Hyde Park Hospitality: Local opposition threatens to leave plans for a new hotel on Stony Island high and dry

Deno Yiankes was disheartened to learn that he could not stay close to his ailing father in the University of Chicago Hospital. Without friends or relatives who could house him in Hyde Park, he had to commute each morning from his hotel in downtown Chicago to pay visits to his bedridden father. As president and chief operating officer of the rapidly growing independent hotelier White Lodging, Yiankes claims that this experience inspired his company’s investment in the UofC’s plans to build a hotel where the abandoned Doctors Hospital currently stands. However, inspiration alone may not be enough to see a Marriott replace the allegedly historic hospital.

Doctors Hospital has known numerous aliases and proprietors since it first opened as the Illinois Central Hospital in 1916. It was only in 1992, after many a change of hands, that the building was given its current moniker. Doctors Hospital ultimately ended its twentieth-century run by filing for bankruptcy in 2000. The building then stood in neglect until the University of Chicago acquired the deed for $10.1 million in a September 2006 auction. The University was then quick to negotiate a lease with White Lodging, intending to meet the increasing demand for hotels near campus. But the hospital’s shuttered windows still loom over Stony Island Avenue, unchanged.

Though the hospital has yet to show signs of transformation, the University’s designs on the Stony Island property have not gone unnoticed. As with other University development projects, such as the newest undergraduate dormitories south of the Midway Plaisance, the impact on the community has triggered much discussion. The plans to demolish the old hospital for a Marriott were officially announced on June 5, 2007, at Vista Homes, the residence closest to–and ostensibly most affected by–the proposed development. Incidentally, it is from Vista Homes that springs some of the loudest dissent. These community members countered the University’s proposal with a lengthy list of grievances, claiming that the hotel would obstruct views of the lake, create traffic congestion, and augment noise pollution in an area largely composed of private residences.

The objections have expanded from their localized nature since the summer of 2007. Those opposed to the hotel have garnered support from greater demographics and increased the breadth of their arguments. Doctors Hospital would be demolished according to the development plans, as its current design does not adhere to modern hotel standards. So preservationists have been invoked to establish the historical significance of the architecture and guard it from destruction. The contracted company is facing pressures from the hotel workers of Unite Here Local 1. The physical fate of Doctors Hospital may not be of primary importance for union members, but their criticism of White Lodging’s labor policies only enhances the opposition’s political clout.

Negative community reaction notwithstanding, not much can overturn the fact that the University of Chicago legally owns Doctors Hospital and can do what it wishes with its property. But even this does not deter the harshest critics of the hotel.

Current municipal law stipulates that twenty-five percent of residents in a given precinct must present their signatures on a valid petition in order to place extraneous measures on the general elections ballot. The residents of the 39th Precinct have indeed managed to produce the requisite number of signatures to hold a vote on liquor licensing in the precinct, which includes Doctors Hospital. The fate of the hotel plans now rests on a November 4th local elections vote that will determine if the 39th Precinct will become “dry,” or legally restricted from allowing retail sales of alcohol. White Lodging would rescind its offer to build on the property if it is not permitted a liquor license. All hotel plans would effectively come to a halt.

“If the precinct were to be voted dry, it would severely constrict our options,” said Robert Rosenberg, Associate Vice President of Public Affairs Communications and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Business. “The community has come a long way in building a consensus about development in Hyde Park, but this measure sends a chilling message to developers that residents are unwilling to collaborate on project ideas.”

Tapping into this small aspect of land-use regulation is quite an effective gambit. Even Rosenberg concedes that whoever conceived of “voting dry” as the primary means of obstructing unwanted development deserves some credit. This measure demonstrates an acute understanding of the law. As varied as their reasons for opposing the hotel may be, all critics may see their common political objectives realized through a single vote. The University acknowledges the possibility that hotel plans could be severely hindered, but it has not defined alternate plans.

Instead, the University has been courting the residents of the 39th. It has been holding crowded meetings with concerned residents of the precinct, trying to explain the city-mandated process that would facilitate the rapport between developers and the community they would impact.
“We understand how historically important the neighborhoods are to its residents,” said Rosenberg, “but we also understand how important development is to the community. The developers want to work in partnership with the residents.”

But the situation is more complicated than a simple matter of unwanted construction. Some community members have said that it is not the addition of a hotel they oppose, but rather the company enlisted to do so. Members of Unite Here and their local supporters have played a major role in collecting signatures for the dry petition in order to thwart further growth of anti-union White Lodging. They, too, have been appealing to the residents of the 39th, though not without objections from the University.

Rosenberg claims that the University has needed a hotel for at least thirty years. Other administrators point out that visiting professors, large-scale conference attendees, and University-affiliated visitors have been inconvenienced by the lack of lodging options in Hyde Park. The problem, according to Rosenberg, is that the concentration of surrounding populations plays a large factor in creating a need for a hotel.

Neighborhoods west of Hyde Park have low densities. Washington Park in the 1950s had a population of roughly 50,000 people. Currently, there are fewer than 11,000. The surrounding area is full of vacant properties. These circumstances do nothing to guarantee a substantial traffic of clients. Hoteliers have thus remained distant, as the University of Chicago’s and Hyde Park’s national reputations have attracted more and more visitors.

The University contends that the community would reap nothing but benefits from the addition of a hotel. Capital currently pouring into the already dense business locus of downtown Chicago would be redirected to Hyde Park, providing the neighborhood with an advantageous economic jump-start. The hotel itself would provide new jobs for South Siders–a powerful point in current times of economic hardship.

Despite promises of affluence, the community stands by its own visions for the neighborhood. In light of subsequent political maneuvering, the crux of this matter has boiled down to whether or not the roughly nine square city blocks will be cleared to serve alcohol.

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