Northwestern Scales Back Streeterville Skyscraper Scheme

Drawing of Northwestern's proposed new hospital tower

Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which has been on a construction binge for much of the last decade, is moving ahead with plans for its newest skyscraper — a 24-story building at 259 East Erie Street.

The institution presented a revised plan for the building to a meeting of neighbors this past Tuesday. Officially it will be known as The Northwestern Memorial Hospital Outpatient Care Pavilion.  According to Crain’s Chicago Business, “the centerpiece of the building will be a Musculoskeletal Institute, which will occupy four floors and offer specialties such as orthopedics and neurology.”

The new plan has been scaled back from the one previously floated.  The building has been reduced in height by one story, and the floor space has been trimmed by 57,000 square feet.  The building will now be just under 404 feet tall, about the same as the new Children’s Memorial Hospital and the office building at 215 East Erie Street.

Northwestern has already started demolition of the existing buildings in this location, and wants to finish the new building by the end of 2014,  It argues in its Streeterville Fact Sheet that president Obama’s health care reform efforts make the new building necessary.  “Today, the demand for healthcare in Streeterville exceeds the available space. This will only be exacerbated when healthcare reform is fully implemented in 2014. “

Here are the highlights:

  • Addresses: 240 East Ontario Street and 259 East Erie Street
  • 993,000 square feet
  • 575-space parking garage
  • 8 floors of offices
  • 2 floors “public” and retail space
  • Connected to other hospital buildings by skybridges
  • Drive-though access
  • Aiming for LEED status

There are a few curiosities about this building.  Primary among them, the fact that it will have eight floors of office space.  Space that Northwestern has recently stated it doesn’t need.

It was just this past May that Northwestern representatives met with neighborhood activists, residents, and preservationists to talk about the old Prentice Women’s Hospital, which is slated for demolition.

At that meeting in the John Hancock Center, Ron Naylor, Northwestern University’s Vice President of Facilities Management was asked why Prentice couldn’t be repurposed as office space for the growing hospital.  As we noted in an article following the meeting, “The notion of using the Prentice building as offices was dismissed immediately.  Naylor stated that Northwestern doesn’t need any office space right now, and if it needs any in the future, it will just lease space on the open market in nearby buildings.”

It is unclear what has changed in the last five months that now necessitates so much new office space, or why Prentice remains ineligible to be reused in this capacity.

(Editor’s note: See the comments section for updated clarification about the difference between Northwestern University/Prentice Hospital and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.)

Northwestern also keeps making statements in its literature about how its new buildings contribute positively to the Streeterville neighborhood.  Many who actually live in Streeterville would dispute that.

Drawing of Northwestern's proposed new hospital towerEvery time Northwestern links another building to its skywalk network, it further removes itself from the neighborhood; becoming both literally and figuratively “above” those who make their homes nearby.  Northwestern’s skywalk network has done more to destroy the urban/pedestrian character of Streeterville than any other single entity.  There’s more street life in car-obsessed Houston, Texas than in Northwstern’s corner of Streeterville.

To its credit, Northwestern has modified the plan for this newest building to address some of the concerns of local residents.  One of those modifications from the previous plan reduces the number of skywalks from three to two.  Both skywalks will now be at the second-floor level.  There is no longer a 10th-floor skybridge linking the new building to the Feinberg Pavilion.

In addition, the loading dock has been moved underground, and concealed behind a door matching the building’s glass facade.  Previously the loading bays were at street level, destroying any opportunity for creating a pedestrian-friendly corridor.  There were also worries about trucks backing up into the bays.  Now trucks will enter the building’s basement via a ramp, and be able to turn around inside.

Northwestern also claims that it brings retail opportunities to the area. “[Northwestern’s new buildings] bring new customers to local businesses and provide new food and retail opportunities for local residents” according to its web site.

This seems unlikely since the retail options aren’t entirely open to the outside world.  They’re behind a wall.  You have to access them from inside Northwestern’s insulated ecosystem.  Even shops that have windows to the outside world must be accessed by walking all the way around to the other side of the building and getting to them from the interior arcade.  From a  design point of view, it is overtly hostile.

Even worse — Northwestern’s security staff is apparently unaware that the hospital has public spaces.  The new Outpatient building is supposed to have public space on the first and second floors.  However, more than once I have been stopped by Northwestern security officers who insist that I need a visitors badge just to go to the Starbucks.  Again, the hospital continues to create an overtly hostile atmosphere, in spite of what its public relations department puts in print.

However, the number of changes made to this building indicate a willingness by Northwestern to listen to the concerns of the local community.  This is very different from the reception people got during the Prentice debate, when Northwestern’s representatives displayed a we-kn0w-better-than-you-little-people attitude.

The next stop is the City of Chicago’s Plan Commission’s November meeting.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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