West Suburban Medical Center’s bid to build a new emergency room will boom or bust tomorrow night when the Oak Park village board is scheduled to decide the fate of the multimillion-dollar project.
The biggest obstacle standing in the hospital’s way is a two-flat graystone at 209 N. Humphrey Ave., which the village’s Historic Preservation Commission deemed a contributing structure to the Ridgeland/Oak Park Historic District.
The hospital needs the village board to overturn the commission’s decision or, West Sub CEO Jay Kreuzer said, “It’s done.” Remaining money from a promised $73 million infusion from Resurrection when it bought the hospital in 2004 would be reallocated for other capital improvements, Kreuzer said. “There aren’t really any other options.”
West Sub also needs the village board to approve recommendations by the Plan Commission to change zoning of land the two-flat sits on to an H (Hospital) designation and to vacate a portion of Humphrey Avenue.
But many of the hospital’s neighbors hope to become obstacles, too, contending that to allow West Sub to tear down the two-flat would create a precedent that could render useless the village’s historic preservation protections.
At least 10 neighbors had sent e-mails to village trustees urging them to vote against the proposal, one neighbor said Monday, while roughly 40 have signed petitions to stop the project.
“What we’re really trying to show is, despite what the hospital has said, the neighbors do not support this expansion,” said Joe Steffen, of the 200 block of North Taylor Avenue.
Once on board with the project, neighbors like Steffen now say the hospital misled them as to the need for a new facility and that its representatives are playing with the hospital’s financial health.
At issue, the hospital says, is the face-and perhaps future success-of West Sub. Roughly 80 percent of hospital patients come to West Sub through the ER, making first impressions vital, representatives say. Its ER now is cramped, with little waiting room space or room enough in treatment bays for families to join patients.
But neighbors fighting the expansion see approval as another step in the hospital’s encroachment on the neighborhood.
West Sub proposes to build a single-story, 27,000-square-foot facility just west of the hospital, where the two-flat now stands. That placement is crucial, hospital officials say, to keep emergency services close to other related services, such as radiology, where medical scans are performed.
The planning process began in 2005, when the hospital invited neighbors to tour its buildings and to give feedback in the development of the new ER’s design, which features neighborhood-sensitive elements, such as a sally port to damper the noise and light from ambulances, a parking lot to keep cars off Ontario Street, and landscaping to soften the visual impact in the neighborhood.
Neighbors were generally favorable to the design last July, and criticisms since have tended to be less based on the design of the building than the feeling that the hospital deceived and lied to neighbors.
The hospital has touted from the beginning that its current facility was built to handle 35,000 patients, but that the ER now sees more than 50,000 patient visits each year. An October 2005 “fact sheet” produced by the hospital put that figure at 30,000. That exaggerated the need for a new ER, Steffen said.
What was left out was that the ER was renovated to handle roughly 44,000 patients. Steffen said early on that West Sub ought to find space within its current facility in which to expand the ER. He saw that was impossible if the capacity were being increased from 35,000 a year to 50,000 a year. But the revised numbers leads him to believe his original proposal would work.
“That amount of space is available in the existing hospital if you move some things around,” Steffen said.
Absent that, Steffen said he would like to see the hospital move the two-flat north on Humphrey to where other houses remain on the block, just north of the West Sub campus. Not only would that preserve the building, but it would insulate neighbors from future expansion, he said.
Based on property acquisition and other indicators, further expansion to the north seems planned, but hospital officials say that’s not true. West Sub owns 329 N. Humphrey Ave., the middle of three buildings on the west side of the street just north of its campus. Kreuzer has said the hospital buys buildings only in order to expand, but that West Sub does not create long-term plans. That’s typical in the industry, Kreuzer says, because medical technology is constantly changing, and plans made today might be bunk in 10 years.
“Nobody believes that [explanation],” Steffen said.
Oak Park’s comprehensive plan calls for the entire block of 200 N. Humphrey to be zoned H eventually, something West Sub calls attention to in its arguments for rezoning the southern part of Humphrey.
If there is one thing the hospital and neighborhood opponents agree on is the importance of Thursday night’s meeting.
“I don’t think there’s anything beyond this,” Steffen said.CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org