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Corinne Chin/MEDILL

The former Prentice Hospital, site of Northwestern University's planned new $1 billion biomedical research center. The building remains at the center of a preservation debate. Northwestern's Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center sits adjacent to the property.

Northwestern moves forward with plans for $1 billion biomedical research facility at contentious site

by Corinne Chin
Oct 04, 2012


Aerial map via Google.

Click to view a map of the former Prentice building and the adjacent empty lot.


Corinne Chin/MEDILL

The vacant Prentice building, owned by Northwestern University, as seen through a fence surrounding an empty Northwestern Medical HealthCare lot.     

Northwestern University is moving forward to develop a $1 billion biomedical research facility on the site of the shuttered Prentice Women’s Hospital as the city considers the request to demolish the old building. 

“Finding Tomorrow’s Cures,” a detailed 24-page recently released report, outlines a center dedicated to cutting-edge research for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders and other conditions.

The former Prentice building, located on Northwestern's Streeterville medical school campus remains the focus of a contentious preservation debate, but the new report calls for plans to begin building the 300,000-500,000 square foot facility in 2015. The facility will eventually build-out to 1.2 million square feet.

The report estimates the economic impact of the planned facility at $390 million annually, including 2,500 construction jobs and 2,000 full-time jobs. New research dollars account for $150 million a year of that projection. Over the decade following construction, the total economic impact is predicted to be $4 billion
, according to the university.

"I'm wildly enthusiastic about it," said Rex Chisholm, vice dean for scientific affairs and graduate education at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. "My own research lab is in the Lurie Building, and one of the things that I think is very exciting is that it will allow us to connect [to] that new building floor by floor—not just through a little bridge or a little hallway. It really raises everybody's research activity. Having new colleagues will bring new ideas to me."

"Northwestern aspires to be one of the top academic medical centers in terms of federal research dollars, placing it among such leading institutions as Yale, Michigan, Stanford and Columbia," the report states. Teams of researchers led by more than 100 new principal investigators would work at the new facility.

The bulk of the new report is devoted to justifying the new building, including sections listing the plan's supporters and contributions to the community. The report also addresses the significance of the former Prentice building, which opened in 1975. The vacant concrete building, designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg—the mind behind Chicago's famous Marina City in the "corncob" towers—has been the subject of a long fight between the university and the Save Prentice Coalition. Led by Landmarks Chicago, modernist conservation movement DoCoMoMo, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Chicago, landmark advocates argue that Prentice meets and exceeds city landmark criteria. Landmark status would save the structure from demolition.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not taken sides in the debate. He has not responded to a July 2012 letter calling on the city to preserve the hospital, signed by more than 60 architects, including Frank Gehry (designer of Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion). In April, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) postponed for 60 days Northwestern's request for a permit to demolish the building, located in his ward.  That hold has since expired.

The new report makes it clear that Northwestern plans to push for the new facility.
The summary reads, “The City of Chicago has a choice: It can enable Northwestern University to bring in billions of dollars to the Chicago area, provide thousands of jobs, make the city a hub for biomedical research and innovation—and save lives. Or it can landmark a building about which there are mixed opinions.”

But the debate continues and has strained town-gown relations.

“There’s a lot more benefit they can get from having new research labs than a dilapidated building,” said Matthew Pilecki, a student at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s going to become an eyesore.”

The Save Prentice Coalition has said the university has run a misleading public relations blitz, including television spots and newspaper ads, according to Eric Herman, the coalition’s spokesman. A poll reflecting majority local support for the demolition of Prentice had a weak foundation, Herman said. “To date, Northwestern has declined to release the full, unedited poll, including the questions as they were put to respondents.” 

“The university would have us believe it can save lives and create jobs only on the historic Prentice site—though the site amounts to just four percent of Northwestern’s Streeterville holdings,” the Save Prentice Coalition noted in a statement. “We believe tearing this building down would send the wrong message about Chicago’s respect for creativity and originality.


The Save Prentice Coalition celebrated a small victory last month, when the Commission on Chicago Landmarks agreed to discuss Prentice on its fall 2012 agenda. However, the commission did not include the discussion at the October meeting held last week. "We're hopeful it will be on the November agenda," Herman said.

In April 2011, the Save Prentice Coalition released a 16-page study titled “A New Use for a Modern Landmark.” That document provides floor plans for converting the hospital into a research facility. The coalition has also argued the university could build on the vacant lot directly south of the former Prentice building, which is owned by Northwestern Memorial HealthCare (NHMC), the neighboring hospital that is separate from the university.

The Northwestern University report states the old facility would not be cost effective to convert to serve the research purposes of the new center.

“As the document makes clear, there is no other available land for the planned new biomedical research center other than the former Prentice site,” said university spokesman Al Cubbage. “As stated in the letter to preservationists that is contained in the document, Northwestern Memorial HealthCare plans to build a new patient care facility on that site in the near future.”

The Save Prentice Coalition is not satisfied with the new NU report, according to a recent press statement that emphasizes the university has no need to choose between research and reuse.

Northwestern is slowly closing in on making the proposed research facility a reality. Last month, the university announced a design competition to select an architect for the new research facility. The contest will begin in 2013, and the selection process could take a year.

The 2,328 Facebook fans of the Save Prentice Coalition continue to host Internet petitions and provide a vocal online forum.