NEWS

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September 22, 2008

Doctors Hospital tensions mount

Opponents of current plans to construct a hotel on the site of the Hyde Park Doctors Hospital are employing a new tactic to stop its development.

Residents of the 39th precinct, which includes the hospital's 5800 South Stony Island Avenue site, will vote November 4 on whether to designate theirs a "dry" precinct, thereby prohibiting the retail sale of alcohol within its boundaries. The restriction would make it unlikely that the development company would move forward with its plans to construct a Marriott Hotel and Fairfield Inn and Suites at the site.

The measure is set to be included on the general election ballot after opponents of the White Lodging development company's plans for the hotel gathered the required number of signatures from precinct residents.

In a September 10 letter to the Hyde Park Herald, Hyde Park resident and Professor Emeritus in the department of psychiatry and psychol ogy Allan Rechtschaffen called the measure "an attempt by concerned citizens to gain an available legal control over [their] environment."

In the letter, Rechtschaffen cited a number of concerns, including over-parking, noise levels, and the hotel's size, in the group's attempts to put brakes on the current hotel proposal. The move is the latest development in what has been an often charged and emotional debate that has pitted neighborhood activists and preservationists against the White Lodging development company, which the University hired to develop the hotel on the site it bought for $10 million in 2006.

But the main sticking point in recent months has been the concern of architectural preservationists who argue that demolishing the decades-old building would diminish an important historical landmark in the neighborhood. In a July 2007 letter, Rechtschaffen argued that "the historic nature of the property" should be preserved and that "a stroll through the neighborhood would impress upon a stranger how valuable the quality of the built environment is to Hyde Parkers."

Earlier in the summer, White Lodging sent a letter to preservationists ruling out an alternative proposal that would have incorporated much of the existing structure into the 380-room hotel.

Some, including fifth ward alderman Leslie Hairston, have characterized the most recent effort as an underhanded attempt to prevent what would amount to an economic boon to the community, according to Herald reports.

Supporters of the current plans have argued that passing the ballot measure would be detrimental not only for the hotel's future, but also for broader retail development in the neighborhood.

Peter Rossi, a professor of marketing and statistics at the Graduate School of Business and a frequent contributor to the Hyde Park Progress blog, which advocates "reasonable economic improvement" in the neighborhood, wrote in a September 14 post that "if the petition passes, this dooms the site and probably our neighborhood to no commercial development for some time."

The controversy has gained steam since White Lodging rejected the preservationists' proposal.

Area residents packed the gym at Bret Harte Elementary School August 5 for a public hearing at which White Lodging representatives fielded community concerns.

"As a developer we do not have a preference as to whether the building looks like x or y as long as it works," White Lodging's Vice President for Development Scott Travis said at the August 5 hearing. But in the letter sent to preservationists days earlier, Travis noted that the proposed re-use plans would make it impossible for the University, the site's owner, to set aside a portion of land for future development projects, suggesting one of the caveats of the University's mandate to the company.

Preservationists were on hand to voice concerns about the structure's demolition, which they have argued is a historic neighborhood building. But several other audience members voiced their support for White Lodging's hotel plans. Community member Louise Jacobson called for the hospital to be bulldozed so a new structure could be built on the site.

"It is the most ugly building I have ever seen," Jacobson said. "I would be delighted to have a modern hotel there. Many of my friends feel the same way."

Hairston called the meeting so developers and community members could attempt to hash out their differences.

"Hopefully, White Lodging will go away with a feasible alternative," Hairston said. "The community does not want it dormant or bulldozed. It could be used to give much benefit to the community with jobs and small business."

But Hairston acknowledged that the U of C would make the final decision about the building's fate.

"We do not own the property, and the decision is not ours," she said.

A new hotel would help Hyde Park businesses and could bring further development to the area, according to White Lodging's Travis.

"This is your neighborhood, and we want to hear your input on it," he said to the packed auditorium. "We are not going to leave the vacant building. We want to plug in something that will create economic opportunity for this community."

The company understands the challenges of building a hotel in a residential community and is working on fostering relationships with the community, Travis said.

"There are many relationships in this community to make that we did not realize were there. Those relationships are in their infancy. We want to go on making those relationships," he said.

According to Travis, White Lodging is willing to invest 60 to 70 million dollars into the community through the Doctor's Hospital development.

"Hyde Park is a great community," he said. "This is a huge opportunity."

For her part, Hairston said she wants to facilitate progress on the Doctors Hospital in any way she can.

"As long as White Lodging is willing to keep talking and receiving input, they should be heard," she said at the August 5 meeting. "At the end of the day the people who live in this neighborhood are the ones who should feel good about what happens.