May 13, 2008

Editorial: Doctors without boarders

In the two years since the former Doctors Hospital on South Stony Island Avenue was purchased by the U of C, it has done little but gather dust and stir up controversy.

The current controversey began when the U of C hired the hotel management company White Lodging to design, build, and operate a proposed Marriott Hotel and Fairfield Inn at the former hospital’s site. The collaboration with White Lodging, which does not allow its workers to unionize, displeased some in the community. In addition, White Lodging’s plan to completely tear down the old hospital upset preservationists, who argue that the hospital is historically and architecturally significant. Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, whose approval is needed to build the proposed hotels, has refused to sign off on the plan in part due to these complaints.

The next move is up to White Lodging. It seems likely that Hairston would give the green light to building hotels if White Lodging can agree with the preservationists, a group of whom has commisioned an alternate proposal that would preserve the old hospital’s exterior. The plan was delivered to White Lodging in November, but the hotel operator did not meet its self-imposed January deadline by which many expected it to make a decision. Given White Lodging’s tardiness and silence, the project seems to be in jeopardy.

Lost in the back and forth is the reason the U of C bought the deserted Doctors Hospital in the first place. The proposed Marriott and Fairfield Inn would provide a more convenient alternative for prospective students, visiting parents, and guest speakers who would otherwise be forced to stay downtown. Furthermore, the hotel would bring in jobs and stimulate local businesses.

The University must step in to break the impasse. To call the crumbling hospital a “historical landmark” is more than a little generous, but working with the preservationists is the most feasible option. The University should entice White Lodging to accept the alternative plan, which allows for the same number of hotel rooms as was originally proposed.

Preservationists claim that government funds dedicated to restoring old buildings could make preserving the hospital building more cost-effective than tearing it down—but if this were true, it is unclear why the development company would balk at the proposal. The University should provide White Lodging with the financial incentive necessary to offset any additional costs. It is well worth the University’s money to subsidize maintenance of the building’s façade if such a concession would provide Hyde Park with a major hotel complex.

The University has made it clear that it would rather facilitate communication between the parties than intervene directly. Given the fragile nature of town–gown relations, this strategy is perhaps understandable, but so long as the U of C sits on the sidelines, the Doctors Hospital will be little more than a landmark to petty controversy.