Carle expansion worries neighbors

Erica Magda

By Pamela Nisivaco

There is an unmarked dividing line directly to the south of Jeff and Cathy Cunningham’s home at 801 N. Coler Ave., Urbana. Only steps from the garden the couple planted outside its dining room’s picture window, the line separates the houses owned by Carle Foundation Hospital and those bought from the facility since about 1995.

Although the hospital has attempted to reassure the Cunninghams and their neighbors regarding any future expansion plans up to that line, homeowners are concerned about losing the character of their neighborhood.

The Cunninghams and their 10-year-old son Michael live in a bungalow-style home they bought from Carle in 1996. The oak woodwork lining the ceilings and the baseboards in some of the rooms attracted them despite the need for major repairs to the house.

The Cunninghams spent every summer and holiday break for the five years following their purchase repairing their house and invested about $30,000 in those repairs.

“Our home was basically unlivable when we bought it from Carle,” Jeff said.

The broken furnace resulted in frozen and broken pipes during the winter. The basement walls still have a flood line about a foot above the floor. The two said they are unsure how long the water remained in the basement.

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Another water pipe had burst in the kitchen and Cathy and Jeff were able to follow the water stain along the floor from the kitchen to where it finally emptied into a vent in the floor of another room. The floor in the kitchen was so warped it buckled. In addition to replacing the broken furnace, the Cunninghams also put in a new roof, an air conditioner, a new hot water heater and all of the appliances in the kitchen.

“I feel like we know every inch of (our home),” Cathy said.

The hospital’s Medical Institutional Campus District ends at Church Street, across the street from the south end of the Cunninghams’ block.

Jeff said he and his wife are worried about future plans to expand the MIC District further into the neighborhood, which they learned about at a neighborhood meeting held by Carle last February.

Carle had proposed tearing down houses next to their residence and building surface parking in the next five years, he said.

“We don’t feel it is necessary for them to tear down all these houses for parking,” Cathy added.

Carle’s expansion plans

Most of the houses to the south and east of the Cunninghams are owned and rented out by Carle. Cathy and Jeff said the majority of the homes are rented to nurses and other employees doing their residency at Carle Hospital. Some of the other houses are rented to families who have children attending St. Joseph’s Institute for the Deaf at Carle so they can be close to the school, Cathy said. Because the people in those homes don’t usually stay long, Cathy said it has been difficult getting to know their neighbors. Jeff and Cathy developed better relationships with their neighbors to the north who are homeowners.

In preliminary discussions about future expansion of the MIC District, one of the proposed options was to create more parking, but it was not a definite plan, said Gretchen Robbins, director of public relations for Carle Hospital.

“We’re confident we can manage our parking (within the MIC District), even with the new construction, without needing to expand,” she said.

Carle is still uncertain of when it might seek to expand beyond the limits of the MIC District. When it does decide to pursue further developments, the hospital will need the Urbana City Council’s approval.

If Carle were to develop further into the neighborhood, the Cunninghams would worry about a decrease in property values.

Construction on Carle’s current expansion project – a Heart and Vascular Institute on Coler Avenue within its MIC District – may begin within the next six to nine months after state approval is granted, Robbins said. The hospital will be better able to serve the growing need for cardiovascular services.

The Cunninghams said they are not against Carle building this new center, but Cathy said the project would inconvenience them. It is necessary as the baby boom generation nears retirement age, and the hospital needs the capacity for added patients, Jeff said. He also said he applauds Carle for building within its MIC District rather than taking farmland.

Carle Foundation Hospital is the region’s only Level I Trauma Center, a classification based on the hospital’s availability of a variety of specialists and equipment 24 hours a day, a research program, a leader in trauma education and injury prevention and a tool used by other communities in neighboring areas.

Robbins said one of the first things to understand about a trauma center is that it consists of a group of highly skilled professionals available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to give care to people who have experienced major trauma.

The goal of the Heart and Vascular Institute is to centralize all services related to the cardiovascular system and the heart, Robbins said. All services will be offered together in the proposed eight-floor, 240,000 square-foot building, she said.

The first two floors of the building will house the heart center, offices and labs. The third and fourth floors are mechanical floors, not related to cardiovascular or heart health, while the fifth and sixth will be specifically designated for cardiovascular and heart patients. The top two floors will be for general-need patients.

“(The cardiovascular and heart institute is) an important component of our community’s economy and our neighbor’s heart care,” Robbins said.

Changing a neighborhood

The construction within the district will still affect the Cunninghams because one of the first steps in the expansion process was securing the closure of certain streets in the area.

At the Sept. 17 meeting of the Urbana City Council, Park Street extending from Lincoln Avenue to Coler Avenue, Coler Avenue from University Avenue to Church Street, Busey Avenue from University Avenue to Park Street and from Park Street to Church Street, were approved by the Council for sale to Carle from the city. The streets will eventually be closed to through-traffic once state approval allows construction to begin, Robbins said. The project cannot go forward until that approval is given, she said.

The hospital needed access rights to the location of the proposed building, including the purchase of the streets, before it could proceed with its application for state approval, Robbins said.

Carle previously expanded between 1993 and 1995, and Robbins said some people believed because the hospital has been through the process before, it will be easier the second time around. Still, there were concerned neighbors and new neighbors to take into account. It took nearly three years to work through the first agreement, and one of the concessions was to sell back a portion of the homes Carle owned, Robbins said.

“The intent was to sell back those homes to maintain stability of the neighborhood,” she said.

Robbins said the neighbors defined stability of the neighborhood as owner-occupied homes rather than rentals.

To ensure the public had a voice in this new expansion project, Carle distributed postcards in the neighborhood asking if residents supported the expansion, Robbins said. The hospital received 906 responses. About 17 opposed the expansion, she said.

Although construction will only affect the portion of Coler Avenue north of Park Street and a small area to the left of Coler Avenue, there was a need to protect the safety of civilians on the hospital’s campus by closing other streets as well, she said.

“There’s a lot of potential for vehicular and pedestrian conflict on these streets,” Robbins said.

Cathy said the street closures will affect she and her husband every day because they will no longer be able to use Coler Avenue south of Church Street, forcing them to use main roads rather than side streets.

The street closures will cut down on through-traffic, so the positive aspects should be considered too, she said.

A stop light will be installed at the intersection of Church Street and Lincoln Avenue to make it more convenient for residents.

“The public would be upset with the Council if we allowed them to close the streets without getting something in return,” Charlie Smyth, Ward 1, said after the Council’s Sept. 17 meeting. “In this case, we’re getting a modern hospital wing.”

Giving something back

Shelia Buchanan, whose home is located directly behind the Cunninghams’, said she thinks Carle’s heart facility will be good for the neighborhood, but the hospital needs to give something more back to the community other than the institute. She said Carle could build a community center, decided by a majority of the people, to add to the neighborhood without bringing down property values.

“Carle needs to put something back for the people who actually live in this neighborhood,” she said.

Buchanan does not care about the expansion or the street closures. The extra street light may allow residents in the area to get out more than anyone, she said.

Her top priority was maintaining ownership of her house, which she has been assured of by Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, Buchanan said.

The mayor went to several neighborhood meetings last spring and reassured residents that no home would be taken as long as she is mayor. She stands by that statement.

“Neighbors like their neighborhood and don’t want it destroyed,” Prussing said.

About 10 or 15 years ago, Prussing said there was bad blood between the neighborhood and Carle, but it has since improved. The mayor and other Council members talked with both neighbors and Carle to let them know each side has concerns, and the city will work with both sides to come up with the best possible solution for everyone.

Buchanan said any deals made to sell a house to Carle would be between the homeowner and Carle. Market value, a house’s assessment value, is the offer Carle made to Buchanan, but she said she would not be interested because she bought her house for more than its current market value.

In reference to the buying of homes, Robbins said Carle would not ask for eminent domain – the right of a government to take private property for public use.

“We’re planning the hospital of the future,” Robbins said.