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"Whose idea was this?"

A judge's dismissal of the Prentice preservationists' case leaves a window open.

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The latest round in the battle to save Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital was a hearing before Judge Neil H. Cohen last Friday that had me thinking it's too bad TruTV hasn't hit Cook County courtrooms yet.

Cohen is a guy you might have heard of when he officiated at the wedding of Valerie Jarrett's daughter last summer, with POTUS in attendance. Or maybe last fall, when he told DePaul law students trying to sue the school for misleading them about job opportunities to "quit whining" about it.

Of course, this is Chicago, so things are always, you know, complicated.

In the Prentice case, you may have heard that Cohen gave preservationists 30 days to amend their lawsuit against the city and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

He did.

Or you may have heard that he sided with the city and dumped the preservationists' suit.

He did that too.

Both sides stumbled out of the nearly two-hour hearing at the Daley Center claiming to be pleased as punch, in spite of the fact that they'd each been used as a punching bag.

And Northwestern University—which isn't named in the lawsuit but owns Prentice and wants to tear it down—had to keep its prewritten posthearing comments in its neatly tailored vest pocket.

At issue was a motion by the city to dismiss the lawsuit filed in November by Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The preservationists sued after the commission, in an unprecedented burst of bureaucratic efficiency, granted Prentice preliminary landmark designation and then rescinded it in a single afternoon.

By a remarkable coincidence, this happened just days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that after careful consideration (and apparently several meetings with Northwestern), it was his opinion that Prentice should come down.

In their suit the preservationists claim that the commission violated its own procedures by acting so abruptly, exceeded its authority, and denied the public a full airing of the issues.

They asked the court to reinstate Prentice's landmark designation and force the commission to go through its usual, more measured process.

At Friday's hearing it looked like the judge found a lot there to agree with.

When assistant corporation counsel Mardell Nereim attempted to argue that the commission's whiz-bang proceedings had been perfectly transparent and legal, Cohen hammered her with a barrage of clearly antagonistic questions:

"There's a process that has to be followed, right?"

"What happens when you violate your own rules?"

"Why did you go this way?"

"Whose idea was this?"

"Did you violate your own rule, yes or no?"

Noting that a planning report that's supposed to be triggered after a preliminary landmark designation is passed had "miraculously" been prepared before the designation, Cohen advised Nereim that "you can rescind [landmark status], but you've got to go there through the process." You can't "ambush people." ("They had 60 days but did it in six minutes," he would later say.)

It looked like she was dead meat.

Then, suddenly, almost as if Cohen were just thinking aloud, came this: If you are going to rescind, "give notice, give hearing, it is called due process." But, he noted, the preservationists had "not alleged as one of their counts that it was a violation of due process. "

Whoops.

According to a previous state supreme court ruling, said Cohen, he can't deal with failures of the commission to follow its own rules unless they violate the constitution.

In his turn before the bench, preservationists' attorney Martin Sinclair raised another point neglected by the city—namely, that Northwestern's often-stated intention to tear Prentice down implies that the university is opposed to landmark designation, which should have triggered the stipulated procedures for notification and public hearing.

Which would seem to make the city's call for dismissal moot.

But in the end Cohen found the plaintiffs' complaint "lacking" and his own hands tied.

"I find that the amount of time and manner in which notice was given with regard to the rescission was arbitrary and not transparent, but there's nothing I can do about that. There isn't a due process claim here." Since one wasn't raised, he said, he would grant the motion to dismiss but would also give the trust 30 days to amend its complaint.

He set the next court date for Friday, February 15. In the meantime, his injunction preventing Northwestern from dropping the wrecking ball remains in effect.

The preservationists are looking into their options, including amending the suit or appealing Cohen's ruling. They also continue to hope that Northwestern will take a look at reuse options like those proposed in a recent Chicago Architecture Club competition and showcased at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

In the run-up to this hearing, they put on their own dog-and-pony show January 3, presenting a new economic impact report that makes a case Northwestern has attempted to ignore: there could be potentially even greater economic benefits if Prentice is revamped. BauerLatoza Studio architect and former landmarks commission member Edward Torrez offered a design by his firm that he says meets Northwestern's specifications while "embracing" Prentice with a million-square-foot lab facility.

"We're just asking, are there any creative ideas out there before we decide this building has to be demolished?" Torrez said. "Have we looked at all the options?"

Good luck with that.

In the hall outside Cohen's courtroom after the hearing, Northwestern University spokesman Alan Cubbage reiterated that the university's plan is "to build a new building on that site as soon as we can. We want a building designed for our purpose rather than a retrofit."

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