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Right where Rahm doesn't want to be

Preservationists fighting to save the Prentice hospital building put Mayor Emanuel in a bind


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I've got to give some credit to the preservationists of Chicago: the relatively cloutless crew of architecture buffs has put Mayor Emanuel in a bind.

At issue is the fate of the old Prentice Women's Hospital at 333 E. Superior, which has been vacant since last year. A new hospital building opened a few blocks away in 2007.

For the last several years, officials from Northwestern University, which owns the old building, have insisted they absolutely, positively have to tear it down in order to make way for a research facility. They say it will create 2,000 jobs and bring in hundreds of millions of federal research dollars. "We want to build medical research labs to attack diseases that are costing society millions of dollars—cancer, heart disease, and children's diseases," says Al Cubbage, Northwestern's chief press spokesman.

Financing the project won't be a problem, says Cubbage: "We have the money. There's no question about that. Northwestern University has an endowment of $7 billion. That's billion with a b."

According to Cubbage, Northwestern can get the project under way as soon as the city grants it a permit to demolish Prentice.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel would typically operate the wrecking ball himself for a project of this magnitude, but Northwestern's not looking to knock down just any old building. Prentice was designed by Bertrand Goldberg—best known for the Marina City corncob towers—and has a unique and instantly recognizable cloverleaf look.

If the mayor and his aides were serious about promoting Chicago as a true world-class city—and wasn't that why we endured the whole NATO spectacle?—buildings like Prentice should be promoted, not destroyed.

"It's a groundbreaking design," says Christina Morris, a program officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "It's one of a kind."

There's also the larger environmental issue of sustainability. The building is only 37 years old. Are we so rich that we can afford to discard and demolish great buildings after less than 40 years?

For the last several years, members of the National Trust, Preservation Chicago, and Landmarks Illinois have pleaded with the city to landmark Prentice, which would prevent Northwestern from demolishing it. "At the very least, it deserves its day in court," says Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

He means that the issue should go before the city's Commission on Chicago Landmarks, a body of mayoral appointees that's suppposed to decide which historic buildings deserve protection from demolition crews.

Last year, the commission was set to hold a hearing on landmarking Prentice. But the matter was tabled to give Northwestern and the preservationists time to work out some sort of compromise. Obviously, that hasn't happened.

According to Cubbage, the city has to choose between saving a building and joining Northwestern in an important medical mission: "I know I sound like a PR guy—but we're trying to save lives with this research facility. This is not a shopping mall we want to build."

That, counters Fine, is "hyperbole." "This is not an either/or thing—like it's either have the cancer research or save the building. There are other options."

And so goes the back and forth.

The preservationists say the university should put its research lab in the Prentice building. But Cubbage says they can't because Prentice is too small for what they want to build.

So the preservationists say the university should readapt Prentice for something else–dorms, a hotel, offices—and build the research lab somewhere else. Like the huge vacant lot across the street, which once housed a VA hospital.

But Cubbage says Northwestern officials don't want to do something else with Prentice—they just want to tear it down. "We're not in the hotel business," he says.

Moreover, he says they can't build on the lot across the street because they don't own it—Northwestern Memorial Hospital does. Cubbage says the hospital is "a separate entity" with its own board of directors, even though it's a teaching hospital affiliated with Northwestern's medical school. "You can't build on land you don't own," Cubbage says.

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