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Neighbors fear Alta Bates expansion will increase traffic

By Hank Sims Daily Planet staff
Friday September 28, 2001

A plan to rebuild and expand the emergency room at Alta Bates Medical Center is meeting opposition among neighborhood groups and a city commission. 

The plan would increase the size of Alta Bates’ emergency ward by incorporating an old radiology unit, and leaves open the possibility of future construction at Alta Bates. 

Public comment on a draft Environmental Impact Report on the project was recently closed.  

An EIR is a formal document explaining the impacts a project has on a nearby area. In this case, the EIR includes a study of the increased traffic that will result from the expansion. The EIR must include remedies when the environmental impacts are severe, or it can recommend a change in the project. 

Dr. Alan Lifshay, formerly head of the Alta Bates’ pulmonary department and currently a member of the Alta Bates Summit board of trustees, put the case for the emergency room expansion in a letter to the city’s planning department. 

“Last year, 44,000 East Bay residents turned to the Alta Bates Emergency Department for medical care in a space that was designed to accommodate 12,000 yearly,” he wrote. 

“Currently, teams of doctors, nurses and technicians work side-by-side in small, cramped rooms. Often there is little or no space left to accommodate medical equipment or visiting family members.” 

“The proposed emergency department upgrade will give Alta Bates larger treatment rooms, increased patient privacy and comfort, enough open areas for staff to circulate efficiently, and a much-needed separate entrance for ambulances, assuring improved neighborhood traffic flow.” 

But when the city’s Transportation Commission studied the draft EIR on Sept. 13, it came up with a list of concerns about traffic and parking in the neighborhood. 

Specifically, the commission said that the area of parking around Alta Bates was too widely defined, leaving the impression that there were many more parking spaces available in the neighborhood than were likely to be used. 

Some of the spaces included in the plan were as many as nine blocks away from the hospital. 

“It’s like studying traffic patterns for the University of California and saying parking in Berkeley won’t be affected, because people might park in Emeryville or Albany,” said Dean Metzger, a member of the Transportation Commission. 

“It’s a joke,” he added. 

In addition, Metzger said, while the draft EIR estimated the increase in traffic on Ashby Avenue that would follow the expansion, it took into account only increased trips by hospital patients, not by hospital staff. 

Metzger said that he and other members of the Transportation Commission were concerned about language in the draft EIR that would seem to imply that the data used in the current draft EIR – data he called “insufficient and inaccurate” – could be used in future hospital expansion plans. 

“We’re really talking about a draft EIR for the entire hospital master plan,” he said. 

“They’re using the emergency room expansion proposal to yank at peoples’ heartstrings in order to get everything else they want.” 

John Cecil, a member of the Claremont-Elmwood neighborhood group, said that he thought the draft EIR was dishonest, as it did not take into account all of Alta Bates’ operations in the Berkeley area. 

“This can’t include the comprehensive impacts of the expansion, because it has left out all the other sites Alta Bates operates in Berkeley,” he said. 

“This is supposed to be an incredibly thorough analysis of impacts, but there is no mention of interaction between (Alta Bates’) sites.” 

Carolyn Kemp, Alta Bates spokesperson, said that the hospital values the feedback it receives on its new projects. 

“We’re concerned that (community groups) have a voice too,” she said. “That’s why we’re going through the procedures that we’re going through now — to gather public comment, to hear their concerns.” 

At the same time, she said, there should be very little doubt that an expanded emergency room is needed.  

“I believe that the clinicians within a hospital are the ones who know best how to run a hospital, and we should listen to them,” she said. “This hospital has one mission, and that is to serve the community.” 

The planning department is currently reviewing all public comment on the draft EIR, and will forward its assessment of it to the Zoning Adjustments Board some time next month. The board will then choose whether or not to certify the project a few months later.