chicago and its neighbors.

“We have a very lively debate on campus about architecture,” said Wiesenthal. “The way that we’ve looked at these new projects is less about style and more about guiding design principles, not just spatially, but creating places and spaces where people can interchange ideas.”