More than three years after the city laid out a request for proposals to redevelop it (and more than five years after the close of a bitter preservation battle to save it), city officials are almost ready to start a bidding process for developers interested in the vacant Michael Reese Hospital site.
The city bought the 49-acre site for $91 million in 2009. Located on Chicago’s near South Side about 4 miles from The Loop, the lakefront property was supposed to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley lost that bid to Rio de Janeiro, however, and the public was left with a large debt on the property just as the local real estate market shriveled up.
That expensive irony was all the more tart for local preservationists who had fought hard to save many of the midcentury complex’s historic structures. In 2010, city officials ended years of back-and-forth with preservationists, demolishing a slew of buildings designed by famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and marring a landscape by Hideo Sasaki. A handsome and architecturally significant array of modernist and Prairie-style buildings were razed in a hurry only to have the city sit on the vacant land for another five years.
With the ill-fated (and, to many, ill-advised) Olympic bid in the rearview, the Michael Reese site has been a popular target for local developers and hopeful urbanists. A city-sponsored planning program started in 2012, led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, recommended the site for a city-owned casino or Barack Obama’s presidential library as the anchor for a cluster of retail, hotels, and other private development projects.
Illinois’ state legislature has so far balked on permitting a casino in Chicago city limits, despite vocal lobbying by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The foundation leading the process to select a site for the Obama Library shortlisted proposals further west (from the University of Illinois at Chicago) and south (from the University of Chicago). That’s not without its own controversy (see last month’s editorial page)—community development advocates in the surrounding neighborhood of Bronzeville long lobbied for the Obama Library on the Michael Reese site, hoping it would catalyze investment in the area.
Now that a new stop on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Green Line is open nearby, the 49 lakefront acres are more accessible than ever. The economy and real estate market have mostly recovered. It’s possible the city’s reluctance to aggressively market the site for the Obama Library or the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art—whose proposal for a lakefront parcel a bit further north has provoked a lawsuit—could have something to do with the innate desirability of the site. The thinking may be, why use up this fine bit of real estate on an outside investment that’s happy elsewhere? That has not sat well with neighborhood advocates who see the site’s redevelopment as an essential step in revitalizing the local economy.
But by dragging its feet the city has left taxpayers on the hook for potentially far more than their initial $91 million investment. Unless a private developer steps in to shoulder the costs, Chicago taxpayers could accrue an additional $43 million in interest and development costs over the next decade, as well as $21 million the city borrowed to make the initial payments on its original loan.
With all that sunk cost, it would be a shame for Chicagoans to get merely a stand of condo towers or more hotels and parking garages geared toward conventioneers. The South Side Obama Library proposal calls for carving off a piece of historic Washington Park—if it must be done, that park space (and more) could be offset along Lake Michigan by a smart developer who sees public green space as an asset to private development. The site could host a civic institution to showcase Bronzeville’s history as the region’s “black metropolis.” Perhaps no site in the city is so ripe with possibilities, and few if any redevelopments are so hotly anticipated. After years of hurry-up-and-wait decisions, we must not rush again into a shortsighted plan.