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Helping taxpayers and a hospital

Thursday, January 22, 2004
Chicago Tribune
Editorial

Last month, in a move that put taxpayers' interests first, members of the Cook County Board delayed a vote on whether to demolish the former Cook County Hospital. That vote is now expected to take place Thursday. If taxpayers' interests still count for something, board members should vote to give the building a reprieve--at least for the short term--to fully consider its economical renovation and rebirth.

For reasons that escape sound logic, John Stroger, president of the board, is determined to raze the structure. Put another way, the County Board president who says he needs fat tax increases to balance his budget wants to waste millions of dollars tearing down a stately and storied hospital that developers are eager to rehab.

If you're a member of the County Board, here, essentially, are your two options:

- Option One: You can vote to spend more than $12 million to tear down the hospital and two associated buildings and complete an environmental cleanup. The county would be out that money, a sound structure would be rubble, and the county's crying space needs for doctors' offices and other uses related to medicine could be met only by erecting a costly new building.

- Option Two: You can vote against demolishing the hospital--for now, anyway--and preserve not just the structure but also the possibility that it can make money for the county. At least three proposals for reviving the building for various public and private uses have been floated by developers. Depending on what County Board members eventually decide, a rehab could put part of the building back on the tax rolls, give the county a share of rental proceeds, and create federal tax credits that a developer could be required to share with the county.

The choice between those two options is a no-brainer. But while they're weighing the hospital's future, County Board members also should insist that Stroger's administration do what he pledged to do last summer. That's when Stroger said he would give developers a fair chance to make their case for preserving and rehabbing the old hospital.

Instead, he and his administration have done everything imaginable to discourage developers and create a sense of inevitability that the building must be torn down.

That's nonsense. Worse, it's unfair. As a result, Stroger evidently has lost the votes of board members who resent the shabby treatment that developers and preservationists received from Stroger's underlings. Case in point: Gregg Goslin, a fair-minded board member who's agnostic on the hospital's architectural value, now opposes demolition pending an honest evaluation of whether it may make sense--and save money--to let a developer rehab the hospital. "We should first study the [redevelopment] proposals so we know what our options are," Goslin says.

That's the responsible, frugal approach other board members should adopt. If Stroger's administration will work with half as much zeal to assist developers to craft proposals as it has in obstructing them, the ultimate winners will be Cook County's beleaguered taxpayers. But that can happen only if County Board members reject Stroger's wasteful demolition proposal now.



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