Public Comment

Commentary: Children’s Hospital Bait-and-Switch

By Robert Brokl
Friday November 02, 2007

Thanks to J. Douglas Allen-Taylor for his ongoing coverage of the tensions between Children’s Hospital Oakland and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors over the private hospital’s unilateral—and successful—effort to get a bond measure for their seismic improvements onto the ballot, potentially jeopardizing the Supervisors’ own plans for a bond measure for Highland, the county’s public hospital. If the powerful Board of Supervisors feels blindsided by CHO’s tactics, which deliberately left them out of the loop as CHO quietly wrote a bond measure and hired signature gatherers to qualify for the ballot, imagine how the nearby neighbors of CHO are being treated. We were just as surprised as the supervisors at a recent public meeting called by CHO, where they announced their plans for a 12-story tower in the R-40, single family home area north of the hospital campus, between 52nd and 53rd and the parking garage on MLK and the freeway. 

We have known for some time about CHO’s need by the state-mandated “deadline” of 2013 to retrofit the “Original Baby Hospital,” which is gutted and engulfed by other structures on the campus. We feared the Baby Hospital was toast. But for CHO to justify this 12-story tower—a “state-of-the-art” facility with single occupancy rooms, as tall as the Kaiser Permanente tower on MacArthur—because three other buildings need work, was a shock. The classic bait-and-switch! 

CHO already owns and occupies several of the structures in the area selected for the tower—the Family House and Foundation building would be torn down, in addition to several family homes they’ve bought and emptied out. But the area also includes several houses with reluctant sellers, and CHO representatives, including the CHO President Frank Tiedemann and Vice President May Dean, refused to rule out asking the city to use its powers of eminent domain. 

In Berkeley, livable, indeed desirable, blocks of residences, can co-exist next to Alta Bates Hospital, which has been forced to buffer its impacts with street closures and small parks. The City of Berkeley blocked Alta Bates’ attempts to expand its emergency room with the threat of litigation. 

The neighbors of CHO are not likely to be so lucky. Historically, CHO has expanded ruthlessly by buying nearby family housing, keeping them long enough to become blighted, and them knocking them down in another wave of expansion. At this rate, we should expect to see CHO gobbling homes to 55th Street and beyond. 

The previous CHO CEO, Tony Paap, had a verbal pact never to expand (other than to the Research Center at Old Merritt) north of 53rd. In the new Tiedemann regime, we understand CHO has just acquired a charming craftsman duplex (formally home to two families—now empty) on the north side of 53rd and more purchases may be on the way, including perhaps the Public Housing Authority residences at the end of 53rd. But who knows truly what CHO’s short or long-range plans are? The neighbors (and North Oakland Councilperson Brunner, weakly) have asked CHO to come up with a master facilities plan for their properties spread throughout North Oakland. They have not complied. 

This is what we know so far: the 180-foot, 12-story tower will dwarf neighboring family houses, and lights from the tower will be a poor substitute for the sunlight, views, and privacy that will be lost. Construction will be a two- to three-year nightmare; parking, traffic and crime a permanent bad dream. CHO plans to move their helicopter landing pad to the top of this tower, so we will be bombarded with hospital uses by land and sky. 

Ironically, CHO has selected a staffmember to handle community relations who himself chose to sell his house to Kaiser rather than live in the shadow of their new parking structure now under construction. What advice will he have for us? 

CHO quickly got Mayor Dellums, Brunner, and City Council Precedent De La Fuente to endorse their plans, although Dellums suggested recently some consensus-building process should be followed. Brunner’s aide for this area told me he wasn’t even sure CHO would be required to do an EIR, although Kaiser did. 

The hospital and these elected officials trumpeted the Good News that CHO would be staying in Oakland after all, at a joint press conference, although Tiedemann, at a recent meeting, said that moving out of Oakland was never really on the table, since they had such an investment in infrastructure at this site. 

But why, as several neighbors have suggested, shouldn’t CHO expand by opening satellite buildings elsewhere in Oakland? Serving children’s needs IS important, but keeping affordable housing around for families who already live there is also critical. Does a hospital get to destroy a neighborhood of families with children for the sake of “The Children”? 


Robert Brokl is a 36-year neighbor of Children’s Hospital.