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Hospital rehab plan intrigues County Board

Thursday, February 05, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

After the fifth developer presented an idea Wednesday for re-making the old Cook County Hospital, a few County Board members who had favored razing the building began to show interest and compliment parts of his proposal.

For eight months, Commissioner Larry Suffredin has waged a sometimes lonely fight to try to save the 89-year-old building that even some architecture lovers don't see as beautiful.

County Board President John Stroger wants the building torn down. Stroger's allies on the board and in the county administration say the building is not worth saving and is costly to keep up.

But Suffredin cobbled together a bare majority of board members willing to hear developers' proposals. Commissioners Deborah Sims and Jerry "Iceman" Butler, Stroger allies who favor demolition, chaired the four-hour meeting.

Butler said two weeks ago he'd like to bulldoze the building in the middle of the night.

But as John Rogers of Prism Development Co. outlined proposals to tear down everything but the front section of the old hospital, completely gut it and transform it into apartments for medical residents and nurses working in the hospital district, and replace the old building's annexes with a park, their ears perked up.

County Capital Planning Director Mike Lamont appeared pleasantly surprised the developers were offering to expand the parking garage next to the new hospital at their own expense -- something the county had planned to do.

The developers offered to rehab the building at no expense to the county -- which they say would save the county $17 million in demolition costs -- then give the county the building back in 30 years with rent money coming in.

Butler would prefer a developer come in and drop down a check, but this proposal and some of the others were encouraging, he said.

"Something can work if people are willing to put their money on the table and make it work," he said.

Sims called the proposal "more palatable" than anything she has heard yet.

"I need to think about it," she said.

Stroger did not attend the hearings and has remained firm in his opposition to saving the building.

Commissioner John Daley attended the hearings. His brother, Mayor Daley, has been silent on the hospital.

Democratic political consultant Phil Krone spoke in favor of saving the building. Suffredin said he hoped to meet with Mayor Daley in the coming weeks to pitch preserving the building.

"I think we had five strong presentations," Suffredin said. "Each of the five showed a different configuration on saving the taxpayers' money. I think there's definitely enough there to stop the demolition."

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