How to attract top students? Add Akira and a yoga studio

SHARE How to attract top students? Add Akira and a yoga studio

Ask the president of University of Chicago how plans are going to boost the neighborhood and he’ll tell you to eat at A10.

That’s because the once-ivory-towered university recruited the fine-dining restaurant, along with other notable retailers, to Hyde Park as part of efforts to better compete with rivals nationwide offering ever-more-upscale student amenities.

“It’s important to be a valuable and enhancing partner for the community that is right around us, and we strive to do that,” U of C President Robert J. Zimmer said recently before a conference on research universities and urban challenges.

A10 is run by Matthias Merges, a Charlie Trotter-trained chef who also has plans to open a second restaurant a few blocks away. The Japanese-inspired Yusho Hyde Park, patterned after Merges’ Yusho in Avondale, is set to open by fall at 1301 E. 53rd, a U of C spokeswoman confirms.

Merges told the Reader in September that the university contacted him about opening a restaurant in Hyde Park, and that he decided to do so after doing “due diligence” and discovering that the retail development plans there are for real.

“And the university decided, the only way they’re going to compete with the Harvards or the Stanfords or the Princetons is that they have to create this density within Hyde Park where people will stay there,” Merges told the publication.

The restaurants are among several new retailers, including clothing store Akira and a CorePower Yoga studio, that have opened recently on the 53rd Street corridor. Others include Starbucks, Chipotle, Ulta Beauty and LA Fitness, as well as Ja’Grill and Porkchop restaurants, and Red Mango yogurt.

University of Chicago has pledged $1 million to help roll out ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi in Woodlawn and Hyde Park. But the buildout has so far been a bust. Click here for the latest on plans to bring fiber Internet to the South Side.

The university is getting more hands-on on the eastern edge of the 53rd Street corridor. In November, it purchased Harper Court, a 12-story office tower and retail complex at 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue, from the site’s developers.

Plans for the complex include a technology startup center called the Chicago Innovation Exchange, expected to open late this year, in spaces split between two buildings at 53rd Street and Harper Avenue and inside the Harper Court office tower.

The Harper Court complex, which was awarded $20 million in tax increment financing money, is 96 percent leased. TIFs freeze property taxes for 24 years and use hoped-for increases in tax revenues for business subsidies and infrastructure work within the TIF boundaries.

Yusho Hyde Park will be located inside the 53rd Street corridor TIF district, and a new Whole Foods Market, set to open in 2015, also sits inside a TIF district.

Yusho “is part of the university’s broader effort to boost economic development and bring more retail options to the area,” a university spokeswoman says.

The Whole Foods, at the site of a former Village Foods grocery at 1521 E. Hyde Park Blvd., is not part of the university’s development plans.

Robert Weissbourd, president of Chicago-based RW Ventures, LLC, an economic growth consultancy, says he believes U of C’s use of TIF money to help rebuild a distressed neighborhood is a sound strategy.

“This is something that the [private] market wouldn’t otherwise do, and it will enhance the real estate values and create a net tax benefit,” he says. “This is a real turnaround for the University of Chicago in understanding that its fate is tied to the neighborhood and the regional economy. For 20 years, the university tried to be insular.”

Weissbourd credits Zimmer’s hiring two years ago of Derek Douglas, President Obama’s former senior adviser on urban policy, as vice president for civic engagement, and giving him the authority to get involved in everything from broadband infrastructure expansion to local industry collaboration.

Weissbourd says other universities that have played key roles in rebuilding their neighborhoods include Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania.

“Universities are anchor institutions,” he says. “Many of them figured they didn’t need to care about their geography, and they are hurting because of it.”

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