No SOAR losers at Children's Memorial

Streeterville group buries the hatchet on heliport debate

04/25/2012 10:00 PM

Contributing Reporter

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After years spent fighting a plan to allow emergency helicopter flights in their neighborhood, one Streeterville community group is ready to throw in the towel.

Children’s Memorial Hospital, a 130-year-old pediatric care provider with roots on the city’s North Side, will soon be moving from its current home near the intersection of Halsted Street and Lincoln Avenue to its new digs in the considerably more vertical neighborhood of Streeterville.

The hospital’s arrival, slated for June 9, has been generally regarded as a good thing. Children’s had long since outgrown its 50-year-old Lincoln Park facility, and the move to the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, at 225 E. Chicago Ave., will bring the hospital within arm’s reach of the city’s finest medical institutions, including the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, with which it will share a campus.

But not everyone has welcomed the move.

Since Children’s announced plans to relocate back in 2006, a vocal group of residents have called to question the potential safety risks surrounding the hospital’s proposal to operate an emergency helicopter landing pad atop the forthcoming Lurie building.

That charge has been led by the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, a nonprofit community group that holds court over the affluent Near North Side neighborhood.

Members of SOAR have said that wind patterns caused by the area’s numerous skyscrapers could pose dangerous flying conditions for the helicopters, which are expected to make about 75 trips to the facility annually.

The group hired lawyers, wind experts and helicopter pilots to prove their case during numerous public hearings hosted by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Last year, taking recommendations from its own study, IDOT handed the final approval for Children’s to operate the heliport. SOAR promised to appeal the decision.

“Many serious and significant safety issues and concerns raised by SOAR’s experts still remain,” wrote Patty Frost, a SOAR board member, in October.

That may have been the last word on the matter, as the group has recently shown signs that it is ready to call a truce with its soon-to-be new neighbor.

Bruce Corson has served as SOAR’s president since December, and before then he sat on the group’s board of directors.

With Children’s Streeterville debut less than two months away, Corson said that his membership is more than ready to put the heliport debate behind them.

“For some SOAR members, it’s been a very painful issue,” he said.

Though recommendations against the helipad were often attributed to SOAR as a whole, Corson said that consensus among the group was never unanimous.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate to paint all of SOAR with this brush,” he said. “On the other side, it would be wrong of us to say that because of the heliport issue, Children’s is a group that we can’t work with.”

As a group that often weighs in on development proposals in the tightly-wrapped Streeterville district, SOAR has maintained friendly-yet-realistic relationships with most medical institutions in the area.

When Northwestern University — which houses SOAR’s main office — laid plans to build a parking garage in the area, the group spent two years negotiating height and density concessions for the structure’s design, which eventually won approval from City Council with SOAR’s blessing.

More recently, the group sided with Northwestern when it matched up against preservationists opposing the university’s plans to raze its Prentice Women’s Hospital building.

“We can disagree with any of the institutions in our market,” said Corson.

Corson’s decision to quash the heliport debate will likely be met with little resistance from within SOAR’s ranks. Patty Frost, who led the group’s testimony in the state-commissioned public hearings over the proposal, has since left the board.

Frost declined to comment for this story.

Mary Kate Daly, a spokeswoman for Children’s, said that the hospital was pleased with Corson’s leadership.

“We look forward to working productively with SOAR on behalf of the hospital and the community just as we have worked with Lincoln Park community leaders and neighbors for so many years,” she wrote in an email.

Corson echoed that sentiment, adding that he hoped one day the dispute over heliport would be looked upon as an “anomaly” in SOAR’s history with Children’s.

“We’re both here to stay,” he said.

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By ChicagoPJS from Lincoln Park
Posted: 04/26/2012 9:43 AM

Finally, some common ground between a major neighborhood entity and the surrounding resident organization. Kudos to Children's and the new board president at SOAR, I say.