A rendering of the proposed Bronzeville Lakefront redevelopment.
A rendering of the proposed Bronzeville Lakefront redevelopment. Credit: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill / Courtesy

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When Michael Reese Hospital opened its doors in 1881, it was one of the few hospitals to admit patients regardless of race or religion. The hospital, located in Bronzeville on Chicago’s Near South Side, was also innovative in its medical operations, constructing the first incubator station for premature babies. 

After the hospital closed its doors in 2008, the site was cleared as part of Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The parcel has since stood vacant for more than a decade, an expensive financial drain for which the city still owed more than $56 million of its original $91 million purchase price to its former owners as of May 2020. 

However, thanks to a $3.6 billion proposal recently approved by the Chicago Plan Commission, nearly 49 acres of the Bronzeville Lakefront site are one step closer to once again becoming a productive parcel of real estate, pending final approval by the City Council. The master plan includes mixed-income senior housing as well as mixed-income residential housing for younger individuals and families, and commercial office space. 

The 500,000-square-foot Chicago ARC (Accelerate, Redesign, Collaborate) Innovation building will house state-of-the-art medical research facilities along with retail space and a community center. The initial phase of the project is projected to create more than 17,000 construction jobs and more than 30,000 permanent jobs, according to Morgan Malone, director of development and external affairs for Farpoint Development. The fully developed Bronzeville Lakefront site will cover approximately 100 acres with a total price tag of $7 billion, along with creating thousands more jobs.

An early proposal to include a casino in the development was roundly criticized and flatly rejected by City Council member Sophia King, who represents Chicago’s 4th Ward, where the site is located. Instead, residential, commercial and cultural elements will be developed in phases over the next 20 years. Distinct areas of open space have been designated as cultural ribbons, civic parks and social rooms. 

The one remaining structure on the site, the Singer Pavilion, will be reimagined as potentially “the greenest building in the country,” according to Dawveed Scully, associate director and senior urban designer for Chicago architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

In its focus on sustainability and energy efficiency, executed through an equity lens, the development of the reimagined Bronzeville Lakefront follows the original vision as a hospital that defied segregation against Black patients from its inception, and as an innovator in its operations.

The redevelopment plans imagine mixed-income housing, medical research facilities, retail and office space, and a community center. Credit: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill / Courtesy

Promoting sustainability

The original hospital campus integrated a variety of architectural styles, with lush greenery providing a park-like setting and a board policy to keep the grounds open to the public. The influence of the hospital’s history, innovation and mission is reflected in its redevelopment plans, while taking advantage of 21st-century innovation and technological advances, according to Scully.

“We have a very similar amount of open space, to allow for people to connect through and to traverse the site, provide light and air,” Scully said. “[We’re] really looking to bring a lot of those big ideas into the 21st century with things that we know and have learned since then, because there’s been so many advancements that we’ve really started to take advantage of.” 

Scully also mentioned improving the overall energy efficiency of the Singer Pavilion. Like many midcentury modernist buildings, it was constructed with little regard for conservation. 

“Right now, there’s a single [layer of] brick and concrete framing, and there’s no insulation in the walls,” Scully said. “The performance from an energy perspective isn’t there, so we’re trying to really find ways to improve that, but also the function of the building. 

“We’re still trying to work from a structural, from a spatial perspective … reconfiguring it in a way that would allow for some really interesting programmatic uses and potentially expansion, like access on the rooftop. There’s some kind of marginal access to it [now]. I think we had to climb through a window or something. The idea of rooftop access is something that we’re really interested in because you get really fantastic views out to the lakefront.” 

A goal for the redeveloped site is to meet the rigorous sustainability standards of the Living Building Challenge for individual buildings, as well as obtaining Living Community Challenge status for the entire Bronzeville Lakefront development. To that end, having Jason McLennan on the design team has been a definite advantage, according to Scully. McLennan is the creator of the Living Building Challenge, and also a primary author of the WELL Building Standard.

One approach under consideration is “biophilia,” which Scully describes as “really another fancy word for access to nature.”

“We as humans have a connection to nature and water and vegetation and plants and ecosystem. So, providing access to that, that’s also providing both a stormwater functionality, a micro-climate functionality,” Scully said.

“One of the other things that we’re looking at is this idea of how does the massing” — a simplified three-dimensional form representing future buildings — “respond to light and air and solar considerations? So, we put a lot of work into sort of conceptual massing around solar access. [We’re] starting to look at wind direction and making sure that the massing isn’t creating these wind tunnels that move and create negative conditions or bad conditions in the wintertime, [and] integrating solar to really find opportunities to generate energy on-site.” 

A rendering of the proposed Bronzeville Lakefront redevelopment. Credit: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill / Courtesy

Enhancing energy efficiency

Thomas McElroy, the founder of Level-1 Global Solutions, LLC, a Chicago-based technology infrastructure firm, said the site provides a chance to “visit completely how you would structure your electrical power.”

“Now you’ve got an opportunity to put something in the ground that [will do a] substantially better job of moving that current from the beginning of that cable all the way to the end of that cable, no matter how long it is, because of new innovations and new technologies in power distribution that exist now that didn’t exist before,” McElroy said.

With any major development, energy needs for various users must be considered early in the process. For the Bronzeville Lakefront, this not only involves retrofitting the Singer Pavilion, but developing infrastructure for new construction of labs, office spaces and residential buildings, all of which will require substantial amounts of power and fiber optic connectivity. The ability to upgrade systems to accommodate future needs is also vital, McElroy said.

“The kind of individuals who will be using this building, all of them are going to have a device in their pocket all day, all night,” McElroy said. “All of them will be streaming video all day, all night. All of them will be using various forms of connectivity all day, all night. And that infrastructure has to be planned for literally at the beginning of trying to figure out what this building’s going to be.” 

Incorporating an energy efficiency system much like the one in operation at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, which combines battery power with a solar component, is one possibility for the redeveloped site. Solar energy, the Internet of Things, microgrids or smart grid technology could also come into play. And while creating a connection to the existing microgrid on the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology campus is a possibility, no final decision has been made, according to McElroy.

Community development and stakeholder input 

Input from members of the community has also played a critical role in every phase of planning for transforming the now-vacant former Michael Reese Hospital site into a vibrant and sustainable Bronzeville Lakefront, Scully said.

“We’ve been working closely with the alderman [King] and the Michael Reese Advisory Committee, which is a group of residents that range in experience from folks who are designers and architects, to community activists and others who have really helped to guide this process along,” Scully said.

“Because of that rich group, that’s really kept it going. The alderman and her continued input and push to make sure that something happens on the site, and that what happens really is a significant community benefit. It has been just really great to see and to be part of the entire process.”

Audrey Henderson

Audrey Henderson is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts related to policy and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications.