Hyde Park awaits co.’s say on revised hotel plan

By Aviva Rosman

After a meeting last November regarding plans to replace the Hyde Park Doctors Hospital with a hotel and conference center, the University is awaiting the evaluation of the site’s developer, White Lodging Services, of an alternate plan proposed by community activists that would preserve the 93-year-old building.

White’s original plan for the site at 5800 South Stony Island Avenue called for the company to demolish the current structure and build a brand new complex that would house a Marriott Hotel and Fairfield Inn and Suites, but Alderman Leslie Hairston rejected the plan, expressing concerns about the historical significance of the building and the development company’s history of not allowing employee union organization. The University paid $10.1 million for the site in October 2006 with the intention of bringing a hotel and conference center to Hyde Park, which lacks either type of facility.

At the November meeting, representatives from the Hyde Park Historical Society, working in conjunction with Landmark Illinois, an architectural preservation organization, presented their alternative. The proposal was developed by Denver-based architect J.G. Johnson and maintains White’s initial specification of 380 rooms while keeping the original structure intact.

“(The Doctors Hospital) is a structure that should be built with the community in mind and with preservation in mind,” Hairston said in the Hyde Park Herald.

Susan Campbell, associate vice president for community affairs at the University, said that the University’s role is to “facilitate as many conversations as necessary.” “We’re interested in making sure that White Lodging and the preservationists can get together, but the final decision is up to White Lodging,” she said.

White Lodging was granted development rights to the site last September partly, administrators have said, because it is one of the only hotel operators willing to risk a development in Hyde Park.

Because of this, the decision of whether to adopt the alternative proposal rests in the hands of the development company, although Hairston ultimately must approve the project because of the building’s historic status and the possibility that it will require zoning changes.

But a decision cannot be made until White indicates its intentions. “We need to hear their decision before we decide on the next step,” Campbell said.

Last September, vice president for community and government affairs Hank Webber said in an e-mail interview that “we have been approached by many hotel operators, but no [other] deal has ever come to fruition primarily due to perceptions of the weakness of the market.”

Still, there are close financial ties between White Lodging and the University. Billionaire Dean White and his son, Bruce White, the owners of White Lodging, are considered “Friends of the University” by the Alumni House. Bruce White has been a trustee of the University of Chicago Hospitals and served as both co-chairman of the U of C Children’s Hospital and a member of the Hospitals’ executive committee. According to the hospital’s 2004 annual report, White Lodging donated between $250,000 and $999,999 to the University.

Campbell said that the University ultimately wants to see a project that can be successful.

“A hotel is definitely needed in Hyde Park,” she said. “We’re anxious to see how this might pan out, but unfortunately we’re not in a position to drive the process.”

Jack Spicer, chairman of the Hyde Park Historical Society’s preservation committee, said the Society also submitted a study by a consultant showing that by saving the existing structure, the University might receive grants and tax advantages that could cover up to 20 percent of the project.

“The building is important to local residents—it’s a part of their lives,” he said. “Working to keep the Doctors Hospital is a gesture of respect to the community. It says this is your building, let’s work with it.”

“I think the main issue for us is not whether or not there is a hotel in Hyde Park, but what the working conditions, salaries, and benefits for all workers in the hotel are,” said Jack Lesniewski, a volunteer from Unite Here Local 1, a international hotel workers union group.

“White Lodging has consistently worked to undermine the quality of life, right to free association, and right to free exercise of religion of its workers in its hotels. It would be a shame if they were rewarded for that behavior with a lucrative hotel lease in Hyde Park,” he added.

Before the November meeting, community organizers papered Hyde Park neighborhoods with flyers and lobbied Hairston to oppose White Lodging.

Alexis Canalos, a representative of Unite Here, said that the alderman is aware of the union’s needs and “seems to be coming around.” Hairston commented on White Lodging’s labor policies at the meeting, and said that the University’s decision to hire the developer contributed to her decision to reject the original proposal.

“If White Lodging decided to leave, it would not necessarily be a bad thing,” she told the Hyde Park Herald.

Although Campbell did not comment on the allegations against White Lodging, she said that the company is working to “put together a response” to the community’s concerns.

She added that after the University addresses the labor issues, it will then determine “if there is a project there.”

“Then we will speak with the alderman and all of these different parties to talk through different ideas,” Campbell said.

The January 15 news article “Hyde Park Awaits Co.’s Say on Revised Hotel Plan” incorrectly identified Unite Here Local 1 as a Hyde Park–based union organization. Unite Here Local 1 is the Chicago-based affiliate of Unite Here, an international union that represents hotel, restaurant, and textile industry employees.