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'This is a public scandal'
Preservationists accuse county administrators of welshing on a promise to consider rehabbing Cook County Hospital

Thursday, October 30, 2003
Chicago Journal

It was in mid-October that David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, began to suspect something was up.

More than four months had passed since the Cook County Board of Commissioners, by a unanimous vote, approved a resolution to examine reusing--rather than razing--the old Cook County Hospital at Harrison and Wood. County administrators had promised a public airing of proposals, a tour of the Beaux-Arts behemoth, an open mind, a listening ear. Bahlman, along with other preservationists and rehab-minded developers, reckoned guidelines to help developers formulate reuse proposals wouldn't be far behind.

That was back in July. Later that month, commissioners convened a public hearing at which developers offered plenty of reuse arguments, but no proposals. The tour, meanwhile, took place in August. County officials escorted a dozen or so curious builders through Cook County Hospital's rotting hallways and decrepit offices, pointing out flooded ceilings, cracked terra cotta, miles upon miles of poisonous asbestos.

But the redevelopment guidelines never materialized. Neither did a request for proposals or for developer qualifications. The deadline set for submitting reuse plans came and went on Oct. 6 without much word from county government.

That's when Bahlman started getting curious. So did Harold Lichterman, president of Kenard Corp. and one of a dozen or so developers who'd planned on writing a proposal for turning the hospital into condos or offices. On Oct. 13, Lichterman penned a letter to Cook County Board President John Stroger.

"Twice in the past month I have called," Lichterman wrote. "On both occasions I was told that the [request for proposals] was being prepared and it would be sent in three or four days. Yesterday when I called, I was surprised to hear from Michael LaMont [director of the Office of Capital Planning and Policy] that there is no package forthcoming. Since I have been calling often, someone should have had the courtesy to call and advise me."

In fact, county officials started taking bids Tuesday for Cook County Hospital's long-planned demolition. Shuttered since early this year, when the $550 million Stroger Hospital opened up next door, the 89-year-old infirmary has been heading toward an appointment with the wrecking ball for the better part of a decade. By razing the yellowed colossus, county officials--led by John Stroger himself--meant to give the namesake hospital a little breathing room and plant a park in the old facility's place. Pasteur Park, just to the north, would become a site for future Illinois Medical District development. All this is laid out in a 1999 agreement with the city, and in a master plan for the hospital that stretches back even further than that.

LaMont invoked that master plan in an Oct. 16 letter to developers. Prodded by queries from Larry Suffredin, one of several Cook County commissioners who authored the resolution urging a second look at the hospital's salvation, LaMont told developers they'd be getting no bundle of guidelines. The hospital campus is hemmed in on all sides, he said, and long-range plans call for more parking, a new medical office building, the renovation of other nearby facilities. And then there's the expense of reversing Cook County Hospital's decrepitude, bringing its sagging walls up to code. County officials believe it will be prohibitive. LaMont's letter made clear that the chances for hospital's rescue have narrowed to a sliver.

"Any reuse would, per State of Illinois law, have to serve the public interest," LaMont wrote. "Additionally, consideration must be given to the project site, zoning, traffic and parking, the existing condition of the building, construction schedule, and financial strength of the developer. ... Any concept must provide the county with substantial cost savings while providing for the possible expansion of current medical services in its long-range master plan."

Suffredin, for one, said he won't be discouraged. He's still optimistic about Cook County Hospital's prognosis.

"It's a matter of playing bluff with them," Suffredin said in an interview Monday. "They haven't provided developers with any guidelines they agreed to give. Now it's a question of holding them to this. In the meantime, unfortunately, it's game-playing. It's my belief that they will hang themselves on this and then we will get this building redeveloped."

Bahlman took a less serene view. Early Tuesday afternoon he was composing a "scathing letter" he hoped to have in the mail on its way to LaMont by the end of the day.

"We are absolutely furious," Bahlman said. "This is a scandalous act. Basically, they've switched horses midstream. It's a violation of the public trust. I mean, this is a public scandal, for them to have led developers down the garden path and then issued this letter [by LaMont] and decided not to put out an RFP. This letter is so stupid and so flies in the face of the public trust."

Michael Moran, vice president of Preservation Chicago, echoed Bahlman's anger.

"They never followed their own resolution," Moran said. "They're taking bids for demolition, and obviously they're not going to take reuse proposals seriously. It's an insult to developers who put their time into this effort and to the taxpayers who pay the county's bills. It's yet another example of mismanagement by the Cook County Board."

According to Bahlman, would-be developers are beginning to throw up their hands.

"And now they're just stonewalling," Bahlman said. "Because of their inability to do what they promised to do, they are turning developers away. It's unlike anything I've ever seen before."
Lichterman couldn't be reached for comment, but in his Oct. 13 letter to Stroger, he admitted to some uncertainty.

"Now that we have waited two and a half months and you have decided not to issue an RFP, I will immediately start to put the proposal together," Lichterman said. "Please call me at your earliest convenience to advise if you will entertain the proposal so that I can proceed."

Moran blamed Stroger for what he called the county administration's broken faith.

"We're talking about a man who would take a legendary hospital and name it after himself," Moran said. "It's clear that Stroger never intended to keep his word. This kind of behavior is very disturbing. They're acting in a deceitful manner--they're trying to count the public hearing in July as the public hearing on the reuse proposals. It most certainly was not."

A spokesman for Stroger could not be reached as this paper went to print.

Once more, Moran begged Mayor Daley to get involved. So far, the mayor has avoided the furor over Cook County Hospital.

"We have long appealed to Daley to step in," Moran said. "Once again, Mayor Daley is allowing John Stroger to damage our city. How can Mayor Daley let Stroger do this?

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