The landmarks commission stages a Prentice do-over, with the same result

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  • Deanna Isaacs
  • NU's Eugene Sunshine and commissioners after the vote
The hero of the Prentice Hospital saga wasn't there on Thursday, when the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted once again to take back the landmark designation it had given—and rescinded—in a single day last November.

And since he wasn't there, the vote was unanimous.

Clear as the rubber stamp slapped on a mayoral order.

So that's one huge obstacle out of the way for Northwestern University, which owns the 38-year-old Bertrand Goldberg-designed structure, and wants to destroy it, immediately.

The Prentice hospital building combines a rectangular glass-and-steel Miesian base with a quartet of fat, cylindrical concrete towers perched on that base like a barely anchored space ship. It's—take your pick—an icon or an eyesore.

Northwestern wants to take it down in order to build a medical research center on the site. Local preservation groups and more than 80 architects from all over the world have lobbied to save it, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation sued the city and the commission, arguing that they'd violated the city's landmarks ordinance in the November proceedings.

The vote do-over was aimed at Cook County Circuit Court judge Neil H. Cohen. Last month he dismissed the National Trust's case, but gave preservationists a 30-day period to amend their suit to include constitutional due-process issues like advance notice and a chance for the public to voice its opinion. The next court date is February 15.

The city's clearly hoping that this week's proceedings will satisfy the judge.

At yesterday's meeting the Department of Housing and Economic Development presented a revised report on Prentice that referenced but dismissed various reuse proposals. The four-hour session also included speeches by anyone who wanted to talk—for three minutes or less. More than 40 people did.

Northwestern University vice president Eugene Sunshine and other NU officials insisted that the Prentice site is the linchpin for a medical research and patient-care complex that has now been bumped up to a $1 billion total investment.

That billion-dollar carrot is "totally contingent" on the use of the Prentice land, Sunshine said.

He also termed the reuse proposals offered by preservationists "deeply flawed," and said the university doesn't have access to any other land nearby (like the sprawling former VA hospital site across the street from Prentice, owned by NU's sister institution, Northwestern Memorial Hospital).

In any case, Sunshine said, the research center must have "cheek-to-jowl connectivity" with the existing research building just west of Prentice, so that scientists can have those elbow bumps in the hallways that are the wellspring of new discovery.

"And what would happen if Prentice were landmarked?" asked one commissioner.

"We don't really have an alternative," Sunshine replied. "The opportunity for discoveries, for the federal funds and the jobs would not materialize."

Preservation proponents included an economist whose study says reuse could generate even greater economic impact; multiple architects with plans they say meet NU's specifications; and several speakers who advised that, in the absence of any actual building plans from Northwestern, "this matter, at a minimum, needs to be deferred."

Among them:

Designer Todd Schwebel "Please do not shame us. Slippery process sends a negative message to people considering doing business in our city."

Architect and author Ward Miller "This is a Garrick [Theater] moment, a Stock Exchange moment. Don't make that mistake 40 and 50 years later."

Real estate developer Adam Natenshon To those who say Prentice is dispensable "because we have other Goldberg works, like River City and Marina Towers, imagine that logic applied to Shakespeare—'We have King Lear, we have Othello, who needs Hamlet?'"

And in Northwestern's corner:

Mable Buckner-Payton, president of the Streeterville Chamber of Commerce "We can't afford to lose the momentum of Northwestern in the development of its Chicago medical campus."

Architect Jeff Case of Holabird & Root "Prentice has already outlived its useful life. 333 E. Superior will not be missed."

Dennis Mahoney of the Chicago Building Trades Council "Northwestern's plan will bring $400 million in economic impact [annually]. This is the right decision for the city's workers."

Many pro-preservation speakers pointed to what they see as the elephant in the room: NU's strategy of forcing the city to make a choice between the destruction of Prentice on the one hand and a new medical research facility on the other, as if there weren't any other possible solution.

That position was on view in a full-page ad in Thursday's Chicago Tribune headlined, "If We Act Today, the Cures of Tomorrow Could Be Discovered in Chicago."

In other words, once again: Save Prentice or save lives.

Real estate broker Joe Houlihan called it Northwestern's "false dichotomy."

Natenshon characterized it as "a great fraud."

Architect Dave Urschel of Loebl Schlossman & Hackl said it was his team's "greatest disappointment," since "there is no one who believes that Northwestern would not come up with another plan" to build the research facility in Streeterville, where the Northwestern family of institutions owns 44 percent of the property.

And it did cause some of the commissioners a little discomfort. When the time came for a roll-call vote, James M. Houlihan, the first one up, felt obliged to make a prefatory statement.

"We've been put in a very difficult position," Houlihan said, "with this suspicion that Northwestern has placed before us a false question."

Then he voted, "with some reluctance," in favor of dumping the landmark designation.

Just as he had before.

As did the other seven commissioners who were present.

Houlihan said he felt he had to cast that vote.

But in November, one commissioner listened to Northwestern's argument and voted his own mind. That was Roosevelt University professor emeritus Christopher Reed, the single dissenter on the original decision to rescind landmark status.

Reed said at the time that he believed Northwestern was making "specious" arguments.

At the beginning of Thursday's meeting, landmarks chairman Rafael M. Leon announced that two commissioners had resigned at the end of 2012. The mayor has honored one of them, John Baird, by making him a commission member emeritus, Leon said.

The other was Reed. Leon didn't mention any mayoral reward for him.

But when history looks at the saga of the Prentice building, my bet is that Reed will be the hero.

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