Michael Reese redevelopment flies under the radar in aldermanic race

Photo by Jeff Zoline

The city is accepting proposals to redevelop the lakefront site of the Michael Reese Hospital in Bronzeville, which has been vacant since 2009.

It could be a coincidence. Proposals from prospective developers for the Michael Reese site along the lakefront north of 31st Street – in the 4th Ward – were due Wednesday. And next Tuesday, 4th Ward residents will vote in a special election to fill the aldermanic seat vacated by Will Burns last year, a few months after he won reelection.

The big question may not be directly addressed by the proposals and hasn’t been a major issue in the election: whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel will get his longstanding wish and put a “signature” casino on the site.

At a community meeting on the city’s request-for-proposals in December, Ald. Sophia King (who was appointed by Emanuel to fill Burns’ seat and who is running in the special election) said she’s “personally opposed” to a casino. King gave a cogent summary of the arguments against the idea: the gambling market is saturated, casinos squeeze out other kinds of economic development, and they bring a myriad of social ills to the communities that host them.

She also pointed out that community discussions held by city consultants who developed a plan for the site two years ago found that “in fact, a casino is not the will of the community. …I hope the developers listen to that.” Meanwhile, the city’s consultants decided a casino would be significantly more economically viable than two alternative scenarios.

But King made no pledge to block a casino, saying the proposals had to be evaluated after they were submitted, and adding, “It’s not up to me.”

A number of 4th Ward community activists I spoke with worry that the price of King’s appointment by the mayor will be to go along with Emanuel’s vision for Michael Reese.

At least three of King’s opponents (Gregory Livingston, Ebony Lucas, and Marcellus Moore) are on record against a casino. But they haven’t made it a rallying cry for their campaigns.  At several candidates’ forums, the question did not come up.

The city’s RFP, meanwhile, invites proposals for a range of uses – “commercial, institutional, tourism, sports and recreational facilities, and residential” – and adds that proposals “should address and incorporate the community input received by the city to the extent possible.”

For a development that could take many years to come to fruition, it’s likely that proposals will lack a high degree of specificity. Indeed, a plan for a casino might not be announced until the process is far down the road.

One problem, of course, is that Emanuel has been unable to pass state legislation authorizing a casino in Chicago.  A bill was introduced as part of the state senate’s grand bargain to get a budget for the state, but prospects for that are wilting. But a Chicago casino is said to be at the top of the mayor’s Springfield priorities.

So Emanuel’s path forward is far from clear. What is clear is that many in the 4th Ward community don’t trust him.

“The process is a farce. It’s a fraud,” said Shannon Bennett of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “The process is just designed to give them cover.  Don’t play us for stupid.  We know they are going to have a casino.”

Bennett said residents oppose a casino because “it’s a regressive tax” and “elderly folks from the community are going to be spending their checks there.” He also asks whether our city should be promoting a predatory industry.

Residents want “a stable community, a walkable community,” said Marc Loveless of Southside Democracy for America.

A casino won’t get you that.  As “Urbanophile” blogger Aaron Renn writes, “Urban environments thrive on mixed uses, pedestrian traffic, street life, and attractions that feed off one another in an integrated urban fabric. The casino is the antithesis of this. Casinos are focused inward. They want to keep gamblers inside as long as possible. Gambling floors are large, relatively dark, windowless rooms with lots of bling and sound and no clocks. They are designed to suspend a sense of time and place. The casino may have some mixed use in terms of restaurants, shopping, and entertainment, but it is all inside the facility. The last thing any casino owner wants is a patron who leaves to go do something else.

“Casinos are generally also large-footprint buildings that are inefficient users of downtown land and require vast amounts of parking, much like a suburban mall.”

They’re also like stadiums, Renn writes, “another politically popular downtown development that economists have roundly panned as a waste of public resources” – except that fans at stadiums “may actually visit bars and restaurants outside the venue.”

Economists at Northern Illinois University who study casinos have debunked claims that a Chicago casino would attract tourists or create jobs.

Both Bennett and Loveless believe King should take a clear stand opposing a casino. But the next question for King, or whoever wins next Tuesday, is what to do with the proposals chosen for final consideration.

King’s chief of staff, Keiana Barrett, said “there will be a community spoke in the overall wheel of consideration,” though what form that could take – a community meeting, a task force to review the proposals – is yet to be determined.  King has said she will form an advisory committee to provide oversight on the development.

“The 4th Ward has a history of always holding community meetings to review developers’ proposals before the final selection,” said George Rumsey, president of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference.  A lot of people will notice if that tradition isn’t carried forward, he said.

“When we have the proposals in hand, that’s the time for discussion and debate,’ said University of Chicago sociologist Terry Clark, who lives across Martin Luther King Drive from the Michael Reese site.

“People want to participate in the process,” Clark said. “There’s a lot of resentment, a lot of frustration, a lot of concern that we’ve been manipulated, and it’s come out in just about every community meeting.”

He noted that Emanuel “has been very weak on neighborhood involvement – it’s one reason he’s had the political problems he’s had – and he should be very cautious” about pushing through a plan without community support.