I'll begin by saying that I think the meeting overall was positive, with very strong support for a hotel on the Doctors Hospital site. Further, I believe the meeting removed any impression that there is broad sentiment in the neighborhood for saving the Doctors Hospital building or any part of it. The meeting was at times difficult, but people came out and spoke their minds, and the "Hyde Park Establishment" did not dominate the meeting.
I'm glad to say that those who spoke in favor of the hotel project (and did not object to the demolition of the old building) behaved themselves, and kept their remarks brief and to the point. The speech making, irrelevancies, non sequiturs, interruptions, and one major attempt at disruption, came from naysayers, die hard "preservationists", people who dislike the U of C, and people with political agendas. That noisy, time-consuming stuff clearly irritated Alderman Hairston, who ran the meeting, and she was able to cut it off most times.
Throughout the one-hour, forty minute meeting, Alderman Hairston did a good job of walking the tightrope between letting people vent and keeping the meeting on track. Several times, she made it clear that this is a private project, and most decisions are up to the developer (White Lodging).
It was standing-room-only by the time the meeting started at 6:15PM. About 200 people were seated in the Bret Harte Elementary School gym, and dozens more lined the walls or stood in the corridor outside the room. At least 20 people in red t-shirts reading UNITE HERE were in the room, occupying as many seats at the front of the room.
Alderman Hairston opened the meeting with a background statement, saying the meeting follows on earlier input from the community. She said that earlier input told her that the community does not want the Doctors Hospital building to remain dormant, nor does the community want it bulldozed. She said she wanted White Lodging to listen and take ideas back with them. She said a concern is to ensure fair labor practices. Finally, she said she wants the community to feel good about what happens with the site.
The first question that came to my mind was, when did "the community" determine it doesn't want the building taken down?
Scott Travis of White Lodging presented the company's plan for a 390-room hotel/15,000 sq. ft. function room with a $60-70 million investment. Then the mike was passed around for Q&A.
Yes, all the usual issues came up: parking, "congestion", design compatible with "the community," the U of C controls it all, let's make the building a nursing home, and let's have more "master planning" and more studies and more meetings, and how do we know that the construction work won't damage Vista Homes? That stuff pretty much didn't seem to fly with Hairston.
White Lodging was accused of having a poor record on fair labor practices; I heard nothing to substantiate that. The red shirts, who apparently have some labor affiliation did some "union" chanting. One of the red-shirted people demanded that Travis say yes or no, right then and there, to a union shop at the hotel, then they chanted "yes or no, yes or no." Hairston stopped them after a minute and told them this was not their meeting and that they were being disrespectful of everyone else, and, if nothing else, premature. She was applauded for this. They were quiet for the rest of the meeting.
Then, there was the "threat of alcohol being served on the premises" and how it would endanger children who would somehow get hold of the stuff, and one man stood up and said alcohol would surely be a threat, because there would be Bar Mitzvahs in the function room. The poor fellow tried to backtrack but just dug himself in deeper. Hairston, who appeared both amused and disgusted by this, said there weren't going to be people in the hotel plying elementary school children with "gin and juice."
Many people spoke of the need for amenities in the neighborhood, particularly this hotel. An MSI representative said they would probably book 300 rooms a year in the hotel. I think the meeting's strongest message to the Alderman was that the project is sorely needed and will be good for the neighborhood.
Rev. Leon Finney spoke, reminding everyone that the project will have to comply with the planning and lakefront protection ordinances, so all the fear mongering should stop. He said the hospital is a blight. He stopped some of the preservationists in their tracks when he noted that for most of its history the hospital had been Illinois Central Hospital and would not serve nor employ African-Americans. He asked why anyone would want to preserve a reminder of that. Finally, in response to all the ideas about doing something else with the property, he said, "If not a hotel, then what?" He said let's move forward and he applauded the alderman for calling the meeting.
Hairston said the next step would be for White Lodging to make a presentation in a few weeks, responding to concerns raised at the meeting, possibly around the end of September.
I don't know who said it, but I have in my meeting notes that someone accused White Lodging of "trying to pound their square peg into Hyde Park's round hole." I will stop here and let the reader ponder that assertion.