Prentice denied landmark status

Move sets up former women's hospital for demolition

11/01/2012 9:54 PM


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After months of delays and an intense propaganda ground war, the former Prentice Women’s Hospital building in Streeterville was denied landmark status by the city of Chicago on Thursday — a move that could well doom preservationists’ hopes to save the structure from the wrecking ball.

The decision came at the end of an hours-long meeting of the Chicago Commission on Landmarks. Three hours after voting unanimously to grant the former Prentice Hospital building a preliminary landmark designation, the commission then voted 8-1 to accept the recommendations of Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development commissioner Andrew J. Mooney and rescind their vote.

Emphasizing that the vote wasn’t easy for anyone, commission chairman Rafael M. Leon urged Northwestern University to replace the building with a structure worthy of Chicago’s architectural legacy. Meanwhile, the supporters of the Prentice building’s preservation were left scrambling to figure out their legal options as they look for other ways to stop the demolition.

Normally, the landmark designation process unfolds in several stages. First, the Landmark Commission looks at whether or not the building justifies a landmark designation based on the eight landmarking criteria. If the building satisfies at least two requirements, the committee grants it a preliminary landmark designation. Then, it asks the Department of Housing and Economic Development to assess how the landmark designation would affect the surrounding neighborhood and whether or not it fits into the city development plans. At this point, the commission can modify the landmark designation, decline it altogether or proceed without any changes to the next stage.

But this time, the commission went through the first two stages in a single meeting. After voting unanimously to approve the preliminary landmark designation, it moved immediately to consider Commissioner Mooney’s report. The report, which was prepared before the meeting began, suggested that the commission rescind its designation.

During both stages, the Landmark Commission gave the public an opportunity to comment. The comments were split into two sections. Before the first vote, the speakers were asked to comment on whether or not the Prentice building satisfied four of the eight criteria for landmark designation. Following Commissioner Mooney’s report, the speakers were asked to comment on the impact of the landmark designation on Streeterville as a neighborhood, the Northwestern University campus and Chicago in general.

Northwestern University representatives and members of the Northwestern Hospital system came out in force, arguing that the building has long since outlived its usefulness and that everyone would be much better off with a cutting-edge research facility that would bring jobs and allow the university scientists to make life-changing discoveries. Bruce Corson, president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, argued that the new research center would bring jobs and that the building wasn’t historically significant enough to warrant a designation.

Carol Post, the principal structural engineer at Thornton Tomasseti engineering company, said her company looked at the building’s reuse and found that the building was too sensitive to vibrations to house research equipment, that the light concrete material deteriorates too easily and the building had severe internal damage that would not be easily repaired.

Post didn’t go into any detail about the nature of the damage.

The proponents of the landmark designation emphasized the building’s architectural significance and argued that the building could be reused for some other purpose while the research facility could be built elsewhere. Lisa DiChiera, the Director of Advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, accused the university of refusing to listen to any alternatives.

Shelley Gorson, a member of SOAR, insisted that many of her fellow members saw the building as a welcome presence that broke up a monotony of modern high-rises. She also complained that the neighborhood didn’t have much involvement in planning.

“There has only been one meeting,” said Gorson. “I want you to consider the landmark designation so that we may have a more open, more transparent public process.”

Commissioner Mooney’s report sided with the university, arguing that the benefits of the new research center outweighed the preservation concerns.

After four hours of testimony and nearly six hours after the meeting began, the committee voted to rescind the designation. Christopher Reed was the only committee member to vote against.

“I think [the process] was too short,” he told Skyline. “We should have gone through the full process and listened to the public, had a real discussion.”

Commission Leon sought to emphasize that the decision wasn’t easy.

“This has been a very difficult vote,” he said. “We recognize the importance of preserving Chicago buildings. But at the same time, we must consider the consequences of landmark designation.”

He urged the university to create something worthy of Chicago’s architectural legacy.

“The pressure is on you,” he said. “I urge you not to leave a parking space for a long time. The pressure is on you to create a magnificent building”

In the prepared statement, Eugene Sunshine, Northwestern’s Vice President for Business and Finance, said the university was pleased with the outcome and thanked the commission, Ald. Reilly (42nd) and Mayor Emanuel for their “thoughtful consideration” of the issue.

DiChiera told Skyline that Landmarks Illinois was not willing to give up on the building just yet.

“We are looking at our options,” she said. “We’ll consult with our attorneys and see if we can regroup.”

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