Rush Oak Park Hospital left the Oak Park village board meeting Feb. 1 victorious, having successfully secured approval to build a 713-space, 64-foot-high parking garage and to vacate a portion of Monroe Street, as well as approval to rezone hospital-owned Maple Avenue properties without having any announced development plans for them.
After listening to multiple public comments from residents who live near the hospital, reminding the board of the rocky history with Rush Oak Park, Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb started off the discussion by praising the health provider for its investment in the community, saying, “We love having the hospital in Oak Park.”
In addition to creating an online petition asking the village board to vote against the three Rush proposals, neighbors have routinely decried Rush Oak Park as having little interest in maintaining good relations with them. The village board’s response was roundly that they are “sympathetic.” Trustees Dan Moroney, Simone Boutet and Deno Andrews all used that same word before going on to vote in favor of a new 64-foot parking garage, not the 54-foot structure as recommended by the Plan Commission.
Abu-Taleb and Trustee Jim Taglia also voted in favor, while Trustee Susan Buchanan voted against it. Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla was absent from the meeting.
The garage will sit on a former surface level parking lot and abut the residential neighborhood around it. The plan has been under discussion for over a year, with the project first going before the Plan Commission in November 2019, where then-Chair David Mann criticized the hospital for failing to meet with neighbors ahead of time, an ongoing concern of neighbors.
“It seems to me, you should meet with the community before you come to us,” Mann said. “I know you’re not required to do a community meeting, but it seems to me, as a neighbor, it would be appropriate.”
Having later met with neighbors, the project returned Feb. 20, 2020 with a modified design, but plan commissioners made clear they wanted to see one floor removed from the 64-foot, 713-space garage, although zoning allows a maximum height of 80 feet.
Rush Oak Park returned to the commission March 5, 2020, when the hospital’s operations vice president Robert Spadoni called removing a floor “cost prohibitive.”
Despite that, the plan commission voted to approve the project with several conditions, most particularly that the hospital lower the height of the garage by 10 feet, eight inches – essentially one full level.
Spadoni reminded the commission of the 80 feet maximum during the March 5 meeting, “Just so we’re clear, this is zoned [hospital and in [hospital], we can build what we’re due, but we’re trying to be a good neighbor in that regard.”
During the Feb. 1 village board meeting, current Plan Commission Chair Iris Sims addressed the dissatisfaction of neighbors, saying that it stemmed, not from the parking garage process, but from interactions years before, going against what neighbors stated in public comment. Sims, whose husband sits on the hospital board, has previously stated she has no conflict of interest in voting on Rush Oak Park proposals.
Sims misrepresented the height condition laid forth by the Plan Commission, saying that former chair David Mann was “simply trying to be responsive to the community,” after hearing their “grumbling” over the hospital’s lack of communication.
In fact, Mann was upfront about his skepticism over the proposed 64-foot height during the Feb. 25, 2020 commission meeting, saying, “I think the hospital needs the parking; I think that’s clear. I’m not sure if they need all 700 spaces,” said Mann. “For me, taking one floor off would be a big improvement and still gets you over 600 spaces.”
Spadoni told the village board that the garage was meant to prevent patients from parking on residential streets and that he was disheartened by the neighborhood’s reaction to the structure.
Buchanan was the only trustee to state that she preferred the 54-foot structure as recommended by the Plan Commission, and not Rush’s preferred height, which was backed by village staff.
Moroney said he was an “enthusiastic yes” on the 64-foot garage structure and praised the hospital for being the village’s biggest taxpayer.
“While I heard in public comments that Rush has not been a good neighbor, I question why that is,” said Moroney. “I don’t think that claim is necessarily true.”
The hospital “transformed” the west end of Madison Street and created thousands of jobs, according to Moroney.
“Change will always be hard; it will feel like an infringement on the neighboring houses, the neighboring blocks and I’m sympathetic to that,” said Moroney. “While I’m sympathetic, I feel like our job as municipal government is to be a partner to Rush Oak Park.”
Although she voted against the 64-foot garage, Buchanan voted in favor of changing the zoning on the hospital’s request to vacate a portion of Monroe Street and to change the zoning on the hospital’s Maple Avenue properties, both of which passed 4-0.