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Mayor not picking sides in Prentice hospital showdown

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

The old Prentice Women's Hospital building, 333 E Superior Street, in Chicago. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: October 27, 2012 6:19AM

With a showdown vote looming as early as next week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel punted Tuesday when asked to choose between saving Prentice Women’s Hospital and tearing it down to make way for a center for a biomedical research center.

Instead of choosing between the clout-heavy forces of Northwestern University and preservationists who want to save the hospital building designed by renowned architect Bertrand Goldberg, Emanuel talked about finding common ground.

The mayor said he met last week with Streeterville residents, leaders of the Streeterville Organization for Active Residents (SOAR), the local chamber of commerce and Michigan Avenue merchants.

Friday’s meeting “completed the conversations I’ve had with architects and also with Northwestern [University] and Northwestern Hospital,” Emanuel said.

“I’ve taken the recommendations of the neighborhood back to Northwestern and to the architects. It is part of a conversation that [needs to take place]. I want to see all the parties work together,” Emanuel said.

“I thought the neighborhood individuals and organizations had good recommendations that I will now take to Northwestern as well as to the architects and see if they can be addressing those.”

The mayor did not explain how it would be possible to strike a balance between two sides diametrically opposed.

Northwestern is determined to demolish the building at 333 E. Superior to make way for a biomedical research facility with as much as 500,000 square feet of new space.

More than 3,500 people, including prominent Chicago architects and preservationists, have signed petitions urging Emanuel, local Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to save the building.

A decision on whether to grant landmark status could come as early as Oct. 4, when the Landmarks Commission is scheduled to meet again.

Christina Morris from the office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, accused Emanuel of meeting, only with those SOAR representatives who support demolition.

“It’s well-known that SOAR is divided on this issue. If the mayor has met with a full cross-section of SOAR’s membership, he knows that many SOAR members support landmarking Prentice. The Save Prentice coalition was not included in these recent meetings, but we would welcome the opportunity to meet with the mayor and discuss how the building qualifies for landmarking under the city’s ordinance,” Morris said in an e-mail to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Northwestern continues to present a false choice between research and preservation. We know both are possible.”

Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage said the university has not gotten any feedback from the mayor’s meeting and there’s not much room to maneuver.

“We’ve been very clear for a decade now that our plan is to take down that building and build a new building on that site. What we intend to do is connect it on a floor-by-floor basis with the existing building. It would essentially become one large research complex critical to our plans to have Northwestern University and Chicago be a hub for biomedical research and innovation,” Cubbage said.

“There aren’t any bad guys in this. The question is, what is the greater good for Chicago? We believe very strongly that having a biomedical research facility that does life-saving research into cancer, cardio-vascular disease and Alzheimer’s is a huge benefit to Chicago—not just in terms of 2,500 construction jobs and 2,000 full-time jobs and an economic impact of $400 million. It’s research that saves lives.”

Northwestern has insisted that it conducted a good-faith review of Prentice Hospital’s re-use potential and determined that it cannot be adapted for modern research labs

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has countered with a study of the surrounding properties, many of them owned by Northwestern’s affiliated hospital, to illustrate the large amount of land already available for the medical campus’ expansion.

The biggest example is the roughly two square blocks of emptiness across the street from Prentice, the former site of the Lakeside VA Hospital. Given the land options, the university’s determination to tear down Prentice speaks more of stubbornness than common sense, Morris has said.

Reilly could not be reached for comment. He has not yet taken sides on the controversy surrounding the cloverleaf, cantilevered building designed by the architect better known for Marina City.

Meanwhile, Northwestern continues to saturate the radio airwaves with commercials making the argument for demolition.

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