Doctor City

Doctor City

The Illinois Medical District is having a long-overdue operation to transform the 560-acre swath of institutional buildings on Chicago’s West Side into a more active, urban neighborhood. A mix of county, state, local government, and private interests have for years worked to redevelop sections of the special-use area, two miles due west of The Loop. But a recently signed 75-year ground lease with the Illinois Medical District Commission (IMDC) represents a key hurdle cleared for a project, which is called IMD Gateway—a 9.5-acre vacant parcel at 2020 West Ogden Avenue.

One developer working on the project, Thomas Samuels, described the vision for IMD Gateway as “a relatively dense, urban town center with both paved and green public spaces.” The multiphase plans include a hotel, retail space, apartments targeted at young professionals, multifamily housing, and parking areas.

The $350 million project, which is expected to break ground in late 2015, will be privately financed. The developers include Higgins Development Partners, Thomas Samuels Enterprises, East Lake Management & Development Corp, and Isiah Real Estate, which is headed by former NBA star Isiah Thomas.

With 50,000 daily visitors and nearly 30,000 employees, the self-billed “largest urban medical district” in the nation already hums with economic activity, boasting dozens of healthcare facilities, from labs to biotech business incubators. Two universities call the area home—Rush University and the University of Illinois at Chicago each have hospitals there. Yet the district has long existed somewhat apart from the city in which it resides, with a distinctly different urban character than neighboring communities.

Several plans have surfaced since the Illinois Medical District Commission first drafted a master plan for the area’s redevelopment during the 1990s. “If you went back and looked at the master plan, it really envisioned the medical district as a suburban-style office park,” said Samuels. “The IMDC’s thinking has totally changed. They want it to be a dense, mixed-use place where people really want to go.”

Working with architects at Epstein, a design and construction company headquartered in Chicago, the developers hope to attract visitors with pedestrian-oriented spaces that branch off an extension of the city’s street grid, which they plan to build on the site. Though plazas and quadrangles will mediate more than 1 million square feet of vertical development, the plan is not without facilities for automobiles—it also includes a stand-alone, five-story parking structure.

Details are scant on how it would operate, but Samuels said the plan is to top the parking garage with an urban farm comprising 40,000 square feet of greenhouse space. Developers Gateway Partners are in talks with Montreal-based Lufa Farms about the rooftop greenery, which would be built along with the second office building in a later phase of development.

Another part of the district’s evolution is a county-owned historic building that has languished for years in its prominent site along the Eisenhower Expressway. The old Cook County Hospital building dates to 1914 and sports an intricate Beaux Arts facade that in its heyday sheltered the nation’s first blood bank, and has been referred to as “Chicago’s Ellis Island” for its hospitality to the city’s immigrant populations. Vacant now for 13 years, the deteriorating building has avoided demolition with the help of local preservationists. Last year county officials issued a request for proposals to develop the building and neighboring sites.

Four development teams are vying for the contract, and one will get the go ahead by late summer or early fall, according to Cook County’s bureau chief of asset management, John Cooke. That is also the deadline for a separate RFP targeting “core medical” uses, including a new ambulatory care clinic.

Cooke said the county will seek programming throughout the site that does not duplicate the work of Gateway’s developers. “Our key thing is to be complementary to the 1.2 million square feet that gateway is developing,” he said. “We wouldn’t have the same uses, so for example if they do a long-term stay hotel, we would look to have short-term stays.”

A charrette hosted last year at the Chicago Architecture Foundation showed plans for the old hospital building that included a museum, residential units, and ground-floor retail. Construction on the winning redevelopment proposal could begin as early as mid-2016. “Many people were very skeptical of our process because the building has sat for so long,” said Cooke. “Everyone is excited about preserving and redeveloping the building.”