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November 7, 2008

Doctors Hospital hotel blocked for at least four years, precinct voted dry

Residents voted the 39th precinct dry on Tuesday, halting University plans to convert the vacant Doctor’s Hospital at Stony Island Avenue and East 58th Street into a hotel. Of 477 votes cast, 249 residents supported the ban while 228 voted against it.

The University bought the building in 2006 and hired White Lodging to develop and operate the hotel, which would have provided accommodations for University-affiliated visitors. Proponents argued it would have created more jobs in Hyde Park.

“The referendum in effect killed White Lodging’s interest in the site,” said Robert Rosenberg, associate vice president for public affairs. Rosenberg said the University had been working with White Lodging over the past year to engage the community in discussions.

Neighborhood residents said their concerns about the preservation of the building, traffic and noise concerns, and the non-unionized status of White Lodging garnered little response from the University or White Lodging.

“What people have ignored in the arguments against the petition is that none of the objections to the hotel as planned by White Lodging have been dealt with in any substantial way by the University and White Lodging,” said former professor and Hyde Park resident Allan Rechtschaffen said. “They spoke as if there was compromise, but there was never any compromise on any issue.”

Rechtschaffen added, “No one is objecting to a hotel. We’re objecting to this particular hotel. And if we didn’t reject this particular hotel with the referendum it would have gone up exactly as White Lodging wanted it.”

But it is unlikely that any hotels will be interested in coming to a dry precinct, said resident and hotel-proponent Peter Rossi, a blogger for Hyde Park Progress. According to the Liquor Control Act of 1934, the referendum cannot be voted on again for another four years, and only if the required number of signatures is gathered again.

“A developer who wants to come here will think these people are crazy. They would rather vote themselves dry than change,” he said.

The referendum was placed on the ballot after 281 signatures in the precinct were obtained, significantly more than the 150 signatures required to get it on the ballot. The international hotel workers union Unite Here worked with Precinct 39 residents to circulate the petition, and Unite Here hired a lawyer to help get the referendum onto the ballot.

Both advocates and opponents of the hotel felt frustrated by the lack of amity on all sides.

“I think we kind of view it as a ‘nuclear option.’ It’s a way of blocking the project that is sort of disproportionate to the goal they’re trying to achieve.” said David Hoyt, another writer for Hyde Park Progress. “I think there will be a lot more suspicion or less patience on the part of either the alderman or the University to go along with community involvement.”

Rossi agreed issues like parking were legitimate and should have been addressed more thoroughly by the University but added that issues like congestion and preservation were nonsensical.

“There is no congestion at Stony Island. It’s abandoned,” he said.

Rossi also took exception to the characterization of the hospital as a historic landmark.

“[Neighborhood preservationists] could never explain why these buildings were noteworthy in any way,” he said.

Rossi expects the site to remain vacant and deteriorate until the University tears it down.

One pamphlet distributed by ban advocates featured the Blackstone Hotel on South Michigan Avenue, calling it “what the Doctor’s Hospital could be,” and a typical Marriott hotel, titled “Misfit.” Opponents called the card deceptive and a mischaracterization.

“The hotel which had been proposed by White Lodging is a monster that really exceeds all need by the University and the neighborhood,” Rechtschaffen said. “A modest sized hotel would have been accepted in a moment,” he said, but he saw the planned hotel as designed to lodge overflow from downtown as well as visitors to Hyde Park and the University.

Longtime precinct resident Raymond Kuby felt the University had been negligent in managing the building and had not adequately facilitated discussions.

“We are well organized enough that in four years we can go back into the precinct and have it voted wet again,” Kuby said. “If we have the University’s good will, we will go along with that process and have a new election....In the interim, I think it would be helpful if the University would manage the building properly.”

Hyde Park has experienced difficulties in attracting new development to Hyde Park in part because of its hard-to-typecast demography and because of some neighborhood activists’ opposition to new development.

Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston has advocated for much of the new development and came out against the referendum, pleading for voters to allow for development.

“I was disappointed. Now in light of the whole presidential election, we could’ve had a restored hotel—a significant hotel for people to stay in—and that’s not gonna happen. What that precinct says is ‘You’re not welcome here.’ The people are basically saying, ‘You’re not welcome here,’” Hairston said.

In a letter to the Hyde Park Herald, Hairston praised development in the ward, including the first drive-through Starbucks on the South Side and an Aldi’s grocery store on Cottage Grove.

Opponents of the ban felt Hairston did not act quickly or forcefully enough.

“I think that Alderman Hairston could have taken a much firmer position much earlier on, and she did not,” Hoyt said.

Rossi voiced frustration toward the alderman as well.

“This could all have been avoided if there had been a better job of managing this process by the alderman,” he said. “There’s a lot of euphoria about our president-elect, and I’m extremely happy for our country and city, but this is the one fly in the ointment that makes it a little sad for Hyde Park.”

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