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09.06.2012
Saintly Ambitions
Chicago community hospital spearheads mixed-use campus model.
The mixed-use hospital complex opens onto a soccer field.
Courtesy HDR

A few years ago then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and some aldermen toured Saint Anthony Hospital in Lawndale. The hospital provided community programs and charity care for an area that sorely needed it, but the operation had fallen on hard times financially.

Not long afterward, Alderman Ricardo Muñoz called up Saint Anthony Ministries CEO Guy A. Medaglia with a question: If the 22nd Ward gave 11 acres of property to Saint Anthony Ministries, what would they do with it?

They could have just built a bigger hospital. Instead Saint Anthony and Muñoz worked up plans for a 1-million-square-foot campus designed to provide 2,100 construction jobs and, Medaglia believes, a unique model for community development.

Focal Point, as the project at 31st Street and South Kedzie Avenue is called, includes big-box and local retail, a charter school, childcare, green space, and hospitality suites for large functions like weddings and graduations. “At this point,” Medaglia said, “the hospital is just a tenant.”

The timing was perfect, Muñoz said. Formerly home to Washburne Trade School, the vacant lot at the east end of Little Village was already a target for the ward’s efforts to expand public green space. “It was kind of like a marriage made in heaven of healthy uses for that site,” Muñoz said. Plans call for four acres of green space, including a soccer field and an open courtyard, in addition to an economic boost specifically designed to stay in the community.

 
The complex will feature transparent glass and large trusses. A courtyard will open onto recreational fields.
 

Revenue from the campus’ various leases will help support the non-profit’s community education and wellness programs that would otherwise rely mainly upon mercurial government funding. “This self-sustaining model was very appealing to people that fund these kinds of initiatives,” Medaglia said. “They saw their money lasting longer.”

Designing the ambitious complex also called for a new model from its architecture firm, HDR. The team worked collaboratively with community members to identify the neighborhood’s needs. The campus will serve more than 400,000 residents from the nearby neighborhoods of Little Village, Pilsen, North Lawndale, Brighton Park, Back of the Yards, and Archer Heights. Three firms presented plans to Saint Anthony, which put them to the community for a vote. They chose HDR’s plan.

“It’s meaningful for us on a personal level,” said Abigail Clary, HDR’s director of healthcare for the central region. “With healthcare architecture you’re always helping someone, but we’re connected to the people we’re actually going to help. That’s very unusual.”

The firm led an extensive study in partnership with the University of Nebraska that “attempts to bring evidence-based design to the community scale,”according to the report. Even though the study has been completed, the work isn’t done, according to principal investigator Sheila Elijah-Barnwell. “We’ll be back after it’s occupied, measuring the outcomes,” she said. “It doesn’t just end with opening a beautiful building.”

 

Collaboration is not without its hang-ups. Managing the variety of programs onsite was challenging, Elijah-Barnwell said, as the team tried to avoid chaotic circulation. And ambition breeds new problems. “When I told the architects we need all movable walls in the hospital,” Medaglia said, “they looked at me like I had 16 heads.”

The solution to that problem is still on the way, Clary said, but the team already fielded a design curveball that arose during community outreach. Among the key requests from Focal Point’s future neighbors was a soccer field. HDR happily obliged, but worked to avoid a stiff divide between the field and the project’s other programs. “One of the goals was to pull all the outdoor space into the center of that campus for a community feeling,” Clary said, “instead of a field on one side and buildings on the other.”

The field is connected to a 22,000-square-foot courtyard in the center of campus by green space underneath one of the two-story skyways that link the three main buildings. Trussing girds those connecting retail structures with a pattern that recalls downtown’s Hancock Tower as well as bridges elsewhere along the industrial corridor in which the site sits. An abundance of glass on the larger structures alludes to transparency—a theme which could be key if Medaglia’s vision is to hold true. He wants Focal Point to be a nationwide model for community hospitals from Los Angeles to the Bronx.

“This is a big project. But the more people began supporting the concept, the more viable it became,” said Medaglia, who left his career in financial consulting to chair Saint Anthony. “Gradually we’ve made believers out of the people who said it couldn’t work.”

Chris Bentley