UPTOWN — It was starting to look like Cuneo Memorial Hospital had a chance at salvation instead of demolition — but now it looks like a developer who proposed an artsy reuse of the Mid-Century modern building is backing out.
The now-vacant hospital designed by architect Edo Belli and hailed by preservationists as an architectural gem would be demolished under JDL Development's plan for luxury apartments. But in April, Baum Development's David Baum said he wanted to work with Uptown residents and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) "to determine the feasibility of saving this iconic building."
Baum is the developer behind the Green Exchange building at 2545 W. Diversey Ave., an environmentally sustainable building home to "eco-friendly" businesses. His eco-friendly idea for Cuneo included artist housing, work studios, a cafe and gallery space. Intrigued, the 46th Ward Zoning and Development Committee granted him time to survey the interior of Cuneo with an architectural engineer.
The thing is, Baum's team never made it inside.
He did not return calls for comment.
But Baum spokeswoman Samantha Korb said Thursday that his people were not allowed to enter the building on May 2 as planned. She said "it was an issue to try to get into the property." But wary of controversy, she refused to point fingers or explain why.
"All I can really say about the Cuneo project is that there were a bunch of hurdles that halted the project," Korb said. "The pieces didn't fall and it just didn't work out in our favor."
It's unlikely that Baum's plan will be pursued further, she said.
"There were just too many hurdles that we just can't seem to get over. It's just not working out," she said.
Cuneo is part of the Maryville Academy campus owned by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The sisters have an agreement to sell the property to JDL as long as President James Letchinger can secure the necessary zoning changes and other approvals from the city. Sacred Heart Sister Joaquina Costa said the contract was signed in January and will expire in September if no sale is executed.
Letchinger said he had nothing to do with halting Baum's plans, saying it would be the sisters who would decide if they wanted him inside the building.
Cappleman's chief of staff, Tressa Feher, said the alderman's office asked that Baum's team be allowed into the building earlier this month but the sisters, "because of liability issues, didn't want anybody else going in there," other than JDL. Feher indicated the building was unsafe.
The sisters were unable to confirm that account. And a member of their legal team who declined to be named said of Baum, "I've never heard that name."
Reached by phone this week, Letchinger didn't sound pleased about Baum trying to butt in on his controversial plan for luxury apartments in the Montrose/Clarendon tax increment finance district.
"It's a very unusual thing for another developer to introduce themselves into someone else's deal," said Letchinger, who seeks a $32 million TIF subsidy for his development. "It's a very strange situation."
Before Baum entered the picture, the 46th Ward Zoning and Development Committee voted in February to raze Cuneo and donate the land to the Chicago Park District.
With a final community vote on the JDL plan expected soon — during one of the committee's monthly meetings — Cuneo is now drawing closer to the wrecking ball.
Feher said in a statement that a final vote on the project would be coming, “after we receive final plans.”
“JDL and the Department of Housing and Economic Development are still working out planning and zoning issues for the city's approval. We are hoping it will be resolved in the next month,” she said.
Melanie Eckner is an Uptown resident and member of Friends of Cuneo. She cited Cappleman's "Ward Master Plan" document in her argument for why rehabbing the old hospital should "be on everybody's agenda."
Doing so is "central to meeting the ward master plan goals of modeling sustainability, fiscal responsibility and prioritizing our unique architectural history," Eckner said.
"If something could be there that also corresponds well with the entertainment district plans, it seems like a pretty ideal way to bring together some pretty important things for the ward," Eckner said.
Letchinger's plan is still only in conception and has not been implemented, so there should still be time for him or another developer to try to save the building, Eckner said.
But Letchinger has repeatedly said a restored Cuneo is not part of his plan — and won't be.