Representatives of Oakland’s Children’s Hospital and many of the hospital’s North Oakland neighbors danced around each other at a North Oakland Senior Center community meeting for two hours last Wednesday night, with neither side seeming to be sure what music was being played, or even if the band had stopped altogether.
Hospital officials had originally scheduled the meeting under the impression that they would win the Feb. 5 $300 million Measure A parcel tax, and the meeting would bring reluctant neighbors into a hospital rebuilding that was set to move full-steam ahead into the City of Oakland planning process.
Instead, Measure A was defeated by Alameda County voters about as decisively as such defeats go (the measure required two-thirds approval vote for passage; instead, it lost 41 percent to 59 percent), and hospital staff members were left facing a hostile crowd in a packed hall Wednesday night with little more to offer than an obsolete Powerpoint presentation with plans to build a 10 story new hospital on the existing Children’s property and $300 million short of the estimated $700 million to build it.
At the same time neighbors of the 100-year-old 52nd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way research and treatment facility were reluctant to enter a “community involvement” process with hospital officials who they claim broke an earlier promise not to expand north of 53rd Street and who, the neighbors said, “arrogantly” moved forward with the expansion plans despite widespread community opposition.
State law requires Children’s to earthquake retrofit portions of its existing facility by 2013, and hospital officials have said the most economical way to meet that need is to build a new hospital on the site. Children’s has identified $173 million in state bond money and $150 in private donations to pay for the rebuilding project, and had hoped that the remainder would come from Alameda County taxpayers in the county bond measure.
Neighbors, while supporting the existence of Children’s in their neighborhood and declaring it to be a necessary facility in Oakland, have complained that the planned expansion would eliminate many homes in the hospital’s vicinity and the planned 12-story tower would overshadow the rest.
The Children’s Hospital bond measure also got off to a rocky start after Children’s clashed with Alameda County Supervisors last year over charges that Children’s had written and introduced the bond measure without prior consultation with county officials, even though the bond, if passed, would have impacted the county’s ability to meet state requirements to retrofit its own public medical facilities.
Hospital officials had planned to reveal that as the result of a previous meeting held with neighbors prior to the Measure A vote, they had scaled down the 12-story tower to 10 stories. But with one neighbor holding up a hand-written cardboard sign reading “No Tower” throughout the meeting, in the end, Children’s officials scrapped most of a planned powerpoint presentation that included the tower compromise, and substituted an extensive question-and-answer session. The meeting ended with no resolution, no community liaison groups formed, and only a promise by Children’s Senior Vice President and building project director Mary Dean that she would deliver a request that neighbors be allowed to meet directly with Children’s board of directors.
Hospital officials also agreed to community requests to set up a joint community-hospital committee to review alternate sites for the hospital rebuilding.
Dean said the Children’s board was meeting at the end of this month and that while she believed the hospital expansion issue was going to be on the agenda, she did not think that the issue would be solved in one meeting and the hospital’s final plans and direction set. “I can assure you there won’t be a resolution in one month,” she said.
Oakland City Councilmember Jane Brunner, who represents the North Oakland district where Children’s is located, told meeting participants that “we don’t want Children’s to leave Oakland, so the question is, how do we build the hospital so it fits in with everyone?” Brunner offered to help mediate the differences between the neighbors and the hospital.
And Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, who also represents the North Oakland district and who had been one of the supervisors who had severely criticized Children’s actions over the bond measure preparations last year, said that it was “extremely important to have a place in Oakland that continues to deliver care to infants and children.” Carson said he was “willing to put [past differences with the hospital over the bond measure] behind us.”
Children’s-hired facilitator Surlene Grant began the meeting saying that the hospital officials wanted to “get public involvement” and “improve upon the public process” and that, following the Feb. 5 vote, “we are back to square one, and everything is on the table,” and introduced a proposal in which residents would sign up for “working groups” in the area of infrastructure, exterior design, and community relations.
Dean added that “I really hope that we can start over and move on from today. I realize that we lost your trust.”
But one resident, interrupting from the floor, said that “after hearing [Children’s Hospital President and CEO Frank] Tiedemann on the tube [following the Feb. 5 election] saying we’re going to get our way anyway, what’s the need for this public process?” Another said that it was “audacious that Children’s thought you could steamroll over this community. Is this merely a way to co-opt the community or is the process going to be transparent and meaningful to us?”
After Dean said that she had gotten what amounted to contradictory instructions from the private hospital’s board of directors—saying that “the board has told us to move forward with the process [of building a new hospital on the existing site]” but adding that staff should “start at the beginning and look at all options,” including alternate sites—many of the residents balked at any community participation that began with expansion of the existing hospital.
No new hospital-community meeting date was set, and many left the meeting unsure about where the process will go from here.