Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Children's Hospital, neighbors still at odds over expansion

November 31, 2007

Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center has scaled back the height of proposed buildings on its Laurelhurst campus, but neighbors still don't like the hospital's plan.

The new plan cuts the maximum heights on the main campus from 240 feet to 160 feet by making buildings fatter and reconfiguring mechanical spaces. The proposed height of a new building across Sand Point Way decreased from 120 feet to 105 feet, and the hospital's utility plant was moved away from the edge of campus to address neighbors' noise concerns.

"We want to do everything we can do to be good neighbors," said Ruth Benfield, Children's vice president for facilities, at a news conference to announce the changes Tuesday. But, she added, the hospital must balance that against ensuring it meets demands.

The initial plan, which hospital officials released this summer, would more than double the number of beds and the size of buildings on the main 21.7-acre campus and the 1.78 acres facing it across Sand Point Way Northeast during the next two decades. It included adding and expanding parking garages and creating new, secondary entrances on Northeast 45th and 50th streets.

Laurelhurst residents immediately objected to the scale of the plan, including the building heights. The tallest existing hospital buildings are 80 feet high, and the hospital's current plan allows buildings up to 90 feet high.

The adjusted plan still doesn't satisfy Jeannie Hale, who is the president of the Laurelhurst Community Club.

Buildings on the main campus and across the street still would be too tall, and hospital officials haven't done anything about the proposed new entrances, Hale said. "Those new entrances would direct high volumes of traffic into our neighborhood."

Hale called on hospital officials to work more closely with neighbors; that would include taking a closer look at how much space Children's really needs.

"They need to be realistic," she said. "They're in a single-family, low-density setting."

The changes do not reduce the overall expansion, which would add up to about 1.5 million new square feet, for a total of 2.4 million square feet.

The effect on neighborhoods was what brought about 120 neighbors Tuesday night to the Northwest Horticultural Society Hall at the Center for Urban Horticulture, where Children's leaders, their affiliates and a land-use planner from the city's Department of Planning and Development discussed proposed buildings. The hospital's new design concept was presented to the Community Advisory Council there.

Karl Sonnenberg, a representative from Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects LLP, told the crowd the entrances are "an issue for another day," and entrances and traffic would be addressed in an environmental impact statement.

Scott Ringgold, land-use planner for the Department of Planning and Development, said the environmental impact statement has several phases, but did not give a projected date of when a final plan would be completed.

"I appreciate that they're looking at alternatives," said Greg Griffith, who lives a couple of blocks from Children's. "But I don't think they've thought about the impact on the areas outside the boundaries of their property."

At Tuesday's news conference, hospital officials insisted that Children's needs to grow on the main campus.

Hospital officials expect demand to grow by about 3 percent a year in coming years, because of community growth and ongoing care of children with chronic conditions that would have been fatal just a few years ago, said Dr. Sandy Melzer, Children's senior vice president for strategic planning and business development. New technology also demands more space, Benfield said.

Melzer and Benfield said the hospital's occupancy rate already is too high for comfort, because of the need for separate spaces for children of different ages with different conditions, and because most admissions are unscheduled -- something that's not true of a typical hospital.

The hospital is moving many functions away from its main campus, but duplicating services for the sickest children would be too costly and just plain hard to do, given the rarity of certain specialists, Melzer and Benfield said. Building an entirely new main campus elsewhere would add about $1.5 billion to the $1 billion building plan, not including land costs, they said.

Hospital officials have emphasized the need for all single rooms. It's about lowering risk of cross-infection, and making children and their families more comfortable, Melzer said.

But Cindy Lester, a Bremerton mother in a double room with her daughter Madeline, 3, said she didn't mind sharing.

"We like this room. We like the view, and we like the light," said Lester, whose daughter was born with a heart defect. "I would rather have sunlight than a private room."

A single room did make a difference, however, for Nickolet Blackstock, of Boise, Idaho, who said she has traveled with her 3-year-old daughter, Angelina, to Children's about 20 to 30 times.

"We've been here for two months already, and every little thing counts," said Blackstock, whose daughter has an intestinal disorder.

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P-I reporter Aubrey Cohen can be reached at 206-448-8362 or

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