“Ellis Island of Healthcare”

6 min read

Chicago’s Old Cook County Hospital, Closed Since 2002, Becomes New Again 

There has long been an eyesore on the Near West Side of Chicago: the Old Cook County hospital building. The majestic facility, once known for serving Chicago’s downtrodden population, has been closed since 2002, creating blight in the area. Now, thanks to a deal that involves the county, a large private joint venture and historic tax credits, the hospital is being redeveloped and will soon open. If it becomes a functioning adaptive reuse project as expected, it will be a tremendous boon to the county, the city – and this neighborhood.

The hospital, known colloquially as “County,” is ingrained in Chicago’s history. The city’s fastest growth came in its first century of existence, when it shot up from a small town into a 3.6-million-person city by 1950. Much of what drove this growth was immigration, and later the “Great Migration” by Southern blacks into Chicagoland. The hospital, constructed in 1913, served both groups, becoming known as “Chicago’s Ellis Island.” It was a large public hospital that did not discriminate by race or income, and by the 1960s was handling 80 percent of Chicago’s black births. It also became a hub of medical innovation, for example, by fielding the nation’s first-ever trauma unit.

A lot of medical functions, including newer hospitals, Rush University, and the University of Illinois College of Medicine, are still located in the area, which is known as the Illinois Medical District. But this old hospital—a 345,000 square foot Beaux Arts masterpiece designed by architect Paul Gerhardt, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places—was shuttered for over a decade, sometimes attracting vagrants and metal scavengers. In 2003, then-Cook County president John Stroger tried convincing the board to demolish it.

But the board resisted, and in 2015, a collection of public and private interests finally decided to put the hospital in rehab, with hopes of bringing it back to life. This began when Cook County, under the leadership of current board president Toni Preckwinkle, issued a Request for Proposals for a long-term ground lease of the land, so the facilities could be redeveloped. The vision for the project included a multi-phase redevelopment that would involve not only gutting and restoring the hospital, but adding new development in the surrounding blocks, including a technology and research center, medical office building, apartments, hotels and parking decks. The project would unfold in multiple phases over the course of ten to 15 years, with phase one being the restoration of the old hospital.

Harrison Square
The county wound up choosing Civic Health Development Group (CHDG), a development and financing partnership led by Chicago-based developer John T. Murphy, which includes Walsh Investors, MB Real Estate, Plenary Group and Granite Companies. They decided to brand the hospital redevelopment as “Harrison Square,” since the building sits on Harrison Street. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an internationally-renowned firm based in Chicago, will be the lead designer. So far, the project has raised $135 million in financing, including $24 million in Historic Tax Credit equity. Besides the credits, there was no other government subsidy or capital investment used on the project.

“We got a senior construction loan, we got a mezzanine loan, and then we’ve got Historic Tax Credits, and then [our own] equity,” says Chris Horney, managing director of development at MBRE.

Final project costs could be $1 billion, and would transform several blocks of the medical district campus. Within Old Cook County Hospital itself, there will be a Hyatt House and Hyatt Place hotel, new medical offices, a daycare center and retail space that Horney says will mostly house local businesses.

The project broke ground in June of 2018, and involves gutting and renovating the old hospital, which at the time of groundbreaking was in extremely rough shape. A video on the Harrison Square website shows a huge rusted-out facility with mold, crumbling infrastructure and huge water puddles across many of the floors.

“While the building’s bones are solid and its decorative terra cotta façade is intact, the hospital has suffered from abandonment,” writes the Chicago Tribune editorial board. “Paint hangs off the walls in sheets. Rooms are flood-damaged. Graffiti mars windows and doors. Once avant-garde surgery amphitheaters now evoke the crumbling Colosseum in Rome.”

Neighborhood Impact
CHDG is now about halfway complete cleaning this up, and expects to open the 14-acre facility in the summer of 2020.

The project is set to dramatically improve the neighborhood, and this general part of the city. Chicago’s downtown Loop has grown quickly, nearly doubling its population to 30,000 since 2000. The West Loop is also getting many new condos. But things taper off further west, where a combination of parking lots, low-scale public housing redevelopments and sprawling campuses diminish the neighborhood fabric. By the time you get to the medical district, about a mile way, the surroundings might legitimately be called “underserved.” Poverty rates across metro Chicago are 14 percent. But throughout the Near West Side, they are 20 percent, and in the adjacent East Garfield Park, they shoot up to 42 percent.

That so much private capital would nonetheless flood into the Harrison Square project shows the promise of the area. CHDG is banking on the medical district’s proximity to downtown, its transit connectivity and the presence of students and medical workers, who will likely want to live and shop where they work. And the project could have the ultimate effect of reviving the neighborhood, for example by creating 900 jobs during the redevelopment process. Above all, it will restore a symbol of Chicago history from its current blighted status, into a true community space again.

The hospital “really was the Ellis Island of healthcare for the city of Chicago,” says Horney. “And for it to be vacant, and frankly dilapidated, for so long, and to be such a visible structure, and for it to be turned around, is a really good story for the neighborhood, for us, and for the city and county.”

Story Contact:
Chris Horney
Managing Director of Development, MBRE
[email protected]