A controversial plan to expand New York Methodist Hospital will shatter the calm of three blocks of century-old row houses, overwhelming neighbors with traffic, smog, and hulking, modern buildings, claimed members of a Park Slope panel that voted the proposal down at a heated meeting last Thursday night.
The 11 to 1 no vote followed a loud, sidewalk-clogging protest outside John Jay High School and, at the meeting, dozens of impassioned speeches for and against the plan that calls for demolishing 19th-century townhouses, including some brownstones, to make way for an eight-story, U-shaped medical complex. The hours of testimony were punctuated by boos from plan opponents that sometimes drowned out neighbors and Methodist employees singing the praises of the expansion, but the board’s land use committee ultimately decided that, while the opposition might be rude, the outpatient facility expansion would unacceptably “alter the essential character of the neighborhood.”
“I like to think that despite all the catcalls and things like that, the community was heard,” said Peter Fleming, the committee’s chairman. “I’m hoping the hospital isn’t going to go through with its nuclear solution of building two buildings that nobody wants them to build.”
Methodist has gone back to the drawing board twice in hopes of assuaging concerns that the Center for Community Health, which is slated to take the place of 16 buildings on Fifth Street, Eighth Avenue, and Sixth Street, will overwhelm the neighborhood with traffic and out-of-place architecture. Hospital representatives unveiled the latest congestion-combatting modifications at the meeting, including an employees-only entrance at the corner of Sixth Street and Eighth Avenue and consolidating patient services and other programs into one section of the complex.
But the tweaks were not enough to appease the committee or many among the 200-strong crowd that filed through a stripped-down version of airport security — a single metal detector manned by a school police officer that a board member said was brought in upon hearing of the planned protest. The rally drew 50 and many participants later took to the podium to argue that the outpatient center will rip the fabric of the low-rise, residential neighborhood and cause polluting traffic jams despite the hospital’s claims to the contrary.
“Somewhat shockingly, Methodist claims that its proposal will have actually no impact on air, no impact on traffic and no impact on air quality,” said environmental lawyer and Park Slope resident Eve Gartner. “This is truly one of the great neighborhoods in the country, and probably in the world, and to allow Methodist Hospital to do so much damage to the beauty of our streets and to the health of our children requires a much greater showing of need and a much greater disclosure of impacts than we have seen from Methodist.”
Hospital honchos and pro-expansion neighbors, including clergy members and medical professionals, countered that changes in technology and health care business models have created the need for a new medical site, which will feature 12 operating rooms, physician offices, an endoscopy suite, a cancer center, and urgent care services.
Slope Councilman Brad Lander broke with the board committee, saying that the near-demise of nearby Long Island College Hospital in Cobble Hill drives home the need for Methodist to grow.
“Long Island College Hospital is failing, in part, because they didn’t have good long-term strategic planning for what was necessary for a hospital to do to be able to continue to operate in the 21st century,” Lander said. “I think we’re lucky to have neighborhood health institutions, and if we want Methodist to be able to continue for the next 100 years to function as a neighborhood health institution, then we have to try to figure out how to meet them halfway.”
The community board committee said it would reconsider its denial if the hospital does more to address Slopers’ concerns about traffic, construction, and pollution, but Methodist reps said that they are low on time for tinkering with the design and will have to talk over the next step in dealing with the local panel, the position of which is only advisory, before taking their case for rezoning to the city’s Board of Standard and Appeals.
“I don’t know what the response would be from my colleagues who have been working on this for six months, and who feel that they have been working in good faith, and have made changes, and are willing to continue making changes,” said Methodist spokeswoman Lyn Hill. “But we do have the time schedule as well. We want this project to move ahead.”
The hospital could build the complex without a zoning change, but would have to make the two buildings taller and narrower. The full board will vote on the plan next month.