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City Officials Discuss “Plan B” for Site of Planned Olympic Village

As they pick up the pieces of their dashed Olympic dreams, city officials this week are hashing out a “plan B” for a piece of land on the Near South Side that they once hoped would be home to a bustling Olympic Village.

The home of the now-shuttered Michael Reese Hospital campus, located on prime real estate near 31st Street and South Lake Shore Drive, could be transformed into mixed-income housing, commercial development or an offshoot of the McCormick Place convention center, said Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th).

“There’s a possibility that we’d have some McCormick-related development, either permanent exhibition space or hotels or an entertainment district or some combination of all those things,” said Preckwinkle, whose ward includes the hospital site.

Metropolitan Pier and Expansion Authority (MPEA) owns and manages McCormick Place. Scott Winterroth, an MPEA spokesman, said he is not aware of any plans to expand to the Michael Reese Hospital site and would not comment further.

Preckwinkle is scheduled to meet Friday behind closed doors with city planners at City Hall to discuss development of the site. She declined to state who would be attending the meeting or what specifically they would discuss.

Hopeful politicians had been eying the 37-acre campus as a potential home for nearly two-dozen dormitories that would have housed athletes during the 2016 Olympic Games. The city purchased the land earlier this year for $86 million, but under the terms of the sale, the price tag jumped to $91 million when Chicago lost its Olympic bid last week.

Without the Olympics, the future of the land remains uncertain. But Games or no Games, wrecking balls are still headed for the dozens of mid-century, modernist hospital buildings that sit on the site.

“We’re going to tear them down, except for Old Main,” Preckwinkle said Wednesday. Only the oldest building on the campus, the “Old Main” hospital, was designated as a historic building by the city and will be preserved.

That’s bad news for architectural preservationists, who argue that not just one, but eight of the buildings — all designed by renowned architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius — should be saved.

Tagged with demolition spray paint and surrounded by bulldozers, the campus’s plain, squat buildings may not appear worthy of attention. But architecture buffs note that the buildings, built between 1945 and 1960, are classic examples of modernism.

Grahm Balkany, president of the Gropius in Chicago Coalition, a group formed to oppose the demolition of the campus, said he expects Friday’s meeting to be critical in the fate of the campus.

“Now is the proper time, perhaps the only time, for Chicago to re-think its misconceived plans,” Balkany wrote in an e-mail. “Our failure to win the 2016 Olympics is the perfect reason to put the brakes on this process, which otherwise seems to be a speeding train headed for certain disaster.”

Still, Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said the loss of the Olympics has given him and his fellow supporters hope.

“From my point of view, the opportunities just multiplied infinitely,” Fine said.

Preckwinkle paused when asked what her constituents would like to see on the old hospital site.

“We’re not there yet,” she said. “I would presume we’ll have a planning process as we go forward that will involve community residents.”

There were earlier discussions with the city to use the space to house students from the area colleges, but that may no longer be the case. Preckwinkle said that if universities are interested in that land, they have not come forward.

The Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) campus is close to the site. Jeff Bierig, spokesperson for IIT, said that it expressed interest in the land if Chicago won the Olympic bid, but that offer is off the table now.

“Any interest in the Michael Reese site from IIT is premature because there has been no determination made by the city of what to do now,” Bierig said.

Preckwinkle said she expects to flesh out plans for the site and start accepting developers’ applications within the year.

Angelica Jimenez contributed to this report.

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