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Stroger Pulls Fast One on Hospital, Foes Say
Preservationists Feel Frozen Out

Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Chicago Tribune

Cook County officials, who began accepting proposals Tuesday to tear down the old County Hospital, have yet to supply interested developers with complete specifications for a renovation of the 89-year-old structure.

The perception that the county is moving quickly toward possibly razing the building but at glacial speed toward possible renovation has preservation advocates howling. They charge that County Board President John Stroger's administration hasn't played fair when it comes to deciding what to do with the hospital.

"This has all been a soft-shoe dance in order to deceive us," said County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a leading advocate of rehabilitating the hospital over demolishing it. "They have been trying to wear down these contractors so it is too expensive to come up with a plan. Legitimate bidders will just give up and think it's all a waste of time."

After pleas from preservationists and a cadre of county commissioners, Stroger agreed in July to seek proposals to renovate the building, although he still maintained that the structure should be razed in large part to honor an agreement the county has with the city to turn the hospital property into park land.

Since then, county officials have been traveling down parallel paths -- soliciting proposals to both raze and save the structure. That way, officials have said, county commissioners could review each option and make the better decision about whether to demolish or redevelop the structure.

On Tuesday, a Stroger spokeswoman denied Suffredin's assertions, saying that county officials are simply looking out for the bottom line.

'No intent to discourage'

"There was never any intent to discourage proposals," spokeswoman Caryn Stancik said. "We simply have a responsibility to the taxpayer, and we are not going to move forward unless someone comes forward with a viable proposal. If someone comes through with a proposal that meets all our conditions, we will look at it. Mr. Suffredin should be looking at what responsibility he has to protect the government and serve its future needs."

In an Oct. 10 letter to Michael LaMont, the county's director of capital planning and policy, Suffredin wrote that county officials had made it nearly impossible for developers to submit a viable rehabilitation proposal.

Developers who had expressed interest in the project still had not received complete specifications from the county, Suffredin wrote, adding that the deadline for developers to submit proposals was Oct. 6, which had already passed.

Wants 'realistic timeline'

Suffredin asked for a new "realistic timeline" to be established for the building's possible renovation.

Preservationists, meanwhile, said the fact that county officials managed to advertise for the demolition, but failed to respond fully to developers, proved that Stroger's effort to rehabilitate the structure has been "in bad faith." Thus, Suffredin and preservationists alleged that county officials have been tilting the playing field toward demolition.

"This is an intentional act by the administration to force the intent of the board toward demolition, and I hold the president totally responsible," Suffredin said. "The general public needs to understand that he is just playing games with the public treasury."

David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, a non-profit advocacy group, said it had become clear to him that Stroger's administration had been giving only lip service to preservationists.

'It's all been a ruse'

"Developers are getting the message loud and clear -- the county doesn't really want to renovate this building," Bahlman said. "It's all been a ruse. They just want to tear it down."

In fact, Bahlman wrote a stinging letter on Monday to LaMont, calling the county's process "one of the most arrogant public development actions we have ever witnessed."

In his letter, Bahlman referred to correspondence that LaMont sent to interested developers on Oct. 16 in which LaMont mentioned several times that the county would soon accept bids for the demolition of the hospital. LaMont concluded the letter by warning developers that "any [development] concept must provide the county with substantial cost savings."

Bahlman believes that letter was designed to discourage developers from submitting proposals on the project.

LaMont's letter "reflects an alarming sense of bad faith on the part of a governmental entity whose responsibilities -- we would have hoped -- would have included due process, fiscal accountability and public trust," Bahlman wrote.

Stancik said the letter was intended to give developers a clear picture of what a redevelopment project would entail, including the likelihood of an "enormous" upfront cost to buy the building. She said that only one developer had submitted a proposal to the county, and that proposal will be measured along with the demolition bids. Developers are still free to submit proposals, she said.

"This property belongs to the taxpayers, and if it is sold, it should be sold to the highest bidder, and we wanted to let developers know that criteria," Stancik said. "We held public hearings. We took developers on a tour, and there were extensive conversations with our staff and consultants. We sent out a letter as a guideline to developers...We are just trying to make sure we are protecting the interests of the taxpayers."

Indeed, more than a dozen developers toured the building in August to review its condition. After the tour, some developers expressed great interest in redeveloping the building, saying renovation costs appeared commensurate with the county's estimates for demolition.

Other developers, however, said it seemed that county leaders were so adamantly against redevelopment that it would be a waste of resources to assemble a proposal.

$11.3 million to raze

According to initial demolition bids submitted to the county Tuesday, it would cost at least $11.3 million to raze the structure.

Four companies submitted bids for the demolition: Bradenburg Industrial, $9.7 million; Dore & Associates, $9.9 million; American Demolition, $11.3 million; and National Wrecking, $13.6 million.

Five companies submitted bids for environmental cleanup costs, which is necessary before the building could be demolished or renovated: Cofax, $1.6 million; ETE Joint Venture, $4.2 million; Dore & Associates, $5.3 million; Belush, nearly $5.5 million; and LVI Environmental, nearly $8 million.

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