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Alta Bates Construction Draws Ire From Neighbors

By Rio Bauce and Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday August 18, 2006

Neighbors of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley are irked by very loud construction noise at the hospital site, which they say has been going on for the last two weeks or more. 

Community members have bombarded the city manager’s office with e-mails and phone calls for the last week, that complain about what they call a violation of the construction permit that Alta Bates had applied for and the lack of neighborhood input on the matter. 

In an e-mail to Deputy City Manager Lisa Coronna, Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district Alta Bates is located in, outlined the following five neighborhood complaints: 

(1) Very loud construction activity by East Bay Municipal Utility District for Alta Bates until 5 am; 

(2) Construction activity by Alta Bates contractor on days not permitted in permit; 

(3) Plans by the contractor to do additional work on days or times not permitted by the permit; 

(4) Loud beeping sounds for hours on end by trucks backing up; and 

(5) Ongoing loud noise on a daily basis, possibly from new equipment. 

“The project is late [being finished] and they are working at weird hours,” said Worthington. “On many days, there is nobody working between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Why can’t they work from 9 to 5 rather than at night and on weekends?” 

Susan Fuentes, project manager for the construction, apologized for the violations that have occurred at the hospital. 

“[It is] correct that running a compressor beyond the approved weekend work hours is not acceptable,” said Fuentes in an e-mail to neighbors. “We apologize for any inconveniences this has caused the neighborhood … In the future, we will insure better communication among the team to make sure this won’t happen again.” 

Carolyn North, nearby resident of twenty years, describes the irreversible impacts on her health and well-being caused cumulatively by construction at Alta Bates over the years.  

“One thing I have learned is that [the construction noise] destroys your adrenal system,” she said. “I’m sort of amazed that western medicine doesn’t realize the effects of noise pollution on the human body. Adrenals go through an alarm state, after being subjected to so much noise, and your body flushes itself with adrenaline. When the situation is over, they go back to normal. But when this happens on an ongoing basis, the adrenals empty and can no longer function. This is what happened to me. All the muscles in my stomach contracted and stayed contracted. I went to Kaiser [hospital] in a state of shock. They were ready to lose me.” 

North said that she is especially concerned about children in the neighborhood. 

She said, “We have a bunch of small babies in the neighborhood and it has an effect on them whether you know it or not … we have a park by the hospital. I want to go and say to the parents of the children, ‘don’t let them play here. Play elsewhere.’ This is serious. The irony is that this is a hospital.” 

Peter Shelton, a resident of Prince Street, said that he’s worried about the noise as well as the flooding that the construction is causing. “The permit requires that the city clean up the dirt on a daily basis, but they are not doing so. As a result we have our kids playing with the muddy water whenever we take them to visit the nearby park.” 

On Wednesday afternoon, City of Berkeley Deputy Planning Director Wendy Cosin discussed with city staff the city’s response to these egregious violations. 

“I am writing a letter to Alta Bates to notify them that they violated their use permit,” said Cosin. “There aren’t going to be any fines imposed on the hospital now. If there are any more noise violations, we will likely fine.” 

Worthington commented, “I am concerned that the neighbors aren’t being treated reasonably. I appreciate the fact that the city is stepping up to the plate … the city needs to pressure them to finish the project. I am grateful to the city for sending them a warning letter.” 

Alta Bates has a history of disputes with its neighbors over construction. In 1983, the Bateman/Willard/Fairview Park Neighborhoods sued Alta Bates over some construction that the hospital had done. 

“The hospital created a lot of noise and gobbled up 34 houses,” said Julie Shearer, a long term resident of the neighborhood. “In order to expand their center, twenty-three residential houses were removed for the hospital and eleven for subsequent medical buildings … The settlement allowed Alta Bates to expand and mandated street closures in exchange for building two street parks and provided other things to the community.” 

According to Shearer, the neighbors heard that construction was going on once again in 1997. “Kriss Worthington had just been elected to the City Council at that point and he wanted to meet with the hospital to get acquainted. Much to his surprise, he discovered illegal demolition and construction. Alta Bates was forced to pay $87,000 when the city investigators found illegal demolition and construction had occurred then. When will they ever learn?” 

Worthington concurred,”Hopefully the city’s warning letter will wake up the project manager, and we won’t have neighbors getting woken up nights and weekends anymore.”