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Judge sides with city on destruction of Prentice Hospital

The old Prentice Women's Hospital building 333 E. Superior Street Chicago Sunday October 28 2012.  I John H. White~Sun-Times

The old Prentice Women's Hospital building, 333 E. Superior Street in Chicago, Sunday, October 28, 2012. I John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 13, 2013 6:08AM

Preservationists Friday lost a round in their battle to keep Northwestern University from tearing down the old Prentice Women’s Hospital, but got leeway from a Cook County judge to file an amended suit over the city’s refusal to give the building landmark protection.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neil Cohen refused to overturn a decision by Chicago officials to withhold landmark protection from the Streeterville building. But Cohen left in place for another 30 days an order barring its destruction.

The extension will give the National Trust for Historic Preservation time to file an amended complaint about the city’s action.

Cohen said he has no power to overrule the city’s action unless it violates constitutional rights. Preservationists can make an argument on that basis, and Cohen scheduled a status hearing for Feb. 15.

“This is not over,” said Michael Rachlis, an attorney for the trust. He said the group will consider an appeal of Cohen’s ruling.

The litigation has been a tactic for leverage. Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago, working with the trust, want to engage Northwestern in talks over the building’s fate. Northwestern wants to replace the 1975 clover-leaf building, which is deteriorated but in its time was an innovation in approach and engineering by Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, who designed Marina City.

The school wants to put medical research labs on the Prentice site at 333 E. Superior, a project that it says will bring $390 million a year in economic activity and create 2,000 permanent jobs.

In a statement praising the ruling, Eugene Sunshine, Northwestern’s senior vice president for business and finance, said, “The new building on the Prentice site will be connected on a floor-by-floor basis with the existing university research building just to the west of the site. Doing so will bring researchers together and thereby enhance the chances of finding breakthroughs in cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders, among others.

“The site is the linchpin for what will be a major new medical research hub.”

The trust and local groups argued that the Commission on Chicago Landmarks broke its own rules Nov. 1, when it used a sped-up process to do two things with Prentice in one afternoon. First, the commission ruled Prentice merited consideration as a landmark. Then it rescinded the vote it just took upon receiving a city report attesting to the economic value of Northwestern’s construction plans.

The commission advises the City Council on landmarking properties. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appoints the commission, came out in favor of Northwestern’s plan just two days before the vote.

Cohen was openly critical of the commission’s procedure, calling it “arbitrary and non-transparent.” City ordinance requires a separate public hearing whenever a property owner objects to landmark designation, but no such hearing was held.

In dialogue with city lawyers, Cohen said the more deliberate process in the ordinance is spelled out for the sake of “giving people a chance to opine on things and, more importantly, not ambush people.”

Despite his criticism, Cohen held that he had no power to nullify the agency’s decision over a rules violation. He said that in 1988 the Illinois Supreme Court held that actions of a legislative body can’t be overturned on that basis.

Attorneys for the preservationists argued that the landmarks panel is an administrative agency and does not legislate. But Cohen, calling that a “distinction without a difference,” said its role is legislative because the commission is an extension of the City Council.

The 1988 case also was a Chicago preservation issue. Groups sued the City Council for rescinding landmark protection for the McCarthy Building, a five-story structure that stood at the northeast corner of Dearborn and Washington. Built in 1872, it was removed to make way for the Block 37 project.

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