Cook County Hospital hotel conversion lands $90M interior build-out permit

Rendering by SOM

The restoration of Cook County Hospital’s long-vacant main building is shifting into high gear after a newly issued construction permit estimated at $90 million. The work will transform the 345,000-square-foot Beaux Arts structure at 1835 W. Harrison Street into two hotels—a Hyatt House and Hyatt Place—with a combined 210 guest rooms plus additional rooms for medical offices and retail space.

While some initial work, such as exterior scaffolding installation, started soon after the project’s ceremonial groundbreaking in June, the recent go-ahead represents the development’s largest and most significant permit to date. It comes on the heels of another important milestone reached earlier this month when the city’s landmarks commission voted in favor of a historic preservation tax incentive for the massive rehabilitation.

Designed by architect Paul Gerhardt in 1914, Cook County Hospital’s main building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places but has suffered from 16 years of vacancy and decay. The grand brick, granite, and terra-cotta structure was spared from demolition in 2003 when the Cook County Board overruled then-board president John Stroger’s decision to tear the outdated hospital down.

Early this year, a private joint venture known as Civic Health Development Group announced that it secured $135 million in financing for the adaptive reuse project. Architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is serving as lead designer in collaboration with Koo Interiors. The dual hotels are expected to open in 2020

Future phases of the estimated $1 billion Cook County Hospital masterplan call for additional structures comprising a mix of residential, commercial, and medical research use. These yet-to-be-finalized phases will be built on county-owned land located north, south, and east of the former hospital building.

The massive rehab is one of several developments transforming the Illinois Medical District on Chicago’s Near West Side. Other notable projects include the new Cook County Central Campus Health Center, the $300 million mixed-use IMD Gateway, a planned $500 million outpatient care facility from Rush University, the glassy 19-story SCIO apartment tower, and Roosevelt Square’s combination public library and affordable housing development.

Here are the people rehabbing the South Side and south suburbs

Among those rehabbing South Side and south suburban homes are (clockwise from top left) Bernette Braden and Kai Bandele; Bonita Harrison; Sean Steels; Pongee Barnes

For the past few years, a wave of rehab has been sweeping through Chicago, revitalizing thousands of homes, many of them formerly distressed properties on the South Side and in the south suburbs. This week, Crain’s spoke to several of the rehabbers to find out why they do it.

Bonita Harrison has completed an estimated 60 rehabs, 25 of them single-family home and the rest, multi-flats.

“There’s a lot of dilapidated properties on the South Side,” she said, “and I like being able to put some of them back into good use and give people an affordable chance at homeownership.”

“I’ll take the houses nobody else wants. It’s my challenge. I saw one on 87th Street with warped floors and everything was wrong with it. Sixteen other rehabbers passed by that opportunity, but I took it.” She paid about $17,000 for the four-bedroom Chatham bungalow in February 2017, rehabbed it and had it on the market for just two days that June before putting it under contract to a buyer at $175,500, $500 more than her asking price.

Harrison buys some homes to rehab and resell, others to rehab and hold as rentals. In either case, she says, “I want to turn them into homes where I would want to live and socialize and have people over for a barbecue.”

Andre Jackson has rehabbed 61 single-family homes in South Side neighborhoods since 2011, all of them now part of his portfolio of 86 rental homes. “The supply of distressed homes was enormous in 2011, but that has changed,” he said, “but now they’ve almost all been sucked up” as rehabbers flock to these neighborhoods, where Jackson first started renovating distressed homes in the 1990s.

That has driven acquisition prices up, but at the same time, “the other line has moved: you can get more for the property because there’s so much demand to live in these neighborhoods.’ His focus is the Southwest Side, including Ashburn, Marquette Park and Chicago Lawn.

His 1990s portfolio was all targeted toward renters with Section 8 vouchers, but on the latter-day purchases “we do a higher level of finishes, and people like to have a garage and a basement if they can.”

Johnson, who runs the business with his younger brother, Ken, rents single-family homes for between about $1,600 and $1,700.

Pongee Barnes and her husband, Stephen, have rehabbed ten homes in Morgan Park, Pullman and Auburn Gresham, nine of them since the housing market crashed in 2007. Their first project, in 2005, “was inspired by all the television shows that looked like you come in, replace the carpet and get $100,000 profit,” she said.

They’ve refined their program since then. In May 2016, they paid $26,000 for a rundown, foreclosed three-bedroom house on Homewood Avenue in Morgan Park. The rehab included the kitchen and the two bathrooms, tuckpointing the brick exterior, replacing a portion of the roof, and other repairs. While Barnes would not disclose the total cost of the rehab, the house was on the market for only six days in February before going under contract to a buyer. The sale closed in April at $125,000, or $1,000 more than their asking price.

In February, Pongee Barnes published a book about the couple’s experiences investing in South Side real estate,  “Real Estate & Chill.” Among her tips: when she’s buying a property to rehab and sell, “I stick with brick.” The eventual live-in buyers are sure to prefer a low-maintenance brick exterior, she’s found. When she’s buying a property to hold as a rental, siding is ok. “We’re good with doing maintenance,” she said.

Kai Bandele and Bernette Braden have done two dozen rehabs since they both left corporate jobs at Goldman Sachs and AT&T, respectively.

“I was appalled at how many distressed properties there were on the South and Southwest Sides, and I saw an opportunity to be a part of changing that,” said Bandele, who moved to Chicago after Goldman Sachs transferred him from New York City in 2008.

Investors from the North Side and other cities were already buying up low-priced distressed properties in South Side neighborhoods, she said, “but people in our communities didn’t have access to the capital to do it themselves.” Borrowing from the hefty 401K she had built up in her time at Goldman, “I had my own capital to get it started.”

The spending spreads through the community, she said, “as I hire minority bricklayers and electricians and subcontractors.” At the same time that she and others are re-developing individual homes, she said, “we’re also growing the community.”

Sean Steels has rehabbed 15 homes. When considering a property to buy, Steels said, almost all that matters is the foundation and structure. “I can make the rest of it into what I want, he said. “Take down walls, make it an open floor plan. What’s in there now doesn’t matter.”

At the moment he’s working on a project for a client, but the last one he did under his own auspices was a foreclosed brick three-bedroom on 151st Street in Dolton.

Steels bought it for $25,000 in 2014. He put in a new kitchen, baths, flooring and utilities, and sold the house in March 2017 for $103,500. “The gratification for me comes from getting someone a nice place where they can live affordably,” he said. “I’m taking abandoned properties off the block, where they’re hurting everyone else who lives there, and I’m putting them back on the tax rolls.”

New Willis Tower antenna lights can change color in a matter of seconds

The iconic twin antennae atop Chicago’s Willis Tower can now display a wider variety of colors as well as intricate animations thanks to a newly installed quick-change lighting system.

While in the past a two-person crew had to climb to the skyscraper’s 109th and 110th floors and swap color pallets over each individual floodlight by hand, the upgraded LED array can change its hue remotely and in just a matter of seconds.

By comparison, the previous process could take up to four hours and hinged on favorable weather conditions. In addition to saving the time, hassle, and risks associated with manually changing the colors, the new system is expected to reduce antenna lighting-related energy consumption by 70 percent, according to the building’s owners.

The ability to instantly change the lights combined with the new system’s virtually unlimited number of color options will likely see the 1,729-foot-tall twin spires change their complexion more often. The Willis (formerly Sears) Tower receives on average 30 lighting change requests each year and typically swaps between eight basic colors in honor of various national holidays, special events, and charitable causes.

Meanwhile, at ground level, work continues on the skyscraper’s new three-story, wrap-around podium structure. Designed by architecture firm Gensler, the addition replaces the old fortress-like base with new lobbies, retail spaces, dining options, and a glass-topped atrium. The $500 million Willis Tower overhaul project is expected to be complete by late 2019 or early 2020.

7 activities for everyone in Chicago parks

The park district does a lot in Chicago. It runs more than 600 parks but also the beaches, pools, harbors, botanic conservatories, a zoo and a handful of museums. The organization is one of the largest, and oldest park districts in the country.

Throughout the year, organizers bring thousands of events into Chicago neighborhoods. Movie nights, dance performances, concerts, festivals, nature programs, family activities, and recreation are just some of what’s offered year round. If you’re hoping to take better advantage of your park, we’ve put together a list below that covers some of the best programs run by the park district.

ArtSeed, Rollin’ Rec, Craftmobile, and Wonder Wagon

These programs are for smaller parks that don’t have fieldhouses or other facilities to host activities or house equipment. ArtSeed brings storytelling and music for kids and Artmobile has art projects like chalk sidewalk murals, wax-resistant drawings, and stained glass window hangings. Rollin’ Rec supplies basketballs, footballs and soccer balls at athletic fields. Wonder Wagon is a trailer that turns into a mobile performance platform and puts on large, colorful puppet shows in the park.

Pianos in the Parks

Now in its fourth summer, Make Music Chicago helps place pianos throughout the parks. This year there are five parks with pianos: Buttercup Park, Jackson Park, McKinley Park, Mozart Park, and Washington Park.

“I love the idea of surprise music that you just happen upon. To have pianos in a public park is such a beautiful statement on access and opportunity,” Erin Flynn, director of kid’s music programs at the Old Town School of Folk Music to the Chicago Tribune last year.

Boxing classes

There are 21 boxing centers in parks across the city that offer free classes for kids ages 8 to 18 years old. Instructors, licensed by the U.S. Amateur Boxing Federation, can help kids train for Golden Gloves and other boxing shows in Chicago. The youth boxing program helped professional boxers and Olympians Michael Bennett, David Diaz, Nate Jones, Leroy Murphy and Montell Griffin get their start.


There are tons of all-level yoga and meditation classes throughout the parks and most of them are free. Some classes take place on the beach, have a Bob Marley theme or are geared towards families. The Garfield Park Conservatory has yoga too and a few classes with goats that visit to graze the grass.


You don’t have to be in the wilderness to get a good look at the night sky. The 606 has a resident astronomer that hosts For the Love of Stars events on the second Friday of each month through December. Look through telescopes set up on the elevated trail to see the stars, constellations, planets and moon.

Bird Walks

The Chicago Audobon leads fall migratory bird walks at the North Park Village Nature Center, a 46-acre natural area on the city’s northwest side. Here, you might see deer too and native landscapes like wetlands, tall grasses, prairies and an oak savanna. The Audobon also has bird walks at Jackson Park’s Wooded Island or the Skokie Lagoons. Another haven for migrating birds and their babies is the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary.

Sound walks

A sound walk is a way to get to know your neighborhood or park better. It’s a chance to take a walk and listen to the gravel underneath your feet, squeaky nearby busses, wind in the trees and birds chirping. Scientists, naturalists, and artists lead walks at Legion Park, Ping Tom Memorial Park and Harrison Park.

Developer Sterling Bay buys former John Hancock Center for $300 million

One of Chicago’s busiest developers has reached a deal to buy one of the city’s most famous buildings—the 100-story skyscraper commonly known as the John Hancock Center.

Sterling Bay will take over the office and parking portions of the high-rise from The Hearn Company for more than $300 million, a source familiar with the transaction told Crain’s on Thursday. The terms of the deal exclude the building’s retail spaces, restaurants, observatory, antennae, and roughly 700 condominiums which all have different owners.

The sale comes just months after the iconic Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill-designed tower ditched the John Hancock name to become officially known as 875 N. Michigan Avenue—a title embraced by exactly zero Chicagoans. Sterling Bay, like Hearn before it, is expected to continue shopping the building’s naming rights to commercial partners.

The tower’s 94th floor 360 Chicago observation deck is not included in the $300 million deal.

The purchase of the former Hancock Center is the latest move in Sterling Bay’s recent buying spree that landed it some of the city’s largest and most recognizable office properties. In February, the company snapped up the former Montgomery Ward warehouse and current Groupon HQ at 600 W. Chicago for $510 million. It closed a deal to acquired the two-tower Prudential Plaza complex for $680 million shortly thereafter.

As the group continues to grow its office portfolio through acquisitions, the Sterling Bay is no stranger to building projects from scratch. The West Loop-based company recently delivered McDonald’s global headquarters in the Fulton Market District and is constructing the first of three office buildings planned along nearby Green Street.

If that was’t enough, Sterling Bay is in the process of seeking zoning approval for its largest project to date, known as Lincoln Yards. This massive mixed-use campus along the Chicago River’s North Branch Industrial Corridor calls for new office towers, hotels, residential buildings, park space, an extension of the 606 Trail, an upgraded Metra station, and an entertainment district anchored by a 20,000-seat stadium.

A rendering of the 70-acre Lincoln Yards project.