Children's hospital wins approval for downtown helipad

Children's Memorial Hospital won approval from the city's zoning committee today to build a roof-top heliport at its new downtown location.

The project was approved after Alderman Brendan Reilly [D-42nd] brokered an agreement that calls for an expanded safety study of the project.

Children's Memorial Hospital says its heliport facility is crucial for the transport of approximately 73 critically ill and injured children per year. The Lincoln Park hospital plans to build the heliport as part of its new facility at 215 E. Chicago Ave., where construction is slated to begin in 2012.

Aldermen heard from neighbors concerned about helicopters landing on a 385-foot building amid dense high rise developments. They also heard pleas from supporters of the project about the helicopter's role in saving children's lives.

Mark Shiltz described how his 4-month-old son Fintan received a new heart after being flown into Children's Memorial Hospital via helicopter on Dec. 26.

"Our doctors told us that they were literally counting the minutes,"said Shiltz. "They said that any unnecessary delay directly affects how well the new heart will function."

In 20 years of transporting children by helicopter, the hospital has never had an accident, spokeswoman Julie Pesch said.

Pesch also said that the hospital had brought in an international team of aviation and engineering experts to examine the safety issues.

Donald De Pinto, a retired cardiovascular surgeon and Streeterville resident, voiced concern about the risks.

"If there's an accident it's going to be dramatic and lethal and it will psychologically impair the city and affect peoples' attitudes toward future medivac operations," said De Pinto. "We're not talking about the Children's Museum here; we're talking about a very radical zoning variance."

But Dr. John Wilhelm, a former city health commissioner, said that as a resident of the Hancock building, he frequently sees helicopters flying over head to report news or deliver air conditioners.

"If we can live with interruptions from helicopters delivering mechanical equipment to rooftops, we can live with helicopters to save the lives of critically ill children," he said.

The Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, a neighborhood organization, said it has been working with the hospital, Alderman Reilly and key city agencies for the past 16 months to resolve issues posed by the pending construction.

"We've resolved the parking issue and we've resolved the traffic issue," said Gail Spreen, a member of SOAR. " The safety issue is the one issue that has not been resolved, and that's why we're still opposing the helipad."

Reilly recounted arduous rounds of meetings over the last two months, including 100 hours of negotiations that ended  late yesterday afternoon. The hospital ultimately agreed to incorporate findings from an aviation safety expert hired by the Streeterville organization into its safety study prior to seeking certification from the state department of transportation.

Reilly said that he will seek to revise the process by which city approval is given to future projects that require state safety studies.

"The process is backward," said Reilly. "It's inherently flawed. The city ought to know what it's signing off on prior to approving projects like these."

The City Council must now sign off on the zoning change at its Feb. 6 meeting.

Reilly said it will take at least two months before the Illinois Department of Transportation could certify the project after another round of public hearings. The project will also be required to meet safety standards established by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Reilly said he will be monitoring the state approval process, "very carefully."