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Emanuel throws support to Prentice Hospital demolition

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital Chicago.  |  Kiichiro Sato~AP

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. | Kiichiro Sato~AP

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Updated: December 1, 2012 4:40PM

Choosing jobs over architecture, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has decided to let Northwestern University tear down the old Prentice Women’s Hospital to make way for a massive center for biomedical research.

Emanuel chose sides in 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 two weeks after downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) took the lead.

In a statement, Emanuel declared that 2,500 construction jobs, 2,000 full-time jobs and an estimated economic impact of $400 million was simply too much to pass up.

“After many conversations with Northwestern, the architectural community and local residential groups, I have decided to support Northwestern University’s choice to build a groundbreaking medical research facility on the site of the old Prentice Hospital,” the mayor said in the statement.

“Chicago is a city with numerous strengths and we are a city with a history of making tough choices to build a brighter future for our city and its residents. My support comes with the requirement that Northwestern include a Chicago architect in its design process, adhere to the city’s minority hiring requirements, preserve other historic buildings and ensure public safety around the new building. I believe this is the right path forward, and it will bring thousands of jobs to our city.”

Emanuel expounded on his decision in a Chicago Tribune op-ed, a copy of which was provided to the Sun-Times.

“It is clear that the current building cannot accommodate the groundbreaking research facility that Northwestern needs to build, and I support the decision to rebuild on the site,” the mayor wrote.

“The new center will further drive an emerging scientific research hub in the area that currently sustains 4,000 permanent jobs, attracts more than $300 million in federal funds each year and keeps Chicago as a major center of scientific innovation that will be home to countless discoveries in the future.”

For months, Emanuel has straddled the fence as he sought common ground between preservationists who want to save Goldberg’s unique design and the influential forces of Northwestern, represented by Purpe Strategies, a public affairs firm whose Chicago office is run by Emanuel’s former press secretary, Chris Mather.

But after scores of meetings with local residents and officials on both sides, the mayor apparently reached the same conclusion that Reilly did. There is no common ground.

“A modern research facility requires modern design. Just as the former Prentice Women’s Hospital was on the cutting edge when it was built nearly 40 years ago, this new chapter for the site will continue in that tradition,” the mayor wrote.

In choosing sides, Emanuel acknowledged the controversy that has surrounded the future of Prentice Women’s Hospital at 333 E. Superior. The building opened in 1975 and has been mostly vacant since 2007.

“I know not everyone will agree with my viewpoint on this,” the mayor wrote. “I appreciate the position of the preservationists and their passion. I understand that Chicago’s architectural heritage is part of the city’s magnetic pull and a critical piece of what makes Chicago a world-class city. But I also know that Bertrand Goldberg’s vision is alive in Chicago beyond one building.”

“We see his legacy towering over the Chicago River in Marina City. We see it in the Raymond Hilliard Homes, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and protected since 1997.”

In a statement from Northwestern, Eugene Sunshine, the school’s senior vice president for business and finance, said the school is pleased with the decision and will hold a design competition for the biomedical research facility starting in 2013. “The new building on the Prentice site would be connected on a floor-by-floor basis with the existing university research building just to the west of the site,” thereby increasing staff interaction that will lead to breakthrough cures, Sunshine said.

Reilly welcomed the mayor’s decision to join him out on the limb, but he didn’t relish it. “I’m not happy about this set of circumstances generally. It’s a sad day that we have to announce that old Prentice can’t be saved. It’s bittersweet,” Reilly said.

The alderman said he’s not surprised that Emanuel reached the same conclusion he did.

“I spent the past year meeting with preservationists, architects, community residents and others to listen and understand their opinions and determine whether the building could be saved while also advancing the university’s mission to build a world-class research facility. At the end of the day, it proved to be impossible,” the alderman said.

“The mayor had to go through his own process, just like I did. We both carefully studied the issue and ultimately arrived at the same conclusion.”

Earlier this month, Reilly said he was inclined to support demolition because a “re-use” study by preservationists suggested only three alternatives — a dormitory, a hotel and a research lab — and all three fell fall short of Northwestern’s need to “operate a world-class research facility” that creates thousands of jobs.

“I’m a huge fan on 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.”

The Save Prentice Coalition responded to the mayor’s decision by calling Prentice “a landmark by any measure” that “deserves a permanent place” in Chicago’s skyline.

“Northwestern says it can only conduct important medical research and create jobs by tearing down Prentice. Apparently, Mayor Emanuel finds this argument persuasive. We do not,” the coalition statement said.

The coalition noted that Northwestern owns 25 acres of property in Streeterville and that Prentice covers just one acre or 4 percent of the university’s portfolio of downtown real estate.

“From the beginning, Northwestern has presented a false choice between research and re-use in support of a flawed process and a bad decision for Chicago,” the coalition said.

“The truth is, we can have cutting-edge research and preserve our history. Options for re-using Prentice exist and would create more jobs than new construction, but Northwestern has refused even to consider these alternatives.”

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