In the Shadow of Mount Olympus

photo by Taro Matsuno

photo by Taro Matsuno

On the site of what was once the largest hospital in Chicago, only a barren plot of land by the Metra tracks remains. The site of the former Michael Reese Hospital is a forty-eight acre swath of land stretching from McCormick Place to 31st Street. To the west, the Prairie Shores Apartments, a row of five twenty-story apartment buildings, loom large; three schools sit just blocks away on King Drive.

On a rainy Thursday evening at the West Point Missionary Baptist Church, architecture firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill heard community concerns about the redevelopment of the plot in a meeting hosted by 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns. Purchased by the city in 2008 on an $85 million loan, the site was originally intended to be used as the location for the 2016 Olympic Village, were Chicago’s bid for the Olympics to succeed. When that bid fell through, the site was considered as a location for the development of a technology park. Given the city’s difficulty in finding a private developer for the project, that plan, too, has failed.

In the years since Chicago lost the Olympic bid to Rio de Janeiro, the pressure on the city to develop the site has increased, and compound interest on its loan is continuing to accumulate. The first payment on the loan is due next year, putting pressure on the city to pass the site off to developers. Nearby residents have narrowed their redevelopment preferences to three frontrunners: a casino, a convention-oriented hotel, and Barack Obama’s presidential library.

At the meeting, residents expressed concerns that a casino development could decrease property values and bring additional crime into the area, in addition to incurring a social cost. “We want things our children can see have value, and a casino is not one of those things,” said Rena Henderson Mason, a resident of the Lake Meadows Townhomes. Some fear the casino will prey on those already impoverished in Douglas and Bronzeville, counteracting the effects of job growth.

While most residents prefaced their comments with some variant of “we don’t want a casino,” the sentiment is not unanimous. A few residents cited the jobs the casino would bring–the city predicts there will be about 7,000 of them–as well as a welcome influx of cash from floods of conventioneers at McCormick Place.

Casino opponents were quick to counter that given the costs the casino may bring to the neighborhood, the jobs may not be as highly valued as the city claims. “A casino does cheapen the area,” said resident Beverly Washington. “We need a solution that’s more balanced for current residents.”

In addition, the jobs would be largely in the service industry, which rankles residents who would like to see skilled jobs return to the Near South Side. Intended as an anchor business, some residents fear that the casino would not draw the kinds of high-end retailers some desire. “It is already hard to bring these kinds of businesses, like Chipotle,” says resident Nefertiti Lewis.

Located just south of the site, Bronzeville has a burgeoning middle class that would like to see high quality amenities nearby, and not just on the North Side. However, any plans for a casino must receive legislative approval from the state legislature in Springfield before any action may be taken within city limits.

As for the Obama presidential library, residents appear to overwhelmingly support the measure as both a source of jobs and a source of pride. Those Bronzeville residents at the meeting saw the presidential library as an affirmation of the neighborhood’s enduring cultural importance in the African-American community.

Despite the enthusiasm, the Michael Reese site faces tough competition for the Obama library, which itself has a far-from-certain future. The University of Chicago is often discussed as a major player in the bid, though they have yet to comment, and the state of Hawaii has been lobbying aggressively for the library. Obama himself has had little to say on the subject.

By the end of the meeting, just what is going to occupy the now vacant lots on the grounds of the Michael Reese Hospital remained unclear. Both the casino and the presidential library require significant input from sources independent of the city of Chicago, and both the city and Skidmore Owings and Merrill have yet to definitively respond to the proposals floated by neighborhood locals. It may be some time before Michael Reese’s vacancy is filled, though as long as the city continues to own the property, the clock is ticking.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 27, 2013

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Prairie Shores Apartments as “affordable housing.” The buildings are not affiliated with the Chicago Housing Authority, and all of its units are priced at market rates.

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