Ald. Michele Smith feels heat in debate over former site of Children’s Hospital

Written By BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter Posted: 02/10/2014, 02:10am
Array Rendering of proposed development on the site of the former Children's Memorial Hospital. | McCaffery Interests, Inc.

A clout-heavy institution demanding a $51 million return for Lincoln Park land. A developer driven to build big because of that price. Historic district homeowners determined to shrink the massive project. And an alderman stuck in the middle.

Those are competing elements playing out in the final debate over a $300 million plan to redevelop the site of the now-shuttered Children’s Memorial Hospital at Lincoln and Fullerton vacated in 2012 when a new hospital opened in Streeterville.

Last week, local Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) appeared to call a halt to the debate when she gave her conditional approval to developer Dan McCaffery’s scaled-down plan.

But it didn’t end there. That same night, Smith was booed and pilloried during a three-hour meeting — hosted by the Mid-North Association — at Francis W. Parker School, 330 W. Webster Ave.

In the angry audience were residents of the historic district composed of roughly 400 homes nearest to and most affected by the project. Among them were some heavy-hitters, including attorney and former alderman and mayoral candidate Bill Singer and veteran political strategist Don Rose.

“This is all being driven by how much Children’s is charging the developer for the site. He is being squeezed by the price. If they charge less, he can build less,” Singer said Friday.

“I told Michele [Smith], ‘You need to go back and renegotiate this with Children’s. This is a speck on the elephant to Children’s in terms of the $1 billion [Streeterville hospital] project. She doesn’t want to do that. It was not a good meeting for her. She’s between a rock and hard place.”

Rose was more pointed in his criticism of Smith, who narrowly defeated opponent Tim Egan in 2011 with support from Mid-North homeowners.

“A lot of people were calling her out. When we were warned we had to exit in 15 minutes, she finally got up and rambled. People asked, ‘Is this a done deal or not?’ She never answered the question. She filibustered. She was incoherent. It was a shameful performance. She embarrassed herself,” Rose said.

Rose noted that Smith campaigned on her opposition to the redevelopment of the old Grant Hospital site.

“Now, she’s doing the same thing on a grander sale. That was small ball compared to this,” he said.

Josh Glazier, the Mid-North Association president who chaired the stormy meeting, said two 19-story towers, 900 residential units, a five-story health club, an assisted-living facility and 100,000 square feet of retail are simply too much for the already congested neighborhood to swallow.

“You’re essentially taking a piece of River North and transplanting it to Lincoln Park. That’s how dense this is. If you’re going to do that, you’ve got to give people a good reason. Nobody’s given a good reason other than to say Children’s Memorial needs money,” Glazier said.

“They’re trying to fit too much on the site and they’re trying to load it all from Fullerton, which is tremendously backed up during the summer. Fullerton doesn’t have any excess capacity,” he said.

Smith was tight-lipped when asked about the stormy meeting. She would say only: “I’ve been listening to my constituents for 2 1/2 years. There isn’t universal [support]. I’ve been trying to find the very best compromise.”

Mary Kate Daly, a spokeswoman for Children’s Memorial, said the market determined the land price after a competitively-bid process.

“We’re not going to lower our price further. There is overwhelming support for this plan within the community. And every dollar is going towards our mission of caring for sick children,” Daly said, noting that petitions bearing the signatures of 2,500 area residents have been delivered to Smith.

McCaffery told the Chicago Sun-Times what he told the homeowners at the meeting that he described as “intense.”

He has already negotiated the land price down from $64.5 million to $51 million. He agreed on that price. And “out of good conscience” and “a matter of honor,” he will not negotiate any further.

“I don’t think either I or the hospital is shoving something bad down the throats of Lincoln Park. I believe the project as designed right now is terrific. It’s what the community needs. The place is dying,” McCaffery said.

He added, “Frenchmen said they would kill themselves if the Eiffel Tower was built. Change is just that difficult.”


Twitter: @fspielman

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