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Decision time at County Hospital

Monday, January 03, 2005
Chicago Tribune

Government studies have killed more good ideas than practically any other weapon. Proposals are studied to death or just filed in the bottom drawer of someone's desk, until public interest gradually fades into oblivion. For the past two years plans to halt the demolition of the old Cook County Hospital and reuse the building as lofts or commercial space have verged on such a fate--death by neglect. That should not be allowed to happen.

The future of the huge hospital building has undergone bitter and long debate. County Board President John Stroger at first was adamant that the building would be razed. It was a decision without a clear rationale, given no chance for discussion.

Was the fortresslike building in danger of collapse? Hardly, despite county engineers' insistence the terra-cotta facade was coming loose, in addition to other perils. Was the building an eyesore--an abandoned factory or a junk yard--that assaulted the public's aesthetics? Wrong again. The hospital does obscure the view of the new Stroger Hospital from the Eisenhower Expressway, but aside from that minor sin, it's a grand Beaux Arts structure.

Public outcry--and the dogged persistence of local landmark preservation groups, architects and a bloc of County Board members--seemed to have persuaded Stroger to reconsider. Sort of. For the past two years, Stroger has wavered between demolition and considering proposals for reuse of the building.

A majority of the County Board earlier this year put the demolition plans on hold. Since then, Michael LaMont, director of capital planning and policy, has been conducting what he calls some "crude studies" of potential uses for the old building and the surrounding area. Those studies would be prelude to selecting a consultant to do more studies leading to a decision sometime in the future.

No money has been officially approved by the county commissioners for formal studies, though LaMont says he can use some money earmarked for demolition to pay for the new round of consultant studies. This sounds like death by a thousand studies, particularly with LaMont in charge. He has never shown much sympathy for any option but demolition.

Meanwhile, the county just spent $750,000 to secure the windows in the former nurses' residence building--a structure that would be razed under proposals to renovate the old hospital.

So money is being wasted at both ends--by continued maintenance of decrepit structures and failure to get on with the project of deciding on the best reuse of the old building. For example, the offices in the nurses' residence could be moved to a renovated county hospital building.

The County Board needs to include a specific line item in the budget and a specific timetable to decide the best use of the old hospital. Apparently no such money is included in the new county budget, which is to be released this week.

A specific line item in an amended budget would be the equivalent of "good faith" money, signifying the end of endless discussion and evasion about the fate of the old hospital--and a decision to move ahead with the project.



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