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A choice: Save Prentice or save lives, add jobs and research dollars

The former Prentice Women's Hospital Streeterville.  |  Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

The former Prentice Women's Hospital in Streeterville. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 7, 2012 8:05AM

Some advocates for the cause of landmarking the original Prentice Women’s Hospital have rejected Northwestern University’s strong case for constructing a state-of-the-art biomedical research facility on the site of the abandoned building.

The dismissive tone of these critics reflects a one-sided selection of the facts and misinformation in some cases, as well as a reluctance to acknowledge the significant community benefits of a new research facility, the university’s plan for its property and overwhelming public support.

A recent poll shows that 72 percent of Chicago residents support Northwestern’s plans to build a new research center on the site of the original Prentice Hospital. After hearing arguments from both sides, the amount of support remained unchanged at 72 percent, with nearly half, 34 percent, strongly in favor.

Chicago will benefit from the new research center with thousands of new jobs, millions of dollars in new federal research grants and billions of dollars in economic development for the city over the next decade. But none of this will occur unless Northwestern is allowed to build on the site.

The university’s long-range plans call for a series of interconnected buildings on the block where the vacant Prentice Hospital stands. The buildings will incorporate the critical feature of adjacency in order to bring researchers together and thereby enhance the chances of finding breakthroughs in cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders, among others.

Preservationists argue the university can build the new research building somewhere else.

Wrong. The university doesn’t own other nearby land that can be integrated into its plans to expand its world-class academic medical research complex that will benefit the community. Northwestern Memorial Hospital owns the land directly south of the Prentice site and is a separate entity committed to using that land for future patient care. The university strongly supports those plans.

The site where the original Prentice stands is precisely where the university needs its research to happen. The new building will support the crucial ability of researchers to have physical proximity to their colleagues, which is essential to their collaboration and creativity. New cutting-edge buildings connected floor-by-floor will enhance interdisciplinary research, leading to greater opportunities for discovery.

Preservationists also say the university could convert the original Prentice building for other uses, such as for hotel, office or residential space.

Wrong. The university doesn’t need more office or residential space. Its mission is finding cures, improving human health and pushing the boundaries of biomedical research — not operating hotels or developing condos or offices.

Claims that the building can be converted to serve research needs also are simply not accurate. The original Prentice building’s floors cannot support the weight of today’s research equipment, and the vibration from use would not allow researchers to operate sensitive instruments. In short, the existing building cannot be renovated to provide biomedical research space.

To attract the best scientists in the world, research space has to be state-of-the-art in its configuration. Without those researchers, the university would lose millions of dollars and be unable to find tomorrow’s cures, which benefit Chicago residents and people around the world.

Further, architects disagree on landmarking the original Prentice building. A large coalition of civic organizations, business groups, labor unions, architects, patient-advocacy groups and others supports the university’s plan to raze this structure and construct a new biomedical research facility in its place.

Chicago has a choice. It can save a building. Or it can save lives, provide thousands of jobs and bring in millions of research dollars.

Eric G. Neilson, M.D., is dean of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs at Northwestern University.

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