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Chicago landmarks commission again rejects protection for Prentice

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: March 10, 2013 6:32AM

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks, taking up the controversial fate of the former Prentice Women’s Hospital a second time, voted Thursday to reject landmark protection for the building.

The panel, which advises the City Council on landmark issues, voted unanimously to back Northwestern University’s plan to demolish the Streeterville building to make way for a medical research complex. Northwestern owns the structure at 333 E. Superior, the work of famous Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg.

The vote occurred after a three-and-a-half hour hearing featuring testimony by 47 people, most of them opposed to the demolition. The outcome was identical to that of a November hearing by the commission.

A lawsuit charged that the mayoral-appointed commission violated its own rules during that first hearing, so it scheduled another vote. The hearing provided a forum for public comment in response to charges that the first vote was rushed.

The commission sided with the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has said the economic and humanitarian promises of Northwestern’s medical research project are more important than saving Prentice. Preservationists argued the aims aren’t exclusive and that Northwestern could incorporate the 1975 building into its plans.

After the vote, Eugene Sunshine, Northwestern’s senior vice president for business and finance, said the school will confer with the city about when to seek a demolition permit. He said the school settled on its course only after lengthy talks with Prentice’s neighbors and preservationists, including numerous prominent architects.

“We spent an enormous amount of time with people in the community,” he said. “We love architects. We need architects” to fulfill the school’s plans.

Northwestern has promised to open a design competition for Prentice’s replacement. Andrew Mooney, the city’s commissioner of housing and economic development, said Northwestern has pledged to begin excavating the property in 2015.

The commission’s decision was no surprise, but two of its members expressed reservations about siding with Northwestern.

One was James Houlihan, former Cook County assessor, who said at the hearing, “I have a suspicion that Northwestern has placed before us a false question” about saving Prentice or supporting life-saving research. In an interview, he backtracked on that comment, saying Prentice “was a difficult choice. The city did everything it could and it’s a difficult decision.”

While the pro-Prentice side offered alternative plans, city officials and Northwestern said they were unworkable. But that didn’t convince most people who testified.

Some referred to Chicago’s record of demolishing buildings of architectural note. “We cannot afford a reputation as a city where the fix is in regardless of process,” one man said.

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