With no master plan in hand, Rush Oak Park Hospital went before the Oak Park Plan Commission Jan. 7 and received approval to rezone four South Maple Avenue homes acquired over time by the hospital from residential to hospital use despite having no immediate plans to develop the sites.
“There are no current development plans for this subject parcel,” the hospital’s attorney, Jim Griffin, told the commission.
The unoccupied homes extend along the street from 601 to 615 S. Maple Ave. and were acquired by hospital over the course of roughly two decades. The hospital made its most recent purchase, 613 S. Maple Ave., on Nov. 15, 2019, paying $1 million for the home.
Now, Rush plans to demolish the houses this summer, if not sooner. With the zoning change, the properties will become part of the Rush Oak Park campus and will stand as empty lots until the hospital decides on an end use.
The redevelopment of the parcel is dependent on obtaining hospital board approval and having the available capital, according to Griffin.
“Neither of these have occurred yet,” said Griffin, before reiterating that the hospital had no development plans, material or otherwise, at the moment.
Rezoning the properties at this time allows the hospital to demolish the houses and to avoid “wasteful maintenance costs which they are currently incurring in continuing to maintain these properties,” according to Griffin.
Rush Oak Park Chief Operating Officer Robert Spadoni estimated that the properties generate property taxes within the range of $60,000 to $80,000 a year. As Rush Oak Park operates as a non-profit hospital, rezoning the properties to “hospital” means Rush will no longer have to pay property taxes on the parcels.
According to Griffin, Rush believes the overall benefits of allowing campus expansion and the economic activity that doing so creates outweighs the loss of the property tax on the four plots.
The village staff report, presented by Village Planner Craig Failor, stated that the village found it prudent to rezone the properties for hospital demarcation.
Rush Oak Park has long been a source of consternation for some who live in the adjacent neighborhoods and feel encroached upon by the hospital’s expansion, which includes the proposed 713-spot Wenonah Avenue parking structure awaiting village board approval.
The hospital’s history of irregular communication with the neighbors and its lack of a public master plan has only increased feelings of distrust and discontent, which several public commenters spoke to during the Jan. 7 meeting.
“The typical pattern of these engagements is for Rush to claim that they don’t have a plan and then withhold that information until they drop something huge out of the sky on top of the neighborhood,” David Osta said.
Rachel Hahs thanked the commission for encouraging Rush to engage more with neighborhood stakeholders but stated that neighbors lacked agency within the development process.
“Oak Park residents really have no avenues to become involved in the process from the inception of a project with the village,” said Hahs, referring to the period before a public notice is posted and before the project’s Plan Commission hearing.
“Residents feel sidelined and angry when these applications come out because it seems like a done deal already.”
While Commissioner Jon Hale felt it made sense for the hospital to want to align the homes’ zoning with its campus, he agreed with neighbors in regard to planning.
“Rush Oak Park should have a master plan in place,” Hale said.
When asked by Wednesday Journal if Rush had submitted a master plan to the village, Village Planner Craig Failor said, “I have not seen one.”
Without having development plans, Commissioner Lawrence Brozek told his commissioners that he felt no need to move forward presently.
“What is the urgency to have this rezoned if there’s no plans for it?” Brozek asked.
Commissioner Paul May felt similarly but stated he would consider changing the zoning if Rush Oak Park had actual plans to develop the properties.
“I do not see any reason to make a zoning change to allow for the demolition of those properties,” said May. “That can happen without a zoning change.”
Commissioner Jeff Foster supported making the change, explaining that the change offers some safeguards for the public because it limits Rush to only hospital-zoned property uses. Any other uses would require the hospital to go through the Plan Commission.
The commission voted 7-2 to approve the change, with May and Brozek casting the dissenting votes.
Prior to the vote, Chair Iris Sims affirmed the community’s rocky history with the hospital, especially in regard to the master plan:
“The purpose of bringing up that plan was to address what we’ve heard tonight, which is there is a history with Rush Oak Park that’s created a trust breach.”
Sims still Plan Commission chair
After making a surprise move to resign as chair in a moment of frustration during the Dec. 23 Plan Commission meeting, Iris Sims apparently changed her mind.
Without mentioning her sudden exit or the insinuations of sexism she lobbed in the direction of male commissioners, Sims returned to business as usual during the Jan. 7 Plan Commission meeting, which included a zoning request from Rush Oak Park Hospital.
Although her husband serves on the hospital’s board, Sims stated during the meeting she did not have a conflict of interest regarding Rush Oak Park Hospital’s request to change the zoning of its South Maple Avenue properties. Her husband’s position is unpaid and therefore neither he nor she stood to make any financial gains as a result of the hearing, according to Sims.
While Sims did not return Wednesday Journal’s request for comment, Village Planner Craig Failor confirmed Sims’s status.
“Iris Sims is the chair of the Plan Commission,” Failor told Wednesday Journal in an email sent Jan. 8.