Community members are sounding the alarm at Weiss Memorial Hospital’s plans to sell a surface parking lot, which they say could signal a plan to shutter the Uptown hospital that boasts a novel surgery center for transgender patients.
Dallas-based real estate firm Lincoln Property Company has a deal to buy the parking lot at the corner of Wilson Avenue and Marine Drive, which the firm wants to redevelop into a more than 300-unit residential building.
But neighbors say they worry the company will quickly shut the hospital down if 46th ward alderman James Cappleman and his zoning and development committee approve rezoning of the land for residential use. The committee postponed their vote on the plans until mid-June after community outcry—including a press conference before a previous committee meeting—leaving some critics, like longtime Uptown resident Ruth Castillo, a little more hopeful.
Castillo has lived in Uptown near Weiss for 14 years, she says. She is also secretary of the Lakeside Area Neighbors Association (LANA).
“I am thankful that the committee voted to delay the vote, which allowed us two weeks to gather feedback on the building’s design and send that to the developer,” she says. “It also allows more time for each of the members of the zoning and development committee to be able to outreach the neighbors that they each represent to see what their feedback is about this proposal.”
Terry Tuohy, director of medical education at Weiss, says Weiss’s owner Pipeline Health has no plans to close the hospital, and has shown its commitment to Uptown, particularly during the ongoing pandemic.
“If you could have seen what Pipeline did for this community during COVID, that would change their opinion of Pipeline,” Tuohy says. “Pipeline worked tirelessly to make sure this hospital had everything it needed during the pandemic. You don’t do that unless you’re investing in the community.”
Tuohy says the parking lot sale is simply aimed at bringing cash into the hospital, another sign that Pipeline doesn’t plan on closing Weiss.
But LANA president Marianne Lalonde says residents’ worries about the sale aren’t exactly unfounded given how the company has managed other hospitals in the city.
Pipeline Health bought Weiss, Westlake Hospital, and West Suburban Medical Center from Tenet Healthcare Corporation in a deal that closed January 2019. But soon after, Pipeline shuttered Westlake in Melrose Park despite promises to keep it open. The operator later settled a lawsuit over the closing for $1.5 million.
“They’ve established this history that makes us distrustful as a community,” Lalonde says. “We really appreciate Weiss as an entity. I mean, that’s why we’re upset about this, we value the hospital so much.”
Lalonde says Cappleman pushed the rezoning plans for an advisory committee vote even before LANA, the local block club, had finished its own internal assessment. She called the alderman’s advisory committee “the illusion of democracy,” pointing to recent, hours-long Zoom meetings and voting restrictions at those meetings as evidence.
Alongside a lack of affordable housing in the community, residents are also concerned about the impact the hospital’s potential closure would have on trans-competent health care in Chicago, as Weiss is the home to the Center for Gender Confirmation Surgery.
Stephanie Skora, associate executive director at Brave Space Alliance, says the center and its experts are a vital resource for the local trans community—and for trans people all across the midwest.
“This is not a particularly common thing: medical centers, housed in hospitals for gender-related surgeries,” she says. “They’re not sprouting up all over the place.”
Many local hospitals do offer such procedures—including Northwestern Medicine, University of Illinois Hospital and the University of Chicago Medical Center—but they are usually part of hospitals’ plastic surgery practice, as opposed to solely gender confirmation-related health care.
Skora says that alongside the center itself, its director, Dr. Loren Schechter, has been an important medical resource for the local trans community for decades.
Schechter, who has more than 20 years of experience performing various types of gender confirmation surgeries, is one of the few doctors in the state capable of performing a phalloplasty, a surgery that creates a functioning penis for people who were born with vaginas.
The procedure is complex, however, and Skora points out that only three surgeons in the state can perform the surgery.
“There are not that many surgeons that even consider doing phalloplasty,” she says. “It’s a constantly evolving procedure, they’re very difficult to find, even harder to get covered by insurance. And the fact that we have a surgeon who is willing and able to do that, servicing the community for so long in Chicago, it’s an invaluable resource. And if we lose that, I’m sure Dr. Schechter will find someplace to go but who knows where and how accessible it will be?”
While the trans community would be disproportionately impacted by the hospital’s closing, Lalonde says Weiss shuttering would lead to devastating job losses and a dearth of emergency medical care in the entire community.
Representatives for Cappleman and Lincoln Property Company, the entity buying the parking lot, did not respond to requests for comment by presstime. v