City hospital deal stirs debate

June 29, 2009 (CHICAGO) The closing is set for Tuesday on the city's purchase of the Michael Reese site. It'll cost the city $86 million.

The Daley administration contends the Michael Reese site is prime real estate that can and should be developed and that, with or without the Olympics, the city will recoup its investment. There are critics who doubt that, and other critics who contend the deal is on a blind fast track that will sacrifice both sound planning and architectural gems.

The actual demolition of what was Michael Reese hospital would not begin until early October, but crews are already busy cleaning out most of the 29 buildings on the Reese campus, removing parking meters for which there is no longer a need and surveying this 37 acre site.

What was once an internationally renowned medical institution would become an international Olympic village if Chicago wins the 2016 games.

As the plan stands now, all but one of the Reese buildings would be razed. The only one to be saved would be the original main building. Later this week it'll be 104 years old. It shows its age. But preservationists have won their battle to keep it standing.

The rest of the campus would be bulldozed, trees removed, and land-leveled to make way for 21 12-story buildings for Olympic housing. When the athletes leave, the buildings would go on the market as condos.

Preservationists argue that flattening almost the entire site is a scorched earth policy that doesn't fit an Olympics that promotes itself as green.

"What we're arguing is that we stop this maddening rush to demolish, re-evaluate, take a look at some green areas that could be preserved, and then densify the western edge," said Jonathan Fine, Preservation Chicago.

"We could lose everything in a matter of months, and we're gravely concerned we haven't had ample time to determine what this campus represents," said Grahm Balkeny, Gropius in Chicago.

What the campus contains are a number of buildings designed by the renowned architect Walter Gropius, and the argument is why not at least consider incorporating some of them into an Olympic village.

While the door to that hasn't been closed, city officials and Chicago 2016 planners say the IOC is specific about what it wants, and right now the focus is on winning the bid.

"We'd like this whole process to be slowed until October 2nd, because we may not get the Olympics and if we don't there's an opportunity to rethink this whole plan," said Fine.

The city says the wheels are in motion, and even if the Olympics go elsewhere, the investment won't be lost.

The city does not have to pay anything for the first five years of its 15 year mortgage, as it lines up developers who will then buy from the city and build.

The nagging question is can that succeed in a market that is bubbling over with unsold condos and hundreds more that have been scrapped.

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