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Residents Fear City Plans for Casino on South Lakefront

By Sam Cholke | November 29, 2012 3:09pm
 A group of Douglas residents outline things they would like to see at the former Michael Reese Hospital site.
A group of Douglas residents outline things they would like to see at the former Michael Reese Hospital site.
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DNAInfo/Sam Cholke

DOUGLAS — A casino should not be included in a plan to develop the 48 acre site of the former Michael Reese Hospital, residents say.

“A casino would only cause more homelessness in Chicago,” said Francine Washington at a second planning meeting convened by the city earlier this week at West Point Baptist Church, 3566 South Cottage Grove Ave.

“Why can’t our community have a Barack Obama museum and library?" she asked. "Did you hear what I said? A museum for Barack Obama.”

The city purchased the property in 2008 after Michael Reese Hospital went bankrupt, and enlisted nine real estate, consulting and law firms, led by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, to outline suitable uses for the land before putting out a call for bids from developers.

 George Rumsey of Hyde Park writes his groups desires for 48 acres of city land on the lakefront, including a strong denunciation of any plans for a casino.
George Rumsey of Hyde Park writes his groups desires for 48 acres of city land on the lakefront, including a strong denunciation of any plans for a casino.
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DNAInfo/Sam Cholke

Whatever the final use, the project will be the largest development by the city along the south lakefront in more than a decade and is expected to take several decades to complete.

“Twelve years is fast,” said Jamie Springer, partner at HR&A Advisors, a New York-based economic consulting firm that is part of Skidmore’s team, comparing the project scope to the 12-year redevelopment of the Anacostia Waterfront in Washington, D.C., and the 40-year redevelopment of Battery Park City in New York. “We don’t want it to take 40 years to build out the Michael Reese site, but we have got to be realistic.”

A large cultural attraction like a presidential library ranked high on the list of possible uses presented to the approximately 150 residents at the meeting. The consultants also favored a research park, a use championed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose administration led the acquisition of the property for $91 million.

“We also thought this is a place to think about a casino,” Springer said to yells of “cancer” and “no” from the audience.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel favors a casino and is lobbying the state government to open the city to gambling. While the administration is closely following the Reese discussions, it has not taken a position on a casino for the site.

“We absolutely say no to a casino in our community,” said resident Michael Smith, voicing the majority opinion of the audience, which was dominated by longtime homeowners.

The developers did not favor the casino over other options, but said it was the quickest way to meet the community’s demand for more jobs.

“I have to say, the casino on the site would be the quickest way to develop the site and get those spinoff benefits,” Springer said. He said a presidential library would create fewer jobs and be slower to attract other uses to the site. He said a technology park would attract jobs, but it would be a challenge to create new jobs while avoiding displacing jobs from other tech centers in the city.

“The key to this is it is going to be driven by an institution or set of institutions,” Springer said, offering a university or large tech company as an example. “It has to be a real driver — and that driver is not in sight right now.”

The city’s research universities were characterized as a long shot as a tenant for the site.

The University of Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois’ campuses all currently own property prepped or currently being developed for research expansions. Members of the development team saw a large expansion by a private institution like Abbott Laboratories as unlikely.

The community clearly favored a Barack Obama presidential library, with nearly every group suggesting it during a brainstorming session after the presentation.

The University of Chicago, where Obama lectured in the Law School, is seen to have the largest influence in any potential site in Chicago by those with experience with the university and real estate development on the South Side. The university has not made public statements about if or how it would engage in any campaign for a presidential library.

The development team ruled out a major retail development, an option favored by many in the audience. Springer said retail on the site would be unable to compete with shops on Roosevelt Road and new retail on Lake Park Avenue in Hyde Park. It is unlikely the development would include more than retail selling everyday convenience items, he said.

“You’re not talking to the community, you’re talking to people that have a stake,” said Leonard McGee of the Gap Community Organization, one of many opposed to taking retail off the table.

“We’re talking to the community right now,” Springer responded.

Many in the audience were fearful that, regardless of the use, housing costs would rise, driving many from the neighborhood. Brainstorming groups reporting back to the larger audience advocated maximum density on the site to soak up as much housing demand as possible in the hopes that it would slow gentrification and keep property values stable.

While housing would be included in any development, it would not be a primary use because of the current lack of demand, according to Springer.

There will be one more community meeting before the development team drafts a call for proposals the city can send out to the real estate development community. A date has not yet been set.