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Hyde Park Bookstore: Construction At Harper Court Has Hurt Business

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Not everyone is thrilled about the sweeping redevelopment project that will bring a new hotel and university office building to Hyde Park.

Work has been underway since of the Harper Court, where a mixed-use development is under construction to replace the old restaurant and retail complex that had stood on the site since the 1960s.

When the project is complete, the site will include a new Hyatt Hotel, as well as a 12-story, 150,000 square-foot office tower that will be used by the University of Chicago, and a three-story retail building.

The groundbreaking for the new development was held last month. U of C President Robert J. Zimmer and Ald. Will Burns (4th) were among those in attendance.

But Frontline Books, an Afrocentric bookstore at 5206 S. Harper Ave. across from the Harper Court site, says the construction has been hurting its business.

Bookstore staffers are set to be joined by other local business representatives for a news conference at 2:30 p.m. Monday. They say the U of C, which owns Harper Court and is spearheading the redevelopment, is inconsiderate toward small businesses and is impairing their revenues.

Frontline Books owner Ras Sekou told the Chicago Maroon U of C student newspaper lat month that since work began on the site, his bookstore's sales have dropped by 85 to 90 percent. A construction fence has been set up on the north side of 53rd Street, and it is keeping traffic away from the block where the bookstore is located, Sekou told the Maroon.

Sekou told the Maroon in November that he has already had trouble paying rent and had to cut back his employees' hours, and the store might end up going out of business if sales do not pick up as construction progresses over the next couple of years.

Sekou leased the storefront next to Frontline with plans for a juice bar last year, but those plans have been called off because of the financial problems the store is suffering, the Maroon reported.

A short distance to the north, the legendary blues club the Checkerboard Lounge also says the construction at Harper Court is having an adverse effect on its business, the Maroon reported in November.

Owner LC Thurman told the Maroon last month that he would not have signed the lease on the property if he had known about the pending construction project.

In 2003, the Checkerboard made a high-profile move from its home since 1972 at 423 E. 43rd St. in Bronzeville, to a single-story building at 5201 S. Harper Ave. that had previously housed a Women's Workout World gym.

The U of C purchased Harper Court for $6.5 million in 2008, in hopes that the purchase would help revitalize the commercial strip in Hyde Park on 53rd Street. Back in 2000, a new Tax Increment Financing District was created for the strip, and $20 million in tax-increment financing subsidies will go toward the project, according to published reports.

The new 130-room hotel on the site, to be named the Hyatt Place Chicago @ Hyde Park, will feature dedicated underground parking, a restaurant, a wine bar, a swimming pool, a fitness facility for hotel guests, and meeting rooms. It is set to open in 2013.

A new LA Fitness athletic club will be among the retail anchors at the site. The U of C says the retail and dining spaces in the development are already 83 percent leased.

But many popular businesses were displaced from the old Harper Court buildings.

Among the displaced tenants was the Creole restaurant Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop, which closed in May 2009. The restaurant was a favorite of President Barack Obama, who famously recommended it in 2001 on the WTTW-Channel 11 restaurant review show "Check Please."

The Dixie Kitchen's longtime sister restaurant, Calypso Café, hung on until June 5 of this year, but had to close as the building that housed it was slated for demolition.

When it opened in 1965, Harper Court was largely made up of arts and music-related businesses. As recently as a few years ago, it had 23 stores, including Dr. Wax Records, Maravilla's Mexican Restaurant, the Toys Et Cetera toy store, and the Hyde Park Animal Clinic.

Meanwhile, across Harper Avenue from the old shopping center, the U of C announced earlier this year that a new movie theater will open in 2012.

The new theater will be operated by the New 400 Theaters independent movie chain, and will show a mix of art, children's and wide-release films, according to the university. It will occupy the 1915 Hyde Park Theater building, which has been shuttered since 2002.

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