Northwestern University lays out argument for tearing down old hospital
08/22/2012 10:00 PM
While inching forward with its plan to build a new facility at the site of Prentice Women’s Hospital, Northwestern University has so far employed a subtle strategy of stick and move.
When preservationists looking to save the 36-year-old Prentice submitted a three-pronged reuse study for the building at a public forum in May 2011, the school — which now owns the property at 333 E. Superior, where the vacant Prentice stands — politely declined the proposals, citing “irresolvable problems,” before stepping away from the discussion for the better part of a year.
But the push for a rehab project at Prentice continues to linger. An alliance of architectural advocacy groups recently renewed its appeal for the city to consider a landmark designation for the building, while a growing number of individual architects have signed on to letters in favor of preserving the unique building, designed by Marina City architect Bertrand Goldberg.
Whether prompted by this outcry or moving forward on its own accord, Northwestern has answered in kind.
In what might be considered their first PR effort regarding the debate over Prentice, the university recently laid its reasoning for why it needs the new facility. Chief among those points are promises that the building will bring revenue — “approximately $3.9 billion over [a] decade,” according to the school — and jobs to the city through a construction project and the government funding that would follow.
Not the case, said Northwestern, if the honeycomb towers of Prentice are allowed to stand.
“A proposal to make old Prentice Women’s Hospital a Chicago landmark now threatens to prevent the University from building a new facility that would bring hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research funds,” said Northwestern in a statement that appeared on the school’s site last week. “That would in turn thwart the creation of thousands of jobs and obstruct lifesaving medical science.”
The university said that tearing down the “hopelessly outdated” hospital will make room for a medical research building that could eventually span approximately 1.2 million square feet. Pending city approvals, build out on the new facility may begin in 2015, and would connect the building “floor by floor” to the existing Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center located next door.
“Most importantly,” Northwestern concluded, the new facility will allow the university’s scientists “to continue doing groundbreaking research into the causes and cures for such things as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, diseases that kill thousands and cost society millions of dollars.”
The campaign, dubbed “Finding Tomorrow’s Cures,” is something or a revelation, as it does shed some light on Northwestern’s intentions for the new facility, at least in terms of its dimensions. The school also recently stated that it will hold a design competition to determine the architect for the project.
But Prentice supporters aren’t impressed.
“There are no land-use plans, renderings, massing studies, environmental impact analyses, traffic and parking studies, financing plans, etc.,” stated the Save Prentice coalition in a release last week.
The coalition, led by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and backed by the city’s two preservation groups, Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago, lambasted Northwestern’s for “offering a false choice” for the city regarding the future of Prentice.
“Northwestern wants us to believe that Chicago needs to choose between saving lives and saving Prentice,” the release read. “We can and should do both.”
Architectural critic Lynn Becker also condemned Northwestern for the university’s “desperate” attempt to sway public opinion.
“Demolishing Prentice has become the answer to every problem, the fulcrum on which the entire future of the Northwestern campus rests in the balance between a glorious future and complete disintegration,” Becker wrote.
Preservationists have previously called on the city to demand a vetted plan for the site before Northwestern be allowed to demolish and build.
That, said Northwestern’s Eugene Sunshine, would be putting the cart before the horse.
“I think it’s largely a matter of spending a large amount of resources before you know that you’re going to be able to build the building,” said Sunshine, who serves as the university’s senior vice president for business and finance.
The recent “stepped up effort” to elucidate its plans for the site was not necessarily an indicator that the Northwestern is planning to make its move, Sunshine said, though he maintained that the university still looks at the Prentice property as the key to its future as an institution.
“We believe that the only thing holding us back is space,” he said.