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Judge prevents demolition of former Prentice Women’s Hospital — for now

The old Prentice Women's Hospital building 333 E Superior Street Friday May 20 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

The old Prentice Women's Hospital building, 333 E Superior Street, Friday, May 20, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:39PM

A Cook County judge Thursday granted temporary landmark status to Northwestern University’s former Prentice Women’s Hospital and questioned the procedures city officials used to clear the way for the building’s potential demolition.

Judge Neil Cohen, ruling in a lawsuit filed by preservationists, voiced skepticism about an unusual process the Commission on Chicago Landmarks followed in rejecting protection for Prentice. At a Nov. 1 meeting, the commission voted that Prentice merits landmark consideration, and then it voted a second time rescinding that action after receiving a city report explaining Northwestern’s plans to develop the property.

Cohen’s order stays that second vote and leaves the first one intact. It means the city cannot issue a demolition permit while the case is being considered.

“We’re going to do no harm to Prentice while this can be resolved,” Cohen said.

Prentice was designed by the late Bertrand Goldberg, best known for his Marina City Towers. It’s a cloverleaf structure considered pioneering for medical uses when it open in 1975, but today some regard it as an eyesore.

Cohen’s ruling reserves for a later date the fundamental issue in the lawsuit: whether the city followed proper procedures. More than 60 people testified at the Nov. 1 hearing, and by holding two votes in one afternoon, the commission saved itself from a later public hearing where many of the same arguments for and against the building would be heard.

The next hearing in the case for set for Dec. 7. Attorneys for the city said they will file a motion asking that the case be dismissed.

In the meantime, Cohen said he needed to provide a legal “bubble around the building” to protect its integrity. “I’m not trying to prevent Northwestern from using the property as they see fit. … I’m trying to get it right,” he said.

Northwestern, which is not a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Chicago’s landmarks ordinance typically requires a hearing process when property owners object to the designation of their property. During dialogue with attorneys about the commission’s compressed two-vote hearing on the matter, Cohen said, “That’s rather fast isn’t it? Curiously fast, one might say.”

The panel acted two days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel came out in support of tearing down Prentice. Northwestern wants to build medical research labs in place of the building at 333 E. Superior, a project it said would bring economic benefits.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois, two nonprofits, argued that the commission improperly considered the economic effect on Northwestern. They also said the second vote needed a separate public hearing, with notice of it given to the community.

City lawyers pointed to a clause in the landmarks ordinance that allows the commission to receive reports from the city on the practical impact of any of its actions. The commission may then make “such modifications, changes and alterations as it deems necessary,” the ordinance says.

On Thursday, Emanuel said he’s not surprised that preservationists had chosen to continue their long-running battle in court. But the mayor denied that the two-step process orchestrated by his handpicked commission on Chicago Landmarks had denied preservationists their right to due process.

“This was an 18-month discussion as a city. And I understood when we made the decision there would still be people not happy. But, 2,000 high-paying jobs in the health care field — in research where you will get new medicines, new cures to diseases and also new companies that will be spun out of that research — was the reason I went forward,” the mayor said.

“We ran a process over a lengthy period of time. I met individually [with all sides]. The board met and discussed. And they’ve made a decision. It doesn’t come as a surprise,” he said. “But, I do think over the period of time in which it has been discussed, there was a thorough examination of the issues, a thorough examination of peoples’ concerns. And more importantly, an inclusion for the first time by people who both call Streeterville home as residents as well as businesses to make sure their voices were heard in that process.”

Northwestern convinced city officials that despite its extensive land holdings in Streeterville, the Prentice site is the only one suitable for a medical research lab. The economic impact and the school’s promise that the project will generate lifesaving cures outweighed the appeal of preservation, the school said.

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