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Another Nod to Cook Taxpayers

Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

Two events in the space of eight days may not presage the dawn of lasting independence at the Cook County Board, but the trend certainly is encouraging.

Despite pressure by President John Stroger and a shameless deus ex machina stunt by the city building department, the board on Tuesday voted, 10 to 7, to breathe new life into the old county hospital building. Preserving the storied structure is not a done deal. The vote blocked Stroger's maneuvering for a final demolition order, delaying for a month a decision on the fate of the hospital. But it sends a loud message to Stroger and Co.: no more games. They have to make an honest and thorough assessment of the prospects of turning the grand dame into a tax-generating development.

Add to that the board's refusal last week to approve tax increases for Stroger's proposed budget, and a legislative backbone begins to emerge.

So congratulations to the 10 commissioners who voted to forestall demolition of the hospital: Earlean Collins, Bobbie Steele, Joan Patricia Murphy, Peter Silvestri, Michael Quigley, Forrest Claypool, Larry Suffredin, Gregg Goslin, Carl Hansen and Elizabeth Ann Doody Gorman.

In fact, there was an 11th board member ready to vote against demolition. Tony Peraica said he voted against the delay -- only because he wanted a definitive vote on Tuesday to block demolition.

Until now, Stroger has plowed ahead without answering one question: Is paying millions for demolition the most sensible solution, particularly for a government facing a budget shortfall?

Stroger has pushed for demolition as an article of faith, unwilling to give a full hearing to alternate proposals, such as the conversion of the old hospital to uses that would generate tax revenues for the county and the city.

Demolition would cost the county millions and yield empty space. A few terra cotta relics from the old building scattered in a new park, as proposed by Stroger, would be a small consolation for taxpayers wondering if, financially, demolition was the smartest way to go.

On the eve of Tuesday's vote, the Chicago building department tried to give Stroger an assist by issuing a summons to the county for the supposedly dangerous condition of the hospital's Harrison Street facade.

But the city's unexpected intervention may have raised the hackles of some commissioners rather than greased a vote for demolition. If in fact the building is that dangerous, shutting off the utilities and putting a fence around it is a smarter solution than rushing demolition.

Preservationists now face the challenge of developing financially sound proposals for reuse of the building in about a month. Board members who sided with Stroger should have open minds and join the independent members in giving a full hearing to alternatives to a costly demolition. They just might help taxpayers and preserve one of the city's most important buildings.

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