By Laura Milani Alessio
Photo by Robert Kozloff

These efforts are making 53rd Street a more lively retail district with a mix of long-established businesses and complementary new options.”
—David Greene
Executive Vice President of the University of Chicago

The sidewalk in front of Hyde Park’s recently reopened Harper Theater filled with moviegoers one recent Sunday afternoon. Some headed straight inside for the first-run movies about to start, while others stopped to mingle with a giant “Chocolate Moose” offering samples of fresh fudge from the new Kilwins ice cream and candy shop next door.

“Our first show sold out before we opened today from online ticket purchases,” says Damien Davis, manager of the century-old cinema at 53rd Street and Harper Avenue that began showing films again in January for the first time since 2002. Davis said patrons—a mix of longtime residents and UChicago students and faculty—tell him they are thrilled to have a local multiplex showing new-release films again.

The redevelopment of Harper Theater and nearby storefronts is part of the University of Chicago’s effort to partner with local businesses, residents, and elected officials to spur economic development along 53rd Street, a vital commercial corridor for Hyde Park. Chicago businesses increasingly see 53rd Street as a prime opportunity for growth, creating a sense of momentum that is drawing new ventures and customers to the area. The developments are creating new entertainment, dining, and retail options for the entire community—along with an estimated 1,320 new jobs—while building on the neighborhood’s appeal for UChicago students and faculty.

“The University’s role has been to serve as a catalyst for activity that brings new amenities to the area while driving economic growth and opportunities for local residents,” says David Greene, Executive Vice President of the University. “Through partnerships with the Hyde Park-Kenwood community, the city of Chicago, and the business community, these efforts are making 53rd Street a more lively retail district with a mix of long-established businesses and complementary new options.”

‘Community has just embraced us’

Across the street from the theater, work is proceeding on the Harper Court development, featuring a Hyatt Place hotel opening this summer and a 150,000-square-foot office tower with new administrative space for the University. Retail tenants will include restaurants Chipotle Mexican Grill, Ja’Grill, Park Tavern, and Porkchop, along with Ulta Beauty and LA Fitness. The development also will include expanded space for farmers markets and other community gatherings.

East of Harper Court, the 53rd Street Bicycle Center opened beneath the Metra tracks a year ago, offering bike rentals and storage along with bike and Segway tours of the neighborhood. A few blocks west of Harper Court, a retail-residential complex called Vue53 has been proposed for a site between Kimbark and Kenwood avenues. That project would bring more potential customers and even more vibrancy to the corridor.

“People want a diverse range of entertainment, restaurants, and other retail options within walking distance of their homes,” says 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns, nothing that recent improvements have been through collaboration among developers, community members, and other stakeholders. “The new venues are drawing new consumers and increasing pedestrian traffic, which benefits all the businesses along the corridor and enhances public safety with more eyes on the street. In addition, the new developments in the community are transit-oriented, which increases the sustainability of the neighborhood.”

Local businesses are prime beneficiaries of the developments. The majority of the new businesses are Chicago-based—identified as a priority in numerous community input sessions that began in 2007.

Pattie Kidwell, owner of Asian-inspired Chant restaurant, has been a business owner on 53rd Street for 17 years. She says the new developments are long overdue. “Although I realize some aspects of redevelopment will mean more competition for me, it needs to be done,” Kidwell says. “Since the theater opened, I’ve seen more customers, and I’ve seen more young families walking along the street. It feels more like a business district, more welcoming and safer.”

Tony Fox, a Chicago attorney who owns The New 400 Theaters’ parent company, ADF Capital, says the community’s outpouring of enthusiasm for the Harper Theater’s reopening has been gratifying. “I get stopped on the street, people wave at me in their cars. Not many people get to experience that kind of professional satisfaction,” Fox says. He said the theater routinely fills to capacity on weekends and recently hosted a private showing of the new Jackie Robinson film “42.”

Jackie Jackson, co-owner of the Kilwins across from Harper Court, described a similar experience since premiering the shop’s fudge, candies, popcorn, and ice cream (including the shop’s signature flavor, Hyde Park Mud, with swirls of vanilla, chocolate, and caramel) last December. “This community has just embraced us,” says Jackson, a Hyde Park resident who also owns the Kilwins in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood with partner Kenneth Faulkner.

Building diversity of businesses

Across 53rd Street, Akira manager Lenese Griffin says the store has had a steady flow of customers since opening in November 2012, including many who previously shopped at Akira’s other locations. “We literally had lines out the door the day we opened,” she says. “People were so happy to have us here, rather than having to drive downtown or to the North Side.”

Chicago restaurateur Matthias Merges is bringing another eagerly anticipated eatery to 53rd Street later this year, an as-yet unnamed bistro that will feature cuisine from the French-Italian Alps and Riviera regions. Merges, a former executive chef at Charlie Trotter’s who was named Chef of the Year at the 2013 Jean Banchet Awards, also will be opening a Hyde Park outpost of his popular Avondale neighborhood Yusho restaurant.

“When the University announced its plans for 53rd Street, it felt like all the planets were aligning, and it was time to look seriously at doing something here,” Merges says.

Hyde Park resident Jovanis Bouargoub, owner of the popular Randolph Street barbeque restaurant and whiskey bar Porkchop, says the spate of new businesses heading to 53rd Street made the timing right for him to open up shop in his own neighborhood. Earlier this year, Bouargoub, who lives two blocks from 53rd Street, signed a lease to open a second Porkchop in Harper Court.

“There is much more support for new businesses in Hyde Park” since redevelopment began, says Bouargoub. “With diverse restaurants, stores, and entertainment, I believe we can all be successful.”

The new, diverse offerings also are a potential boon for local fundraising activity. Last month, Hyde Park-based KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation built one night of its annual spring fundraising gala around 53rd Street businesses. For a $125 ticket, the special night out included a private showing of the movie “42” and a future show at Harper Theater as well as a preview of fare from Chef Merges’ planned bistro restaurant. There was also a raffle with prizes that included dinners at Promontory, Park Tavern, and Merges Bistro, a candy basket at Kilwins, one-month memberships at Core Power, a gift certificate at Superior Jewelers, a one-night stay at Hyatt Place, and a block of tickets for the Harper Theater.

The event’s organizer, Jim Bloom, says he got the idea after seeing so many members of KAM’s board at Harper Theater on opening night. “Everybody’s excited about 53rd Street,” Bloom says. “Normally, we are scrambling to sell 100 tickets. This year, we sold out at 160 tickets nearly a week before the event.”