Community leaders decry hotel plans

By Dasha Vinogradsky

[img id=”80265″ align=”alignleft”] Community members and union activists have cried foul at plans to convert the Hyde Park Doctors Hospital into a hotel and conference center, claiming that the management company selected by the University is anti-union and that the proposal would destroy the architecturally significant building.

The University has named White Lodging Services, an Indianapolis-based company that runs over 100 hotels nationwide, to operate a Marriott Hotel and Fairfield Inn and Suites at the Doctors Hospital. The U of C bought the site, located at 5800 South Stony Island Avenue, for $10.1 million at a 2006 auction after the hospital, which operated from 1992 to 2000, filed for bankruptcy over a Medicare/Medicaid billing scandal.

White Lodging Services has considerable financial ties to the University, and pro-labor community members have expressed outrage at the selection of a company that operates no unionized hotels. Billionaire Dean White and his son, Bruce White, own White Lodging and are considered “friends of the University” by the Alumni House; Bruce White has been a trustee for University of Chicago Hospitals and served as a co-chairman of the U of C’s Children’s Hospital and a member of the Hospitals’ Executive Committee. According to the Hospitals’ 2004 Annual Report, White Lodging donated an amount between $250,000 and $999,999 to the University.

“We have been approached by many hotel operators, but no deal has ever come to fruition, primarily due to perceptions of the weaknesses of the market,” said Hank Webber, vice president of the Office of Community and Government Affairs, in an e-mail. “Several years ago, White Lodging, an excellent hotel operator interested in helping the University meet its need for a hotel and fully fund the building of the hotel and conference center, approached us. After consideration, we decided to partner with White Lodging.”

Community and union leaders have decried the selection of the management company.

“The union standard in Chicago is a wage of $13.20 per hour,” said Alexis Canalos, a representative of the Unite Here 1 union. “White Lodging also does not follow healthcare standards and puts affordable healthcare completely out of the reach of employees.”

“The wages in Chicago are constantly going up with the cost of living,” said Heather White, a union member. “Seven dollars an hour isn’t going to work. If White Lodging stays in this area and its employees live in this area, they won’t be able to make it, not at all. They will be pinching penny for penny.”

The Doctors Hospital, also known as the Illinois Central Community Hospital, was built in 1915 by Schmidt, Garden, and Martin and designed in a colonial revival style with Georgian details. It is one of Chicago Historic Resources Survey’s 9,600 citywide properties considered significant to the surrounding community, though not an official city landmark. On September 20, Chicago Landmarks, an advocacy organization interested in the protection of historic buildings, placed the Hospital on its annually published Chicagoland Watch List.

“It’s an important building because it has a history and was a hospital building that served the community for a long time. It fits in with the buildings surrounding it, like Vista Homes, Jackson Towers, and the Museum of Science and Industry,” said Jack Spicer, chairman of the Hyde Park Historical Society’s preservation committee.

To help find an alternative to the potential demolition of the Doctors Hospital, the Hyde Park Historical Society enlisted Landmarks Illinois to conduct an alternative study for the Hospital and its potential reuse. Landmarks Illinois selected a Denver-based architect to present his findings in the coming weeks.

“The architect has worked with Marriott franchises before and has a lot of experience putting Marriott hotels into historic buildings,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of Advocacy at Landmarks Illinois. “The White Lodging franchise has never dealt with historic buildings. They have a formula design, the stuff you expect to see off the freeway. Our architect feels very confident that the building could be adapted or converted.”

The hotel and conference center plan will have 380 rooms; 250 units in the Marriott and 130 units in the Fairfield Inn and Suites. If the current structure is reused, an additional building will have to be built behind it, according to DiChiera.

Still, many agree that Hyde Park needs a hotel to accommodate family members of patients at the Hospital and visitors to academic conferences, family weekends, and the neighborhood at large.

“I am nervous for Hyde Park,” said Brad Jones, owner of Powell’s Bookstore. “We have a coalition of different issues whether it’s parking or whether it’s the union side or whether it’s the preservation of it. This is the problem of Hyde Park—things don’t get done. It’s important to look at peripheral issues, but sometimes we look at those to the detriment of the whole project. A hotel would be a great economic engine for Hyde Park.”

Other issues concerning the plan include increased congestion, lack of parking, and obscured views of Lake Michigan.

“We are working through the process of responding to public comments,” Weber said. “Developments of this kind undergo changes, and we’re in that process right now.