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Cook County looks to redevelop former Oak Forest Hospital campus
Friday, November 27, 2020 Chicago Tribune by Mike Nolan
It was a poor farm for Chicago’s indigent and sanitarium for tuberculosis patients, then later a full-service hospital.
Now the site of the former Oak Forest Hospital, closed since 2011, is in line for a redevelopment that will depend heavily on private investment and take years to fully realize.
Cook County is in the very early stages of the process, bringing on a bevy of consultants, headed by real estate services firm CBRE, to figure out how the property can be reused including what needs to be preserved.
Southeast of Cicero Avenue and 159th Street in unincorporated Cook County, the 153-acre site contains more than 50 buildings.
Key elements that are priorities for preservation include old growth oak savanna at the northwest corner, closest to the intersection, with trees estimated to be more than two centuries old. Places of worship that catered to staff and the ill are also being viewed for reuse.
The county’s Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security will continue to have a presence, and a solar electricity farm is considered a priority as it will contribute to Cook County’s goal of cutting the county’s emissions of greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050.
The property was, in its heyday, “literally a village within itself,” Suzanne Kahle, a project co-manager with CBRE, said during a recent session outlining plans and considering potential redevelopment plans.
Housing for the homeless, space for a community college and even a water park are among the ideas floated for the property.
Formulating possible uses will continue into 2021, with Cook County officials having to review those plans, according to Andrew Norman, a co-manager of the project with CBRE.
Any actual redevelopment is unlikely to get underway any sooner than 2022, he said, with his firm contracted to come up with at least three redevelopment scenarios, according to a contract Cook County approved in June.
A market analysis of possible new uses and what structures might be saved for new uses will be part of the CBRE analysis.
The directive includes plans that “attract established companies and foster creation of new companies in emerging business sectors” as well as attracting “individuals and institutional investors to support the growth and development of these companies.”
Any redevelopment, CBRE representatives said, is likely to be a collaboration between private interests and government agencies, such as the county.
Redevelopment will include demolishing buildings that contain hazards such as asbestos and lead paint, but Norman said there “is nothing here that is unexpected.”
CBRE and other firms including engineering companies, traffic consultants and engineers will receive about $538,000 for their work, with their services extending through at least March 2022 with provisions for two one-year extensions, according to the agreement.
The campus had been home to the 600-bed Oak Forest Hospital, which not only provided inpatient care in the south suburbs but served as a training ground for thousands of health care workers.
After the hospital closed, outpatient care continued to be offered there before being moved this summer to the five-level former Masonic Temple at 12757 S. Western Ave. in Blue Island, according to Cook County officials.
Though unrelated, the relocation dovetailed with the closing in Blue Island of the 314-bed MetroSouth Medical Center, formerly St. Francis Hospital.
Cook County officials said the Oak Forest buildings “are expensive to operate and in need of costly repairs” and those designed for health care use do not reflect health care designs.
Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims, D-5th District, whose district includes the property and who said she’d like to see a water park included in redevelopment plans, said any thoughts about a new hospital springing up at the site are unlikely.
“We don’t have the funding for it,” she said.
History dates back centuries
The Oak Forest campus is bordered by the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s 455-acre Midlothian Meadows on the north side of 159th and east of Cicero, as well as the district’s Oak Forest Heritage Preserve to the east. The 176-acre site was purchased by the district for $15 million in 2010.
St. Gabriel Catholic Cemetery, on the east side of Cicero, is directly to the south of the hospital property and the forest preserve district’s St. Mihiel Woods is across Cicero to the southwest.
Linking the hospital campus to the forest preserve properties is part of the county’s redevelopment plans.
According to a history of Oak Forest, a poor farm was established in 1910 on the land that was intended to relieve overcrowded conditions at the county’s existing poor farm on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
“The poor farm operated as an institution for the destitute of all ages who found it necessary to live somewhere for the remaining days of their lives,” the history states.
The working farm “housed the indigent poor, alcoholics from the slums of Chicago, the mentally ill, advanced tuberculars (children also) and at one period women patients under medical care serving prison sentences,” according to the history.
A 1916 map of the property shows locations of cow and hog barns, poultry house and a hog hospital, an aged couples home, baseball fields, tennis courts, a crematory, casket manufacturer and Protestant and Catholic chapels.
There is also evidence of a Native American settlement, possibly dating to the 1600s, with archaeological surveys in the late 1950s uncovering eight houses and an entire Native American village, according to the forest preserve district. Among the findings were hundreds of prehistoric artifacts, primarily stone tools or byproducts of stone took making.
The forest preserve district’s plans for the Oak Forest Heritage Preserve, along with recreational trails, include a historical museum to educate the public about the poor farm’s history. Sims said she considers preservation of those burial sites a priority in any redevelopment plans.
Some of the burial sites and remains were uncovered in 2014 as the forest preserve district was creating a trail through the Heritage Preserve.
As far as a museum on the hospital grounds itself, the question during the planning session was what agency might establish and fund it.
It is the goal that “something can be put together that reminds us of the history” of the site, Kahle said.
Some of the physical structures eyed for preservation include Sacred Heart Chapel, shuttered in the fall of 2018, which was once one of three spiritual refuges to patients and staff at the hospital.
While not part of the hospital campus, St. Roch Friary, directly to the north, was purchased and demolished to become part of Midlothian Meadows.
It had operated for more than a century, and the friary’s priests ministered to the sick at the hospital and performed simple funeral rites at the gravesides of indigent Catholics who died at the hospital and were buried at a nearby cemetery overseen by Franciscan priests.
The priests had also held worship services at Sacred Heart Chapel and, at one point, more than a half-dozen priests from St. Roch tended to hospital patients.