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Can Cuneo Memorial Hospital Be Saved? Green Developer Says 'Yes'

 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 — A developer with a reputation for reusing historic buildings wants to save Cuneo Memorial Hospital from the wrecking ball and give it an artful new life.

The former hospital would be demolished as part of JDL Development's proposal for luxury apartments in the Montrose/Clarendon tax increment finance district. Hopes of saving the mid-century modern structure had been dashed by the lack of a party willing to put the time and money into preserving it.

On Wednesday, Baum Development's David Baum said he wanted to work with community leaders and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) "to determine the feasibility of saving this iconic building," in Uptown.

In March, Baum sent the city a letter that called Cuneo "an important piece of Chicago's architectural heritage," and expressed interest in renovating the vacant hospital.

Baum Development is behind the Green Exchange building at 2545 W. Diversey Ave., an environmentally sustainable building home to more than 20 "eco-friendly" businesses.

With Cuneo, Baum has a concept in mind for a development with apartment units above a cafe and gallery space "focused on the cultural-creative community," he said.

In March, the son of the famed architect who designed the building asked the Uptown community to let the building stand — and said some creativity could make the space usable again.

"I think Cuneo can be utilized — it takes somebody with an imagination to do it though," said Jim Belli, son of Edo Belli, the influential architect who founded Belli and Belli Architects & Engineers and designed Cuneo, which opened as a children's hospital in 1957.

Preservationists and supporters of the building hope Baum heard Belli's call.

"Right now, we're simply exploring the feasibility and trying to save it, and [trying] to see if that works for everyone," Baum said, adding, "we're going to work very quickly to determine if it can work."

The project would not require any city tax dollars or TIF funds, unlike the JDL plan, which asks for a $32 million TIF subsidy.

The 46th Ward Zoning and Development Committee voted in February to raze the hospital and donate the land to the Chicago Park District.

At a Monday meeting, the advisory committee created by Cappleman appeared intrigued by Baum's idea. The committee granted him a month to survey the property with an architectural engineer before he brings a more fleshed out proposal to the community.

According to Baum's letter to Cappleman, a renovated Cuneo would feature a cafe and gallery space that could house art openings and small events "to feature and celebrate arts and artists in the community." Former operating rooms would be converted to studio spaces.

"This is our specialty; we have successfully completed over 80 adaptive re-use projects and numerous historic buildings," Baum's letter said. "We are confident that we can make this project work in a manner that everyone can be proud of. We are ready, willing and able."

Baum promised to renovate Cuneo with sustainable methods, using high-efficiency glazing, modernizing mechanical systems and using "recycled mid-century furniture and finishes," on the interior.

"The vision for this building was set by Belli & Belli," the letter said. "We want to bring it back to benefit the community."

Preservation Chicago Executive Director Jonathan Fine, a Cuneo supporter, said the next step is for the developer to arrange a walkthrough of the building for a structural engineer.

He noted that JDL's proposed development is all on the west side of Clarendon Avenue and that Cuneo is on the east. Fine said allowing the repurposing of Cuneo, which JDL appears willing to pay to demolish and donate to the park, would not hinder the plan for luxury apartments.

"The fact is you can have both, they're not mutually exclusive," Fine said.

The committee did not discuss or vote on the JDL plan at the zoning meeting Monday, although critics of Cappleman showed up to voice their displeasure with the idea of giving the developer a $32 million TIF subsidy.

Officials with the 46th Ward adjourned the meeting after saying JDL was still in talks with the city about project details.