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Gay Senior Housing the Future of Abandoned Edgewater Hospital?

EDGEWATER — A graduate design student with deep ties to the neighborhood hopes to transform the decrepit and abandoned Edgewater Hospital campus into a mecca for gay seniors.

Vea Cleary, in a class project that turned into much more, designed an eight-story building that includes a gym, health center, assisted living and affordable housing for seniors at the former hospital site that shut down in 2001 after investigations revealed Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

"There's a lot of power in reclaiming space," she said, referencing the "morally reprehensible" behavior of the former hospital owners who exploited elderly and low-income residents in the neighborhood.

Cleary, 32, has lived in Edgewater for seven years and said she wants her plan for the site to "honor the people who lost their lives" there.

 Vea Cleary, a graduate design student, developed a plan to replace the tattered Edgewater Hospital with housing for gay seniors.
Vea Cleary, a graduate design student, developed a plan to replace the tattered Edgewater Hospital with housing for gay seniors.
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Vea Cleary

"My hope is that it would be something that honors the history and not just wipe it out," she said.

She said she has been reworking a first draft of her plan after receiving critiques from community members and after Waveland Partners, a firm that manages the hospital estate, submitted a planned development proposal to the city that would require a future developer to follow a  framework set by the community and alderman.

Under the proposal, any future development wouldn't have more than 214 units, be higher than 12 stories and would include a 1-acre park, a victory for residents like Chris Swan and Andrew Strand, who founded the neighborhood group Friends of West Edgewater Park.

"I love the idea — and it can be funded," said Swan, who acknowledged the toughest part of any proposal is finding a developer with enough money to turn a plan on paper into brick and mortar. "We have tons of gay people in our country."

Swan said her idea has "a great marketing spin."

Cleary said there's enough "wiggle room" in the proposal to make the building affordable housing for seniors.

And Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th) said at a public meeting last month that a proposal like Cleary's could be considered.

Cleary's proposal would be similar to the Heartland Alliance's plan to renovate a former police station in Lakeview for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender senior housing.

The alliance stated in a 2007 report that 40,000 LGBT seniors live in Chicago.

Cleary and the alliance say gay seniors face discrimination and harassment at traditional nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

She added that many LGBT seniors are champions of the gay civil rights movement and can be "forced back into the closet" in old age.

Their struggle, she said, was highlighted in a recent documentary, "Gen Silent."

Cleary said she understands her plan might never become a reality.

"I'm a realist — In five years, if they're going to develop it, I hope it's my plan," she said.

"That's a lovely thought."