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CPR for Cook County Hospital

Thursday, January 27, 2005
Chicago Tribune

For the last few years, Cook County Board President John Stroger has nurtured plans to demolish the former Cook County Hospital with the self-assuredness of a farmer who's decided to tear down an old chicken coop.

But wait, some naive county residents might ask, doesn't the county's Board of Commissioners have to approve the demolition of a structure as significant, both historically and architecturally, as the old hospital? Nothing to worry about there folks: Like a well-trained church choir, the commissioners traditionally have sung whatever hymns Stroger has selected. Not by accident is the county's new hospital named for ... him.

About a year ago, though, when plans to demolish the old hospital drew loud criticism from preservationists, architects, former patients and members of the taxpaying public, a majority of the commissioners broke into an unusual chorus: Hell no!

Realizing he didn't have the votes necessary to proceed with the demolition, Stroger was forced to back down, another rare event. Abandoning his intransigence in support of demolition, he promised nine months ago to conduct a "global search" for a consultant who would advise what to do with the old hospital.

Last week, Stroger's global search came up with U.S. Equities Development, a firm right from the neighborhood. It's headed by Robert Wislow, who has strong credentials and a record of political contributions to local Democrats, including Stroger and Mayor Richard Daley.

The County Board's Construction Committee is scheduled to vote on the consulting proposal Monday, followed by a vote of the full board on Tuesday. The commissioners should order up from Wislow a redevelopment plan for the hospital campus. It's essential to figure out what to do with the old hospital and the surrounding buildings, such as the children's hospital and the power plant.

But approval should be contingent on strict deadlines that will prevent the consulting phase from turning into an open-ended exercise. Commissioners ought to be involved in approving all the major elements of any redevelopment plans, not just the general concepts.

Wislow and real estate entrepreneur Elzie Higginbottom were co-owners of 69 West Washington Management, a firm that was sharply criticized for failing to have proper evacuation and other emergency procedures in place when an October 2003 fire broke out at that building and killed six people.

Despite that episode, U.S. Equities appears qualified to carry out the $1.4 million consulting project, funded with money formerly earmarked for demolition. Wislow's firm was involved in the construction of the new Stroger Hospital, among other major projects. His task now is to map out a master plan for the campus.

Doubts linger--among preservationists and county commissioners alike--about whether Stroger will abide by the consultant's proposals or if this exercise will be but another sly detour on the way to demolition. It will be a double insult to taxpayers if Stroger ignores the consulting study or uses it as a $1.4 million fig leaf allowing him to claim that all options were considered and demolition is the only solution.

Indeed the official description of U.S. Equities' task is a strong argument in favor of retaining the old hospital, an empty behemoth standing on West Harrison Street. The proposal mentions all sorts of needs that a refurbished hospital--structurally, the building is sound--could provide. They include space for offices now located at the old nursing school dormitory, which is scheduled for demolition; new outpatient facilities to replace the outdated Fantus Clinic; outpatient pharmacy facilities; and storage space for medical and radiology records, among others. There's also the possibility of including some student housing and commercial and retail space somewhere on the campus, to help bring in some money and provide welcome services for people who work and visit there.

Suddenly, the old hospital looks aged and bruised but with plenty of life and possibilities still left in it. There's a lot of work to be done on this rehab project, including figuring out the finances. But it makes no sense for a county that has so many space needs around its new hospital--a county staring at a $73 million budget deficit--to raze a perfectly reusable building.

The process of deciding what to do with the old hospital already has been a salutary experience. Some of the commissioners are starting to develop backbones. And the board president is beginning to realize that--despite decades of precedent--Cook County government is supposed to be a collaborative effort between the legislators and the executive, not a one-man show.

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