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Coming rebirth of Children’s Memorial Hospital site brings relief to Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park resident David Varnerin says some of his neighbors still won’t speak to him after he and other members of the Lincoln Central Association first came out as strong supporters for the development of what was once the Children’s Memorial Hospital.

Varnerin, who served on the Lincoln Central Association’s board for 15 years, is relieved that the developers who bought the hospital property finally closed the deal earlier this month.

“Right now, it’s a dead zone there,” Varnerin said.

The hospital closed in 2012, moving to a new facility on the campus of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

A walk through the area where Fullerton and Lincoln Avenues meet Halsted Street shows Varnerin’s description isn’t too far off. There are a couple of empty brick buildings at the intersection, and although there are people walking to and from work, the area is less than lively.

In its place will rise two 19-story buildings with a total of 540 apartments, many of which will qualify as affordable housing. There also will be 60 low-rise condos and about 160,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. The developers intend to re-use and incorporate several existing structures, and add new public spaces, including a landscaped central plaza and children’s play area.

The hospital’s move was necessary, said Mary Kate Daly, spokeswoman for what is now known as the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. The Lincoln Park location had become inadequate. The hospital’s new home, at 225 E. Chicago Ave., has room for 288 patients compared with 250 at the old building. In Lincoln Park, they had been “turning away hundreds of kids each year because we had no space.”

The hospital has worked closely with McCaffery Interests, one of the developers on the new project, for the past several years. Daly praised the company and its owner, Dan McCaffery, for their communication and work with the Lincoln Park community, noting that he came to many of the roughly 60 meetings that took place during the earlier stages of the project.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) says that “the neighborhood is very relieved that this is moving forward” and says that the majority of the neighborhood has always supported the plan. Smith says one of the reasons the project has taken so long is because of the priority of making this development compatible with the neighborhood. Smith believes the community will start to feel the positive impacts of the development quite soon, noting that some new restaurants have opened on Lincoln Avenue, pre-empting the highly anticipated development.

Smith says that when Children’s Hospital moved, the neighborhood lost the traffic of 4,500 people each day. Although this has been difficult on local businesses, she hopes this project will spur revitalization along Lincoln Avenue.

Kim Schilf, president and CEO of the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, says she is “thrilled to see the closing finally happen” after several years of work. Although Schilf says the community was sad to see the hospital leave, she could not be more excited about working with McCaffery. “Looking at past developments, they have really transformed neighborhoods … just an amazing track record.”

McCaffery said although there has been some opposition to this project, referring to lawsuits filed by a couple of community groups back in 2014, the community overall has been supportive.

That doesn’t include Edward Burnes, however. Burnes, who has lived in Lincoln Park for over 30 years and once served on the board of the Mid-North Association, is not at all happy about the development.

Burnes calls the development “a recipe for disaster.” What he and others are most concerned about is the increase in traffic and the height of the buildings. Burnes understands something must be done with the vacated hospital location, but he and other opponents wanted the project to be consistent with the neighborhood, meaning a mix of retail shops and single-family homes.

Burnes and others in the neighborhood are disappointed in Alderman Smith’s role in the project, noting that in a similar situation concerning the development of the Lincoln Park Hospital, the Alderman fiercely opposed the type of large retail and high-rise developments she is now supporting.

“Community support does not always come unanimously,” McCaffery said, adding that the lawsuits are not the sole reason the project has taken so long. It’s not uncommon for projects of this size to take a long time, due to arranging financing and obtaining city permits and approval of the final plans.

Although McCaffery could not provide an exact start date for the project, he thinks they should be able to start demolishing the old hospital within six weeks, as they still have some permits to acquire. The project should be completed in late 2018 or early 2019, McCaffery said, but some parts will open before then.

Redevelopment of the former site of Children's Hospital will change the look of the intersection of Halsted, Fullerton and Lincoln. | Alice Keefe/For the Sun-Times

Redevelopment of the former site of Children’s Hospital will change the look of the intersection of Halsted, Fullerton and Lincoln. | Alice Keefe/For the Sun-Times