Uptown Residents Fight Cuneo Hospital Building Demolition

By Adeshina Emmanuel on February 23, 2013 8:24am 

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 A developer has a plan to save the former Cuneo Memorial Hospital from the wrecker's ball.
Can Cuneo Be Saved
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UPTOWN — Community members are plotting their defense of a historic building in an Uptown Tax Increment Finance district that a developer said has no place in his $220 million proposal for luxury housing.

The former Cuneo Memorial Hospital, 720 W. Montrose Ave., is part of the vacant Maryville Academy campus in Uptown and an architectural treasure to some.

That won’t save it from the wrecking ball if the community and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) support the current Montrose/Clarendon TIF district plan by JDL Development, which calls for between $26 million to $32 million in TIF funds.

Advocates of the historic building, however, want the building preserved and re-used in some fashion.

So far, the pro-Cuneo group — Friends of Cuneo — has about five members but hopes to grow soon, according to Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago. He said that the Uptown residents who form Friends of Cuneo reached out to him after he spoke in support of the building at a 46th Ward Zoning and Development Committee meeting on Jan. 28.

"I'm more hopeful now than I have been in the last year and a half,” Fine said, noting that Cuneo has been on the chopping block before under other proposals that never panned out.

Friends of Cuneo is particularly upset with the prospect of TIF dollars being used to destroy something they think has historic landmark potential and could be used in myriad ways as a community resource. Member Melanie Eckner said the developer "seems pretty open to stuff."

"But I'm not sure the zoning and development process has been rigorous enough to really address the issues," she said. "I feel that the process needs to be slowed down so people can actually review it."

There were two community meetings held near the end of 2012 that preceded the Jan. 28 meeting. The 46th Ward office said at least one more zoning and development meeting would take place on Feb. 25 before the community could take an advisory vote on the project and put the ball in Cappleman and the city's court for next steps.

 The inside of one of Cuneo Memorial Hospital's rooms.
The inside of one of Cuneo Memorial Hospital's rooms.
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Preservation Chicago

Eckner is calling for a full site evaluation of the building, something she said should happen with any TIF district project that would affect an architecturally significant development.

Eckner said that,"Uptown deserves to preserve," the building, because, "that's our money," and that TIF dollars should go toward saving, not destroying the structure.

“How,” she asked, “will this project help us meet the goals of achieving sustainability, preserving our architectural legacy, and giving something of lasting good to the largest number of community members?”

Eckner had almost a dozen suggestions, including making the building an Uptown historical museum, a community center, a senior housing complex or intergenerational daycare. Fine has suggested “workforce housing,” with below market rent affordable to artists, teachers, food service workers and others who work in the area but can’t afford to live here.

Reusing a current building might come at a cost but it is friendlier to the environment to recycle the building rather than tear it down, Fine and Eckner said. Friends of Cuneo planned to meet Saturday to discuss how to raise more support for their cause in the community, and to flesh out ideas about reuses of the building.

But JDL President James Letchinger said Cuneo is in bad shape and that he "doesn't see a use for it that makes sense in context of what neighborhood wants."

Some community members have said they want the building destroyed and the resulting space used for a one-story restaurant. Others want the land razed and passed off to the park district.

Clarendon Park Neighbors Association President Janis Tiffin said finding the money to reuse the building would be "very difficult in these times." Alyssa Berman-Cutler, president of economic development organization Uptown United, said, "Unless there is an entity who is ready take [Cuneo Hospital] over and to be a user of it, we are not advocating for its preservation."

Both Tiffin and Berman-Cutler sit on the 46th Ward Zoning and Development  Committee.

Cappleman did not return calls for comment about Cuneo, but his chief of staff, Tressa Feher, said it was her understanding that "the roof has serious damage that has caused extensive water intrusion." Feher has previously pointed out that the building currently has no landmark status protections on it.

Architect Edo Belli designed the building, which opened in 1957 as a women's and children's hospital. It is a Mid-Century modernist work with a roof line likened to an artist's palette, an example of Belli's whimsical but contemplative designs. Preservation Chicago said the designs helped introduce fresh concepts to Chicago's Roman Catholic architecture.

Fine has said that Mid-Century Modern architecture "is a very under appreciated architectural genre," sometimes overlooked by passersby because "it's an architectural movement that was based on minimalism."

He acknowledged that the building has been neglected but said it "can easily be rehabbed and turned back to its community for another generation of useful life.”

"Let's talk about the facts: this a publicly subsidized development. They're talking about using millions of TIF dollars," Fine said. "The question is: a historic building that has a viable reuse — why should taxpayer dollars be used to bulldoze this into a landfill?"

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