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Hospital master plan created for the community

Our view: Hospital Expansion

Posted: November 22, 2008 7:58 p.m.
Updated: November 23, 2008 4:55 a.m.
 
As we finally get close to the last approval step in the protracted battle to expand our community's only hospital, it is appropriate to review just how far the people of Santa Clarita have come.

The battle has brought out the best and the worst in us. The fact that it has brought us out at all speaks volumes about our democratic process.

It has been more than three years since Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital and G&L Realty submitted their expansion plans to the city's Planning Department.

Three years ago, if you had told half of the people who crowded City Hall on Wednesday night that they would have a dramatic impact on those plans, they might not have believed it.

The hospital was a sacred cow in this town, they said. This is big business, they said. The City Council doesn't care about the neighbors, they said.

And then something interesting happened. The City Council listened.

It listened to vicious attacks on individual city staff members. It listened to crazy conspiracy theories and ulterior motives of hospital administrators.

It listened to the evils of capitalism - never mind that without the financial participation of this for-profit "Beverly Hills developer" we would have lost our nonprofit community hospital five years ago during bankruptcy proceedings to a huge, profit-sucking hospital conglomerate that wouldn't have had Santa Clarita's best interests at heart.

And still the City Council listened. It listened to neighbors who didn't want to lose their homes to a future road widening. It listened to Valencia residents who didn't want to fight the traffic that would come with a tripling of the hospital campus.

It listened to Santa Claritans who wanted assurances of "more hospital" and not just doctors' offices.

The City Council listened time and again - each time directing city staff to work with the hospital to rework the plans so they'd do as little harm as possible to neighbors while still serving the health care needs of our valley's residents for the next two decades.

Down came the hospital tower from six floors to five. Back went the buildings, away from neighbors' lot lines. Out went the possibility of eminent domain to accommodate road improvements (or anything else).

Instead of 905,326 square feet of building space and 358 hospital beds at build-out, now there would be 667,424 square feet and 368 beds.

No longer would the nursing pavilion and four existing medical office buildings be demolished to accommodate taller towers.

Now, instead of seven buildings more than three stories tall, only one building would exceed three stories - the new inpatient (hospital) wing.

Instead of 403,400 square feet of medical office space, including a hospital administration tower, now there would be only 200,000 square feet of medical office space, and the hospital will move its administrative offices into the first medical office building - immediately making the vacated space available for "hospital" uses.

And under the development agreement, the hospital will need to achieve benchmarks in the approval and construction of its new inpatient tower before G&L Realty can build its second and third new medical office buildings.

Is it a perfect plan? No. Perfect doesn't exist. But by contributing to the process, the city, the hospital and the residents have honed a plan that balances the valley's health care needs with the priorities of the neighbors.

Even Wednesday night, in the final throes of this multi-year process, the City Council was still listening when the hospital and opposition leaders tried to hammer out a deal that would have benefitted one opponent whose back yard overlooks the hospital tower - in exchange for a promise not to sue.

We applaud the efforts of two community leaders - developer Larry Rasmussen and KHTS Radio's Carl Goldman - for volunteering to bring the hospital and its critics together one last time to sort out their differences.

It is ironic that after hearing critics say they want "more hospital" and "less office building," the only thing that would seem to satisfy the formal opposition group now is a reduction in size of the hospital and no lessening of medical office buildings.

Councilwoman Laurie Ender summed up this irony when she said, "This compromise doesn't address 90 percent of those (opposition group's) concerns" about the master plan. "(So it's) just lower the building and we're good?"

It's a sad fact that for most major development projects in California, the elected decision makers who are closest to the community usually don't have the last say; the courts do.

The hospital expansion plan must be an exception to this rule. We can only hope the critics will refrain from suing and going to court and instead recognize how badly our community needs the expanded health-care services and how thoroughly the city has addressed their concerns.

Without any further delays, we are still looking at six years to get most of services completed. Our community's growing and aging population simply can't afford any further delay.

It might not have been the best expansion plan three years ago, but thanks to our democratic process, the willingness of our City Council to listen and the sincere interest of hundreds of residents of our community, today it is a better plan and it deserves final approval.

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