Hotel uproar

“This is everything I was afraid it would be,” an elderly man lamented as he looked around Bret Harte Elementary's auditorium, packed with more than 100 people. The windows were open but did little to alleviate the tension in the sweltering room. Posters of modern hotels lined the walls—all built by White Lodging, the Marriott-affiliated company whose executive came to Hyde Park August 5 to update the community about its plans for a hotel on the old Doctors Hospital site. The U of C purchased the shuttered building at 58th Street and Stony Island in 2006 and later leased the property to White Lodging, which hopes to replace the hospital with a hotel including a full-service restaurant and 15,000 feet of meeting space. Individuals and organizations including block clubs, neighborhood associations, preservation activists, and labor unions have objected to the plans. Tuesday's meeting was called by 5th ward alderwoman Leslie Hairston, U-High'79.

Scott Travis, vice president of development for White Lodging, began by emphasizing that the company is a family-owned developer. “It’s bullshit,” a woman in the audience muttered. Travis noted that Hyde Park is not a prime location for a hotel. “The return is marginal at best,” he said. “Building in a residential community comes with some risk. The truth is that the owner’s father received much-needed surgery at the U of C hospitals, which is part of why he’s willing to make this investment. We want to build in Hyde Park. We want to understand the community. And we think a hotel will be a great benefit for the community.”

When Hairston opened the floor to questions and comments, many Hyde Park residents voiced concerns, though some applauded White Lodging’s effort. For example, in response to questions raised at last year's meeting, the company will provide parking for 75 percent of the rooms, Travis said, “way more than typically needed,” as well as an off-site lot for employees.

Residents wanted to know about White Lodging's labor practices and whether it would hire from the community (Travis said they did not discriminate), the effect on local rents (Travis said they didn’t know), the fact that the hotel would serve alcohol (Travis noted, “Our primary role is to put people to sleep”), and possible “synergies”—the word used by the Woodlawn Organization's executive director Carole Millison—between hotel and community.

As the meeting wore on , the atmosphere became increasingly combative. When a member of Unite Here, the textile- and service-workers labor union, asked for a meeting with White Lodging and did not receive an immediate affirmative, members of the crowd began to chant: “Yes or no! Yes or no!”

White Lodging does not plan to use the old structure, but rather to build a hotel “contextual with the neighborhood,” according to Travis. Preserving the building, he said, is “not economically feasible.” He projected 390 rooms, ten more than previously reported by the Maroon, the Hyde Park Herald (text of the July 30 article available here), as well as uchiBLOGo and the U of C Magazine. In discussing the plans, Travis referred to an environmental-impact study, an analysis of the feasibility of preserving the old building, and demographic information about employees. “All of that info is available," he said. "We’re glad to share it.” Hairston suggested that White Lodging bring the studies to the next open meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.

Shira Tevah, '09

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Photos (left to right): Scott Travis from White Lodging discusses the hotel plan; Hyde Park residents listen to his presentation; Alderwoman Hairston moderates during a turbulent moment.

August 8, 2008