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Clout and apathy doomed Prentice Women’s Hospital

The CommissiChicago Landmarks agavoted Thursday reject landmark protectifor old Prentice Women’s Hospital.  |  John H. White~Sun-Times

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks again voted Thursday to reject landmark protection for the old Prentice Women’s Hospital. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 1, 2012 4:54PM

Providing landmark protection to a building in Chicago is a weird process that draws on a mix of clout and popular opinion.

Clout as it is applied to landmarks can be justified. Property owners have rights, after all. They are entitled to say if an order that they cannot raze or significantly alter their buildings causes hardship or deprives the city of a greater improvement. The wealthier the landowner, the more they can state their case loudly.

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital, 333 E. Superior, has become a clout vortex. Its owner, Northwestern University, has wanted to demolish it to make way for medical research. Preservationists raised money to fight Northwestern and got renowned architects to attest to the value of Prentice, a cloverleaf design by Bertrand Goldberg.

Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sided with Northwestern and distributed an article saying he supports its demolition. He’s been squirming over this issue for months, because compromise seemed elusive. Either the building gets knocked down or it doesn’t.

The interests on both sides cranked out petitions, but the body politic never bought into the preservation side. A lot of people in the building’s Streeterville neighborhood regard Prentice as ugly and a near blight. People beyond Streeterville don’t see the building and didn’t much care. The mixed feelings gave Emanuel and downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) cover to embrace Northwestern’s plans.

It’s not as if somebody wanted to shut off Buckingham Fountain, wreck the Rookery or turn the Cultural Center into a casino. These sites inspire emotion and admiration in ways that Prentice doesn’t.

So I can’t fault the politicians for their call on this. The fault lies with Northwestern for a failure of imagination. With its affiliated hospital, it owns 25 acres in Streeterville, including two empty blocks across the street from Prentice that could serve medical research needs nicely. Preserving a building, especially one with Prentice’s pedigree, made fiscal sense. The building could have been a showcase — look, we kept something old in this glass-box canyon — for the growing medical campus.

Too bad that Northwestern, which charges more than $43,000 a year for tuition, doesn’t need to be tight with a buck.

The other problem with this whole thing is that it reveals the Commission on Chicago Landmarks as a useless appendage under Emanuel, just like it was under Richard Daley. This is the appointed body that’s supposed to make recommendations on landmarks and, lo and behold, Prentice is on its agenda for its Thursday meeting.

Three sources tell me the commission will do a bureaucratic two-step, following the letter but maybe not the spirit of the city’s landmarks ordinance. It will actually vote to initiate landmark protection for Prentice, then will immediately receive a report from the mayor’s Department of Housing and Economic Development arguing that it shouldn’t be saved in view of the improvement Northwestern promises. The nine-member commission then would vote it stop what it just started, compressing a process that normally lasts months into a single day. Commission Chairman Rafael Leon couldn’t be reached for comment.

It’s highly efficient. Like I said, landmarking is weird.

WOLF POINT: Developers of the three-tower Wolf Point plan at the river near the Holiday Inn and Sun-Times building submitted revised plans for neighborhood review at an open meeting Monday night. The revisions (see images included with this article) called for more and better designed park space, a slight reduction in density and improvements in traffic flow.

Comments at the session were more positive, or at least grudgingly accepting, than they were when the plan made its public debut five months ago. Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said more work is needed before he can formalize his support, but he sounded like he’s almost there.

“It’s a completely different project now. It looks and feels like a park,” he said.

Seventy percent of the three-acre site would be landscaped, but the moneymakers still would be three towers, the tallest being 950 feet. The first phase for this $1 billion proposal is a 525-foot-tall apartment building on the western edge.

The other two buildings are office developments that the economy could defer. Those could take years, leaving the site, one of the oldest settled parts of Chicago, mostly open for a long time.

The developers, including the Kennedy family and Hines Interests LP, agreed to eliminate car and parking access from congested Kinzie Street. They also would fund traffic signals and improvements to existing signals on adjacent streets.

David Roeder reports on real estate at 6:22 p.m. Thursdays on WBBM-AM (780) and WBBM-FM (105.9). The reports are repeated at 10:22 p.m. Thursday and 7:22 a.m. Sunday.

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