The planned 64-foot-high Wenonah Avenue parking garage felt like a sure thing for Rush Oak Park Hospital last February when the project secured Oak Park village board approval – just weeks before the state began its battle with COVID-19. The future of that garage is now uncertain. In this mid-pandemic world, the project has been put on hold for the foreseeable future.
“The reality is, there’s no money,” said Rush Oak Park CEO Dr. Dino Rumoro, who took the top office in July following the retirement of Bruce Elegant.
As parking remains an issue, the hospital currently faces two options: either filing for an extension on construction with the village of Oak Park or rethinking the project completely. Right now, the hospital is the process of weighing those options.
“We know we need parking, but is that the right place for parking? Is that the right size of parking? There’s a lot to consider,” he said.
In the meantime, Rumoro has met with representatives of a neighborhood organization which has long opposed the massing of the proposed garage on Wenonah Ave. That meeting took place in late September.
David Osta, leader of Center West Oak Park Neighborhood Association, said his group “is pleased the garage has been put on pause, and we hope that becomes permanent.”
Osta, who lives on the 600 block of Wenonah, said the meeting with Rumoro was “very open and forthright and we really hope to continue this new way of interacting with the hospital.”
He said the neighbors offered a number of suggestions to Rumoro for alternatives to adding parking “and he seemed open to exploring options.
With its considerable height and 713 parking spaces, the garage was estimated to cost roughly $27 million in 2019, back when the project was making its rounds through the Oak Park Plan Commission. Whatever funds the hospital had earmarked for the project were diverted into operations when COVID-19 hit, according to Rumoro, also a trained emergency medicine physician.
While a global pandemic could look like a prime money-making opportunity for healthcare institutions, the only departments up and running during the first year of COVID-19 were the emergency department, the intensive care unit and inpatient unit, where medical personnel were taking care of incredibly sick patients. And the state-imposed suspension of all elective surgeries served as a powerful blow to Rush Oak Park’s revenue.
“Those types of procedures are really what generate your bottom line in a hospital,” Rumoro said.
Rush Oak Park surgeons and office doctors were temporarily out of work. People with medical conditions stopped going to the hospital for appointments as they were afraid to leave their homes for fear of catching the highly contagious virus, said the CEO.
“You had to really tap into your days cash on hand to keep things running,” he said.
Without the inclusion of federal stimulus money, Rush Oak Park Hospital and Rush University Medical Center lost a combined $80 million in revenue during the fiscal years of 2020 and 2021 as a result of COVID-19, according to hospital spokesman Bradley Spencer.
The hospital did receive some recovery funding from the government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which served to keep the hospital operating. However, the funding was not enough to recoup the entirety of its revenue losses – nor enough to build the garage.
He believes the hospital has until February to apply for an extension on the garage. The Journal has reached out to the village of Oak Park for confirmation.
Nixing the project, should that come to pass, would likely delight those who live nearby. Residents routinely expressed fears during the planning process that the garage would encroach upon their neighborhoods.
Upon becoming CEO, Rumoro expressed a desire to patch up the hospital’s at-times rocky relationship with neighbors while working alongside them to find solutions that benefit both parties.
“They’d like to be involved in any future plans,” Rumoro said. “I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”
Rumoro himself would prefer to have parking closer to the hospital. He plans to work with engineers to identify opportunities to make that possible. The section of Wenonah set for the garage is currently a hospital-owned surface parking lot, which makes for a nice walk to the hospital on a beautiful day – something that is not always a guarantee in the Chicago area.
“It’s not the distance that’s an issue, but in the elements, it becomes an issue,” he said. “To me, it doesn’t feel like the right place to put our staff and our patients.”
The hospital is in the middle of a staff assessment to determine if certain people can work from home, carpool with each other or take public transportation. Over 40 percent of the hospital’s staff lives within five miles of campus, according to Rumoro. A shuttle service is also being considered for staff, at the suggestion of a member of the Central West Oak Park Neighborhood Association.
In the meantime, parking need remains high and Rush Oak Park is looking for novel ways to meet it, including the recently launched patient valet service. The valet service utilizes the hospital’s new surface lot on Maple Street, a less residential area.
“My team worked closely with the neighbors on making sure we met their needs in terms of landscaping, hardscape and plantings,” said Rumoro.
The Maple Street surface lot has 80 parking spots, which provides some relief to the hospital’s parking situation – just not enough. The hospital still needs campus parking, and it expects the need to increase. But for now, the garage project is in limbo.