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Ald. Brendan Reilly now inclined to allow Prentice Hospital demolition

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital 333 E Superiorr.  |  John H. White~Sun-Times.

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital, 333 E Superiorr. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: November 17, 2012 6:16AM

With Mayor Rahm Emanuel still ducking the issue, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said Monday he is inclined to let Northwestern University tear down the old Prentice Women’s Hospital to make way for a massive center for biomedical research.

Reilly and Emanuel have both been previously non-commital on the hot-button issue pitting preservationists who want to save the hospital building designed by renowned architect Bertrand Goldberg against the clout-heavy forces of Northwestern.

But the aldermen got off the fence — and did Emanuel a huge favor — during a luncheon address to the City Club of Chicago.

Barring what he called a “eureka moment,” Reilly said he is inclined to allow Prentice to be torn down because a “re-use” study prepared by the preservation community at the alderman’s insistence suggested only three potential uses: a dormitory, a hotel and a research lab.

All three “fell short of what the university needs to operate a world-class research facility that would add thousands of jobs to Chicago,” Reilly said.

“I’ve been trying to work with both parties to see if there is any way possible — any way at all — to get use out of the existing structure that provides an added value to the university and, to date, we have not been able to find a solution to that riddle,” the alderman said.

“Until we do, my inclination, unfortunately, would be to allow the university to proceed with its plans. . .I remain open to suggestions and, believe me, if there’s eureka moment, I’m all ears. The last thing I want to do is take down important architecture in the Central Business District. My track record is living proof.”

Reilly noted that, during his five years as alderman, not a single landmark building has been demolished in his ward. In fact, he’s already saved one building — the former Lakeshore Athletic Club at 850 N. Lake Shore Drive — from Northwestern’s wrecking ball.

But with 2,500 construction jobs, 2,000 full-time jobs and an estimated economic impact of $400 million hanging in the balance, Reilly said it’s time to reluctantly take a stand.

“Look, I’m a huge fan of Goldberg’s work. I’ve been trying for two years now to get Marina City landmarked. It’s not something I’m excited or happy about. And I’m very, very sensitive to the preservation community’s concerns,” he said.

“But you can’t saddle a university with land that’s not useful to it. If they were interested in selling that parcel, then a hotel use or dormitory-residential use might make sense. But they’ve made it clear they need that land proximate to its other medical facilities in order for it to be a truly world-class facility. That’s been the challenge that we haven’t been able to overcome.”

Now that Reilly is out-front on the issue, Emanuel is off the hook. The alderman — not the mayor — can take the brunt of the heat from preservationists.

The Save Prentice Coalition issued a statement that chose to view the glass as half-full.

“Ald. Reilly said he was open to a creative solution and ‘open to all ideas’ — and we applaud him for that. That’s the kind of openness to creative solutions that Northwestern has refused to consider, even though their 25 acres of Streeterville property give them plenty of options. And Prentice re-use would generate additional jobs and economic activity,” the statement said.

“Prentice is like Chicago — bold, distinctive, pioneering, and one of a kind. It is a true Chicago landmark. We look forward to the building coming before the Landmarks Commission this fall, as the city has committed to.”

Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage responded to Reilly’s comments by saying, “We haven’t talked recently with Ald. Reilly about Northwestern’s plans for the new biomedical research facility on that site. But we very much are looking forward to having the opportunity to do so.”

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 sq. ft. of new space. The university continues to saturate the airwaves with commercials making the argument for demolition.

More than 3,500 people, including prominent Chicago architects and preservationists, have signed petitions urging Emanuel, Reilly and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to save the building.

Last month, Cubbage responded to Emanuel’s call for common ground by essentially saying there is none.

“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.

Christina Morris, from the office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has accused Northwestern of presenting a “false choice between research and preservation” when “both are possible.”

Given the land options, the university’s determination to tear down Prentice speaks more of stubbornness than common sense, Morris has said.

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