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Alta Bates expansion ‘skirmish’ heard by the ZAB

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Saturday August 11, 2001

The Zoning Adjustments Board heard what one commissioner called the “initial skirmish” on the Alta Bates proposal to expand its Emergency Department by 3,500 square feet Thursday night. 

The Emergency Department expansion is one of five components included in the hospital’s proposed Master Plan. Hospital officials said the only plan being considered is the Emergency Department expansion and that the hospital was required to submit the entire Master Plan as the result of a 1997 court settlement. 

The settlement also required the hospital to complete a Draft Environmental Impact Report on all of the projects in the Master Plan, which was released in late July. The DEIR was prepared by EIP Associates of San Francisco.  

The ZAB heard public comments on the merits of a larger and better designed Emergency Department and neighbors presented the board with a list of questions about the Master Plan they thought weren’t addressed in the DEIR.  

The ZAB voted to continue the public hearing on the DEIR to a meeting scheduled for Sept. 13, when the ZAB is expected to either approve the DEIR or send it back to EIP Associates with a request for additional analysis. 

Members of the Inter-neighborhood Hospital Review Committee, which includes representatives from three neighborhood groups, say they want to support the expansion of the Emergency Department, but are worried the larger Master Plan does not effectively mitigate all of the environmental impacts.  

IHRC member Debbie LeVeen said her neighborhood group, the Bateman Neighborhood Association, wants to examine the 400-page DEIR thoroughly to make sure all the impacts are clearly identified, analyzed and mitigated before the ZAB approves the document, which will govern the Master Plan. 

“The EIR will set perimeters for future hospital development,” she said, “We want to make sure the limits on the plan’s impact are appropriately set on issues like parking, traffic congestion and noise.” 

Hospital officials say the only project in the Master Plan they are concerned with is the Emergency Department expansion. They said the current Emergency Department is too small, inefficient and poorly designed. They plan to increase the size of the department from 8,800 square feet to 12,300 square feet and add another entrance so paramedics, bringing in the critically sick and injured, would have a different entrance from patients arriving on foot.  

“The way it is now, the entrance creates an inefficient and dangerous bottleneck,” said Deborah Pitts, hospital public affairs manager. “Right now there’s one door for people coming in on a gurney and for folks coming in on foot and it doesn’t make sense.” 

Hospital spokesperson Carolyn Kemp said the Emergency Department was built in 1968 and designed to accommodate 12,000 people a year. Kemp said the department now handles 45,000 patients a year. 

She added the current design requires patients to give personal information to a triage nurse in close proximity to a guard station and waiting area. 

“The privacy and dignity that patients deserve is not afforded with the current design,” Kemp said.  

Other features the hospital would like to include in the new design are an appropriate grieving area, larger patient examination rooms and a driveway for the exclusive use of ambulances. 

In 1997 the city sued Alta Bates to get the hospital to halt what Councilmember Kriss Worthington called an “illegal” renovation. Responding to constituent complaints of noise and debris, Worthington took a tour of the hospital and discovered major remodeling work that the hospital had neglected to obtain city permits for. 

Berkeley sued Alta Bates and the hospital was ordered to pay the city $85,000, Worthington said. It was also directed to submit environmental impact reports for any future projects to expand or remodel the hospital. 

Zoning Adjustments Board Member David Blake said on Friday that the hospital is proposing a significant expansion and the concern about increased traffic and parking problems might be an appropriate one.  

“Thursday was only the initial skirmish,” Blake said. “The hospital will have to demonstrate to the neighborhood that a larger Emergency Department won’t mean increased traffic,” 

LaVeen said that even though IHRC wants to support the expansion they are concerned about a recently completed report, by Fehr and Peers. Transportation Consultants, that monitored the Emergency Room from June 1997 to April 2001. The report showed a 76 percent increase in emergency room activity, according to LaVeen. 

Blake asked hospital officials to provide the ZAB with a report analyzing the reasons for the increased use of the Emergency Department. 

Kemp said the expanded department will not increase the number of patients but would rather allow the hospital to better serve the current patient load. 

Alta Bates Charge Nurse Dolores Darling-Riordan told the ZAB that the expansion is not meant to entice more emergency patients to the hospital.  

“I honestly don’t believe that this is a case of ‘build it and they will come,’” she said. “The project will just allow the patients privacy, convenience and comfort. That’s what it’s all about.”  

The EIR can be reviewed at the libraries or purchased from the Planning Department for $30.