A plan to rehabilitate the historic old Cook County Hospital on the Near West Side was approved overwhelmingly last week by the 17-member Cook County Board of Commissioners over the vocal opposition of Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), the plan’s only dissenting vote, and a throng of West Side residents and social activists.
During a May 10 Finance Committee meeting where the plan was discussed, the contingent flooded the county board room with chants of “We want jobs!” and dozens of public comments in opposition to the development and in support of Boykin’s Community Stabilization and Anti-Violence Act.
The proposed legislation would impose a 4-cent per gallon motor fuel tax to fund a $50 million package of initiatives, including a parenting program, a community policing initiative and the creation of a jobs council, among other aspects.
Several commissioners, however, pushed back against what they suggested was Boykin’s unfair and not wholly truthful portrayal of the hospital redevelopment agreement as watered down and a distraction from the county’s public safety and public health responsibilities.
The county plans to turn the 102-year-old hospital into a mixed-use complex that would include retail establishments, apartments, restaurants and a hotel. It’s the first phase in a comprehensive four-part plan to transform more than a dozen acres of county-owned land in the Illinois Medical District into an additional hotel, parking decks and a new medical research center, among other developments.
The whole plan would take up to 15 years and cost between $550 million and $700 million, commissioners noted. That money would come from private developers like MB Real Estate Services, the development team the county hired to steer the project.
The county, which has spent more than $3 million on the project’s planning phase, could pay up to $5 million on environmental remediation efforts at the site. The county would lease its land and the buildings to MB Real Estate for $520,000 a year, rental costs that could increase to $2 million once the entire development is finished. The life of the lease is 99 years and includes two 25-year renewal options.
The plan — construction for which could begin next year, with the first phase completed by 2018 — is projected to create at least 5,000 temporary jobs and permanent jobs. The development agreement calls for contractors and subcontractors to collaborate with the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership to realize a series of local hiring goals.
Those goals include that at least 50 percent of total hours worked on each phase be performed by Cook County residents and that 7.5 percent of the total hours worked over the project’s four phases be performed by residents within a three-mile radius surrounding the project area.
During the May 10 meeting, Boykin called the project’s community benefits agreement “a sham” and a “tiger without teeth.” He said he had recommended a goal of 30 percent, instead of 7.5 percent, of total hours to be performed by residents and advocated that the project area be extended to include the entire West Side, particularly the 29th and 37th Wards.
In addition, Boykin wanted priority hiring to go to ex-offenders, who are concentrated in places like Austin, and for the community benefits agreement’s hiring goals to be binding. The commissioner also criticized the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, saying that it was a “horrible organization” that had “lost credibility.”
In an interview on Friday, Boykin suggested that the county board’s efforts at rehabbing the old hospital worked to divert attention from its responsibility to provide public safety. So far, his anti-violence measure is stalled because it doesn’t have enough votes to move forward.
“When your house is on fire, you don’t go down the street and build a new house,” he said, adding, “You can’t get economic development unless you secure the streets.”
Many of Boykin’s supporters, such as Quiwana Bell, echoed his sentiments. Bell, the associate director for the Westside Health Authority, said “investment should not take the place of things that are of necessity” and that development shouldn’t be prioritized when “we’re saying we don’t have funds [for] anti-violence programs in our neighborhoods.”
“Our children are crying out, they’re dying in the streets,” said Austin resident Charles Austin, who is also on staff with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “And yet, our elected officials aren’t doing enough [for them] to increase jobs, increase housing and give them opportunity.”
Gail Lewis, a member of the Community Renewal Society, recommended that a percentage of the subsidized apartment units go to college students receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or who have a child for whom they’re responsible — not to students “simply because their expenses might exceed their income.”
But some commission members said Boykin’s characterization of the redevelopment agreement was unfair and not entirely truthful. Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (7th) subtly chided the first-term commissioner, whom he didn’t name, for presenting the redevelopment plan to people on the West Side as a panacea of sorts.
“It’s very important for people not to have expectations that this is a project that can transform everything,” said Garcia. “It isn’t. It is limited. Significantly. Dramatically limited. These are the facts we have to work with.”
Garcia said the development was a “continuation of the work we embarked on five years ago” to stabilize the county’s health system and that it shouldn’t be considered an impediment to the county’s ability to carry out its public safety responsibilities.
“I’m not referring to anyone by name or any one individual, but I think it’s important to be transparent and to be honest with what we’re dealing with and voting on today,” Garcia said. “The community I live in has been struggling with [gun violence] this year, but I can’t point to this project and say that it will solve our unemployment problem, our gang and violence problems.”
“I don’t want anybody to think that the 17 of us aren’t concerned about the people in Austin,” said Commissioner Deborah Sims (5th), who added that she didn’t want any ex-offenders watching the meeting online or on television to think that they couldn’t apply for jobs related to the project.
“If he has the skills and can do the job, I’m quite sure he’ll probably be hired,” Sims said. County officials said they couldn’t require developers to hire an exclusive percentage of ex-offenders because of the nature of the jobs.
Sims said she knows one of the contractors who would be working on the project and that he’s “really, really close to the community” and would make sure that fair hiring practices take place.
“We have to be careful,” Sims said. “You got to tell it like it is. Yes, there will possibly be ex-offenders hired and some won’t get hired. If I had known it was going to be this kind of meeting, I could’ve had over a dozen agencies from the South Side and south suburbs come in and say, ‘Yeah, we need jobs, too.’ We could’ve packed this room.”
Garcia also questioned why most of the activists who spoke out against the project didn’t contact him before they joined Boykin for a press conference held a half-hour before the May 10 meeting convened.
“I didn’t receive one phone call, letter, email [and] no one came to visit me at my district office or here at Cook County,” Garcia said. “I consider most of these organizations good and solid [but] the communication is left to be improved upon significantly.”
In an email response, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office expressed its disagreement with Boykin’s portrayal of the redevelopment agreement as watered down and pushed back against his suggestion that the rehabilitation project diverted necessary attention away from public safety.
“The hiring preference radius was expanded as part of the final agreement from 2 to 3 miles, resulting in additional areas of the West Side being included,” according to a statement by Preckwinkle’s communications director Frank Shuftan.
Shuftan noted that community hiring provisions “are floors and not ceilings — the final numbers could be higher” and that “there is nothing in the redevelopment agreement that precludes anyone in any ward, or an ex-offender, from applying for a job once hiring commences.”
He said that Preckwinkle’s “record on public safety, particularly in reforming the criminal justice system and reducing the detainee population at Cook County Jail, is quite clear.”
In an interview after the May 10 meeting, however, Boykin, who has insisted that he’s “not anti-development or expansion of the medical campus,” doubled down on his criticism of the plan.
“The county has to step up,” he said, referencing the high murder and unemployment rates in his district — which spans large parts of Austin, West Garfield Park and North Lawndale. “Our mandate is public safety and public health. Our mandate is not to be in real estate.”