Mixed reception for new Doctors Hospital plan

Nearly 200 people packed into the auditorium at Brett Harte Elementary School last night to discuss plans for turning the vacant Doctors Hospital building into a 390-unit hotel.

After heated objections at a November community meeting, White withdrew an earlier development proposal. Residents were concerned that the property looked too modern and was tall enough to block lake views from the nearby Vista Homes apartments.

The newly planned building would house a Marriott, a Fairfield Inn and a Starbucks café. White Lodging is prepared to invest $70 million in the neighborhood, according to company official Scott Travis.

Travis said the company wants the building to "become contextual with this neighborhood,"

"To build a new structure we are going to be very respectful," he said.

Travis agreed to meet with those wishing to repurpose the existing hospital building, and did not reject calls to preserve the structure.

Resident Catherine Movotny-Rehm, 64, lives in the Vista Homes and said she's worried the hotel's guests and employees will cause parking problems.

"They aren't all going to take the bus," she said.

Travis said the hotel would have spaces for 75 percent of guests, and an offsite lot for employee parking.

Some residents said they were concerned that a traffic survey and enviromental impact study that were promised at the November community meeting have not been completed.

Alderman Leslie Hairston (D-5) said  the studies were not completed because the project was withdrawn after that meeting.

Travis said the White Lodgings would have these reports ready in time for a future meeting.

Resident Louise Jacobson recommended razing Doctors Hospital, calling it "the most ugly building I have ever seen."

She was seconded by Leon Finney of the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation, who got a similar response when he questioned if the legacy of the hospital should be preserved given its past as "one of the most racist hospitals" in the Chicago area.

Anne Rashford of the Museum of Science and Industry expressed her support for the plan by offering to share the museum's 1500-space parking garage with the hotel. She said museum visitors are often inconvenienced because there are few nearby hotels.

Nearly 20 people wearing red T-shirts from UNITE HERE, a local hotel workers' union, protested White Lodging Services' labor record. They accused the company of union-busting and skirting laws governing fair working conditions.

The group asked, "will you meet with us?" and began chanting, "yes or no!" They continued until Hairston told them to quiet down and Travis agreed to a meeting.

The power to approve or reject the proposed hotel ultimately rests with City Council, which approves zoning changes. Practically speaking, the decision is Hairston's, because the council almost always heeds the wishes of the local alderman.

After the meeting, Hairston was optimistic.

"Everybody needs to be heard, the fact that [White Lodging is] willing to sit down and talk about it, I think that they might try to find something that both sides can live with"

Travis was positive as well. "We had great dialogue," he said.