The Oak Park Plan Commission recently voted against a common-sense zoning reform that would re-establish similar standards for both Oak Park hospitals and guarantee neighbors of Rush Oak Park Hospital a voice in any future developments.

Four residents who own property close to Rush Oak Park proposed lowering the maximum height on parts of the campus to 50 feet, along with modest increases in setbacks to ensure that any new buildings would step down into the neighborhood. This would reduce shadows, canyon-like effects and other negative impacts.

Zoning regulations applicable to Rush Oak Park would be consistent with West Suburban Hospital. Both hospital zones are in residential neighborhoods, with Rush Oak Park being the closest to homes.

The plan commission chair, Iris Sims, refused to recuse herself, even though her husband is a member of the Rush Oak Park Hospital board. Ms. Sims appeared friendly with the hospital CEO, referring to him repeatedly by his first name, and allowed the hospital attorney to interrupt the applicants’ presentation. Not surprisingly, she voted against the zoning reform. Other commissioners followed Ms. Sims’ lead.

The commission essentially ignored the merits of the case while accepting without question a misleading report by village staff. Commissioners who voted “No” stated, incorrectly, that the zoning reforms would handcuff the hospital. And most disturbingly, several commissioners said, contrary to the zoning ordinance, that residents should have no right to propose zoning changes in their own neighborhood.

In 2017, village staff requested that West Suburban and Oak Park hospitals agree to a reduction of maximum heights in certain portions of their campuses, from 125 feet to 50 feet, because the hospitals are so close to homes. West Suburban agreed, but Rush Oak Park Hospital agreed only to reducing the height to 80 feet on the east side of campus.

Village staff now oppose the precise height restriction they previously recommended. In justifying this reversal, staff used apples-to-oranges metrics to make it appear that Rush Oak Park is farther from the neighborhood and thus should be allowed higher maximum heights. For example, in the hospital zone, staff measured the distance from a Rush building to residences, while in the West Suburban district, it measured the distance from the hospital property line to the nearest residential property line. Rush neighbors presented photos, maps and measurements that clearly demonstrate that Rush Oak Park in reality is much closer to homes — in some cases only 7 feet — than West Suburban.

Some commissioners bought the hospital’s doomsday speculation that the zoning reforms would “threaten our future” as an inpatient facility. In fact, the zoning reforms allow significant flexibility. For example, there would be no change in the height over the Emergency Department, which was built to accommodate additional floors if necessary. Similarly, there would be no change in the height over the footprint of the original hospital. A Rush report said the old hospital complex has reached the end of its “useful life and is approaching replacement.” Should the hospital want to build higher than the proposed limits elsewhere on campus, it would be free to petition the village for a zoning variance and then make its case before the plan commission and village board. This would ensure residents would have a voice in the process.

Article 14.1 of the Zoning Ordinance clearly states “a property owner in the village” can propose changes to the ordinance. The four residents who proposed the zoning reform all meet this requirement. Nevertheless, several commissioners parroted Rush’s lawyers by insisting that residents living next to a hospital zone have no business even proposing zoning changes. 

If the village board adopts this biased position, it would set a disturbing precedent: A commercial property owner could propose zoning changes to improve its bottom line, but neighboring residents would be denied a similar right to propose reforms to protect their neighborhood.

The plan commission is advisory, so the village board is not bound to follow the commission’s anti-resident recommendation. We’re confident that, if the village board examines the proposed zoning reform objectively and on its merits, it will adopt zoning changes that rebalance the needs of the hospital and the neighborhood. The proposed zoning reforms would protect families, children and property values while giving Rush the flexibility to continue to grow and prosper.

Anne Frueh, Bruno Graziano, David Osta, Jim Ritter, and Mike Weik are members of the Center West Oak Park Neighborhood Association.

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