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New ideas for an old hospital

Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Chicago Tribune

Commercial developers seeking to save the old Cook County Hospital feel like they are playing darts in the dark. County officials won't say what type of redevelopment they want--if any--so developers and preservationists are left to guess. All proposals offered so far have been summarily dismissed.

That's really a shame, because some very creative thinking about how to use the old hospital building is going on right now, despite the best efforts of Cook County Board President John Stroger to discourage it.

At least three proposals to renovate the old hospital building have been presented. The latest, from Antunovich Associates, in cooperation with the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and McCaffery Interests, would convert some of the space into medical offices and living quarters for nurses. A new facility would replace the aging outpatient Fantus Clinic. Cost estimates of construction and demolition are not final, but are pegged at approximately $70 million.

This plan would preserve most or all of the monumental terra-cotta-clad hospital building on Harrison Street and demolish other structures, such as the power plant and the former children's hospital. It would create some parkland--Stroger's stated priority for the site-- where the Fantus Clinic now stands. The old nurses' residence, a decrepit building badly reconfigured into medical offices, would be razed, and its occupants moved to new space in the former hospital building facing Harrison Street. Some space could be converted to nurses residences, also badly needed.

Though the developers are talking about a publicly financed project, this venture seems ideally suited for a private residential and office development with some retail and restaurant space. There is a ready-made client base in the thousands of medical staff and visitors who come to the West Side medical district each day, and whose nearest place to grab dinner now is Taylor Street. The infusion of economic activity and the preservation of a stunning building could be the impetus for additional development of the Near West Side.

A few weeks ago the county commissioners stalled the march to demolish the old hospital. Some, notably Commissioner Carl Hansen, have taken the initiative to promote ideas for the creative re-use of the building. It is important now that more commissioners take a keen interest in how to preserve the building.

And where is Mayor Richard Daley? There are rumblings that he is opposed to redevelopment of the hospital, but he has been largely silent on the issue.

The county board members face another decision on Jan. 26 about whether to go forward with demolition. It won't be enough simply to stall that decision one more time. They should start moving toward approval for one of the ideas coming from the creative thinkers who want to rescue a grand old building.


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