By Andrew Vesselinovitch
Cuneo Hospital, on the corner of the block where I live in Uptown, has been vacant since before I moved into the neighborhood five years ago. The hospital is located at the intersection of Montrose and Clarendon, with nothing but parkland (and a highway) between the hospital and the lake.
Why would such a desirable site remain unused?
Cuneo Hospital consists of two buildings on either side of Clarendon Avenue, connected by a bridge. Although the Chicago architecture firm Belli and Belli designed both, they are very different from each other. The east building, completed in 1957, is traditionally urban in its siting. It is located on a corner, parallel and close to the property line and sidewalk. But there is a twist. The upper floors curve around the corner in a way that was common in Latin American buildings of the time. The curve also foreshadows Belli and Belli’s design of the elevator lobby for the much taller St. Joseph’s Hospital (1963), another lakefront hospital, in Lakeview.
The west building, completed in the 1970s, is more rectilinear and set away from the corner. It is organized in opposition to the street: the exterior walls are perpendicular or diagonal to the street. A Catholic hospital, a barrel-shaped chapel appears to be suspended above the west building’s entrance.
I am a member of Friends of Cuneo, a group dedicated to the preservation and reuse of the hospital, although the ideas expressed here are only my own. In general, when it comes to preservation projects, I believe we should first look to see if we can reuse existing buildings. Regardless of whether they meet the definition of a landmark (usually defined as a structure that is architecturally or socially important or attached to significant people or events, e.g., “George Washington slept here”), existing buildings represent a financial and environmental investment. They also serve as mementos of individuals and communities’ memories.
In the case of Cuneo Hospital, the campus meets the definition of a landmark. Both buildings are excellent examples of the architecture of their time, one more organic and the other a variant on Brutalism (the explicit use of raw concrete uniquely, which Cuneo punctuates with some sort of pebbles). And while the buildings meet the definition of a landmark, I understand not all buildings can be reused.
Cuneo Hospital is a case study of the policies that drive Chicago’s government to protect—or not protect—our physical heritage.
Over the last several years, two developers, in succession, have been interested in using tax-increment financing to replace Cuneo Hospital, which sits within its own tax-increment financing (TIF) district. TIFs are established to encourage development; they are intended to spur development that would not otherwise occur without the TIF. TIF is effectively a tax abatement to a developer. A criterion as to whether TIF should be used as an incentive is to determine whether the economic product of the development would exceed the amount invested.
There are, at least, two problems with the use of TIF in relation to the Cuneo Hospital. The two aforementioned developers have been interested in replacing the hospital with high-rise residential buildings. Does Chicago have a housing shortage? If TIF is to incentivize investment that would not otherwise occur, how can we reasonably argue that funds that otherwise could be used city- and county-wide should be deducted from a residential developer’s tax liability?
One could say, “but Andrew, with rents rising, we have a shortage of reasonably priced housing.” James Letchinger of JDL Development spoke before Alderman Cappleman’s 46th Ward zoning and development committee at Weiss Hospital in the fall of 2013 and again on November 30 on behalf of his proposal to replace Cuneo Hospital with new housing. To paraphrase Mr. Letchinger, the purpose of the TIF is to subsidize JDL to provide housing of a quality that rents in Uptown cannot support. In other words, we are to subsidize top of the market, not affordable, rental housing.
A related problem with TIF and Cuneo Hospital is, I believe, that the mere presence of a subsidy is discouraging investment. While Lakeview and Uptown are not identical, less than one mile down the street, on the 3700 block of North Halsted, JDL has built a new residential building. The Halsted Flats did not rely on any TIF. If I were a developer and knew that the city were considering reducing my tax bill, I might wait to see how big a reduction I could get.
At the November 30 meeting, JDL and its partner, Harlem Irving, presented its proposal to demolish Cuneo Hospital and replace it with more than 600 units of housing and more than 400 parking spaces. JDL hopes that rents will amount to $2.75 per square foot. The example Jim Letchinger gave was that a 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom would rent for $2,750. (According to a recent WTTW report, average rent for a two-bedroom in Uptown is between $1,650 and $2,510). To add insult to injury, Cuneo’s east building would be replaced with a 6,000-square-foot single-story building with a parking lot. In other words, hundreds of thousands of dollars would be spent to demolish an architecturally significant building and that much again would be spent to build a strip mall.
Neither the developer nor aldermanic staff could produce an analysis that a TIF were necessary to induce development at this site. The audience was promised that the developer would make a contribution of approximately $5 million for renovations of the adjacent Clarendon Park field house. This would be in exchange for approximately $15 million dollars in tax reductions, a tidy 200-percent return. Alderman Cappleman’s committee quickly, with no documentation of need for a subsidy, voted to approve JDL and Harlem Irving’s proposal.
There are alternate visions for the site that could be implemented.
Cuneo Hospital’s future can be different. The east building (in my opinion, the more visually appealing of the two and with a more flexible floor plan) could be a hotel, a hostel, studio space for artists, or provide additional room into which the nearby Clarendon Park recreation center could expand. Indeed, a Chicago Cubs representative spoke at the same meeting of an interest in providing a community-serving facility at Clarendon Park. Given that JDL and Harlem Irving are planning to replace it to house commerce that could easily be accommodated in their proposed tower, the east building could be donated to a non-profit. The developer would also save on demolition costs.
Melanie Eckner, a very active Uptown community member and a driving force behind Friends of Cuneo, reported to me that in mid-November, CNU Illinois, the local chapter of the Chicago-based urban think tank the Congress for the New Urbanism, sponsored a workshop to discuss ideas for the Cuneo site. Participants discussed developing a cultural center or sculpture garden, reusing the existing buildings and site.
The fate of Cuneo should be based upon reworking a neighborhood asset rather than allowing a landmark to remain fallow as developers await further incentives to redevelop or—perhaps more aptly to describe the effects of the TIF—not develop the site.