Pain of hospital loss still felt at last hearing on Rudin plan | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Pain of hospital loss still felt at last hearing on Rudin plan

Too close for comfort? Potential City Council race opponents Yetta Kurland, left, and Brad Hoylman found themselves sitting next to each other in the crowded hearing room on Tuesday. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  In the last chance for public comment on the project slated to replace the former St. Vincent’s Hospital, about 200 people turned out for a City Council subcommittee hearing on the plan on Tuesday morning.

But they couldn’t all get into the hearing room at once.

About 100 people could be accommodated between the hearing room at 250 Broadway and an overflow room with an audio link. Due to the limited seating capacity, about 100 people initially had to stand outside on the sidewalk in pens, before they were later allowed upstairs as people left after testifying and seats became available. In all, 75 people testified before the Council’s Zoning and Franchises Subcommitee during a hearing that lasted close to five hours.

According to a Council spokesperson, all subcommittee and committee hearings are currently being held at 250 Broadway. This is because City Hall, currently under renovation, is “a construction zone,” the spokesperson said. As of now, only full Council “stated meetings” are held in the Council Chamber in City Hall.

In addition, a man in his 70s reportedly collapsed while waiting in one of the pens outside 250 Broadway. He was treated at New York Downtown Hospital, then reportedly returned to sit in the hearing room toward the end of the hearing, as a female companion who was testifying pointed him out in the audience.

The Council subcommittee did not vote on the Rudin plan application on Tuesday, but will do so shortly.

Rudin Management’s plan to residentially redevelop the key Greenwich Village site will be voted on next by the Council’s Land Use Committee — though public testimony will not be allowed before the vote.

Finally, before this month’s end, the full City Council will hold a binding vote on the Rudin plan, again, without public testimony allowed. The Council’s vote will bring the project’s formal ULURP (uniform land-use review procedure) review to an end. If approved by the Council, the project — with 450 luxury condos — will have the green light to begin.

After more than 160 years of providing healthcare to the Lower West Side, St. Vincent’s closed in April 2010 beneath a staggering $1 billion debt. At the end of 2010, the former hospital’s entire contents were auctioned off.

St. Vincent’s has now been shuttered nearly two years, but advocates for a replacement full-service hospital continue to fight on.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Mark Weprin, the subcommittee’s chairperson, said everyone who wanted to testify would be heard, and that they would alternate in panels of three or four speakers, pro then con and so on — though toward the end, only cons were left.

‘The Rudin way’

Bill Rudin, C.E.O. of Rudin Management, started things off.

“Following the Rudin way of development, our goal has been to present a sustainable, comprehensive development,” he said. Under the proposal, the residential redevelopment of the main St. Vincent’s hospital campus — termed the “East Site” — would “reactivate” the property, he said. It would represent an 86,000-square-foot reduction versus what’s there now, or put another way, be “17 percent less bulky,” Rudin said. In addition, five of the hospital’s historic buildings would be preserved and re-adapted, he pointed out.

“It’s a nice plan for adaptive reuse,” remarked Councilmember Jessica Lappin.

The residential project would take three years to complete, according to the developer.

“I think the community wants to see some movement” on construction at the site, he said.

Rudin also has committed to developing a 16,700-square-foot park at the site of the current St. Vincent’s open triangle, bounded by Greenwich and Seventh Aves. and W. 12th St.

In addition, the C.E.O. said, Rudin Management, serving as a “financial backstop,” facilitated the creation of a new 560-seat public elementary school in the Foundling Hospital building at 16th St. and Sixth Ave. The school is fully funded and slated to open in fall 2014.

The plan by North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System to create a 24-hour, free-standing emergency department and comprehensive healthcare center in the former St. Vincent’s O’Toole Building on Seventh Ave.’s west side is not technically part of Rudin’s ULURP application — though it was the focus of much discussion at the hearing. Expected to open in 2014, this health center would provide 400 permanent jobs, Rudin noted.

Together, the condo project and the free-standing E.R. comprise a $1 billion project cost, Rudin said.

Sad end of St. Vincent’s

He retold the saga of how St. Vincent’s, in order to save itself, initially decided, in 2007, to build a new, state-of-the-art hospital tower on the O’Toole site. Rudin Management came in as a development partner at that time and was set to residentially redevelop the hospital’s main campus. But then came the global economic meltdown of 2008, followed by St. Vincent’s filing for bankruptcy in April 2010 and, finally, its closing.

“Immediately after St. Vincent’s closed, we went to work to find a financially stable health provider,” Rudin said. “This is not an urgent-care center as some have tried to characterize it,” he said of the North Shore-L.I.J. plan, which would be the first of its kind in New York City.

No dice on Reiss

Dan Kaplan, of FXFowle architects, the designer of the Rudin residential plan, said St. Vincent’s Reiss building — which neighbors and preservationists want to see preserved — would be replaced instead of redeveloped because the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission dubbed it “noncontributing” — meaning not architecturally significant — when the Greenwich Village Historic District was created in 1969. Reiss, designed as St. Vincent’s former psych ward in the 1950s, has small windows, which would make it hard to convert residentially, according to Kaplan.

However, Rosemary Paparo, president of the W. 12th St. Block Association, later said, “Reiss is an intrinsic part of the block.”

The “East Site” project would also include an underground parking garage for 152 cars, Kaplan added.

As for the triangle park, landscape architect Rick Parisi said it would contain 45 percent open green space, including a mound, which would not lend itself to soccer games and the like. There would be 37 trees, and movable seating and chairs, with which users could create “really interesting social interactions,” Parisi said. In addition, the park would feature a children’s climbing structure and water-play area. There would also be a small amphitheater. The foliage would include “a significant amount of evergreens and perennials,” he said, adding the park would be maintained forever by Rudin Management.

Advocates for an AIDS memorial also testified in favor of the park space having such a component. Christopher Tepper of the Queer History Alliance noted that the oxygen tanks will be removed from a corner of the triangle, freeing up 1,600 square feet of space, which he said would be “an appropriate site for an AIDS memorial.”

Memorial underfoot

But in a brief interview later, Parisi said — while details of the AIDS memorial park component are still being worked out — he personally dislikes the idea of sticking it where the oxygen tanks are, since this would create a separate section. Instead, he said, he favors a “layer of information” in the park, in the form of perhaps a “pavement treatment,” that would “tell the story” of the AIDS crisis and its local impact.

Rudin said the park that they’re planning “will be a game-changer in terms of the look and feel of the neighborhood compared to what’s there now.” He noted that the Sisters of Charity, the Catholic order that ran St. Vincent’s, had approached them about including some memorial component for St. Vincent’s in the park’s design.

“So that’s still an ongoing discussion?” Councilmember Lappin asked of plans for a memorial at the park. Yes, Rudin answered.

Melanie Myers, Rudin’s land-use attorney, said, as part of the application, Rudin is seeking to change the East Site’s zoning along Seventh Ave. from C26 to C62 and along the midblocks from R6 to R8, which would provide the “density” the project needs. In addition, according to Myers, Rudin is asking for height and setback changes in order to create “a contextual site plan.” Rudin also seeks a waiver so it can put commercial uses on the Seventh Ave. frontage’s third floor, specifically, to allow doctor’s offices there — while the two floors below would be residential.

‘Why not a hospital?’

Following the Rudin team’s presentation, Weprin asked, “Can you disclose why you weren’t able to make the O’Toole building more of a hospital — or put a hospital on top of it?”

Bill Rudin answered, “Just adding a couple of floors does not make a difference between what we’re offering and a full-scale hospital.” To create a real hospital, “many, many floors” would be needed, he said, adding that state Department of Health approvals would also be needed.

“What we’re trying to create is a new hybrid medical facility,” explained Jeff Kraut of North Shore-L.I.J.

Kraut said more than 90 percent of patients at the O’Toole E.R. would typically be treated and released, while 8 percent to 10 percent would be transported for higher-level care to local hospitals. For example, “if a baby turns blue,” it would be taken to the nearest neonatal center, not the O’Toole facility, Kraut said. To Weprin’s question of where that nearest neonatal center might be, Kraut answered, New York Downtown Hospital or Beth Israel.

Weprin said it’s important to make people understand what the free-standing E.R. would and would not offer.

“I think there are some educational opportunities,” Kraut agreed.

“If you break your hand, you can get it fixed there?” asked Councilmember Leroy Comrie. “A child with an asthma attack…?”

“Absolutely, yes,” Kraut answered. “You would be able to be treated for 94 percent of what people go to an E.R. for.”

Patients that wouldn’t be treated at the O’Toole facility would include those with head trauma, with car-accident injuries or in the middle of cardiac incidents and strokes.

‘Facility upgrade’ likely

Kraut added they actually do expect “the facility will upgrade,” as in be able to provide a higher level of care, at some point. For starters, though, there would only be two hospital beds, for very short-term, overnight recovery.

Weprin also asked about 12th St. residents’ concerns about adding another parking garage on their block. Rudin said they’ve concluded that having the garage entrance on 12th St. is the best spot, partly since P.S. 41 is on 11th St.

Questioned about why they don’t want to save Reiss, Rudin said, for one, razing it would lessen construction impact on 11th St., since it would create “a portal” into the site for the construction work.

Probing on parking

Councilmember Diana Reyna grilled the Rudin team on the garage and whether the project would adequately address local parking needs. Myers said there would be parking spots in the garage for 33 percent of the 450 condo units, which is slightly below the neighborhood’s 37 percent car-ownership rate.

However, Paparo, the 12th St. Block Association president, said, “Putting in a garage would lacerate the block.”

Former Councilmember Carol Greitzer, also a 12th St. resident, said the garage entrance should be on Seventh Ave., even though the city generally frowns on putting garage entrances on avenues.

On construction mitigation impacts, Myers said the plan is to wet down the site, use diesel particulate filters and not to have noisy work before 8 a.m. They’ll hire an independent monitor, she said.

Many came to the hearing, not to address the Rudin project’s specifics, but to testify about the need for a replacement, full-service hospital — and to go over, once again, the sad story of St. Vincent’s demise two years ago.

Eileen Dunn, a former St. Vincent’s nurses union representative, said, “After the second bankruptcy, when we found someone to sponsor us, the politicians did not want it to happen.”

Dr. David Kaufman, a former St. Vincent’s doctor, said that with “one phone call,” the former state Health Department commissioner, Richard Daines, had sunk the bid by that sponsor — Mt. Sinai — to take over St. Vincent’s and save it from going under.

Confused by ‘dialogue’

Weprin asked them what exactly they were asking the subcommittee to do.

Yetta Kurland, of the Coalition for a New Village Hospital, replied, “We see this body as a way to create a dialogue.”

“We’ve worked with hospital engineers to consider adding floors for a smaller hospital” on top of O’Toole, she said.

“I’m confused,” Comrie said. “Didn’t the Landmarks Preservation Commission at one point approve a larger [hospital] building on the O’Toole site?”

Kurland launched into a lengthy discussion of St. Vincent’s that spun into the final mismanagement and wrongdoing that led to its demise.

“Yetta, Yetta, Yetta,” Comrie said, stopping her. “You’re way past what I’m asking. I’m trying to get where you’re trying to be.”

Comrie noted that in Queens, where he’s from, they’ve lost two hospitals, St. John’s and Mary Immaculate.

“The issue of St. Vincent’s closed is the same issue as Mary Immaculate closed,” he said. Basically, hospitals can’t afford to care for all the patients, many of whom aren’t insured, he said.

More to the point, he said, the Greenwich Village community opposed the new hospital tower that St. Vincent’s proposed back in 2007.

“That’s not true,” Kurland countered. “What I said when that was going on was that we needed to explore it more.”

Rudin key to school

The C.E.O. of the Foundling Hospital also testified, saying that Rudin’s providing a financial guarantee for the building’s sale — committing to buying it if the city backed out — was key to getting the school there.

“If not for Rudin, 590 Sixth Ave. would be luxury condos and not the school the community so badly needs,” he said.

Glick and Duane say ‘No’

Aides to Assemblymember Deborah Glick and state Senator Tom Duane read the politicians’ joint testimony in which they said they opposed granting the Rudin project the required zoning changes.

“The applicant has argued that the two zoning map amendments it seeks for the East Site would reduce its combined maximum floor area by more than 70,000 square feet from what currently exists,” Duane and Glick wrote. “Yet the original 1979 upzoning of the area was granted by the city specifically to serve the public purpose of facilitating the growth of St. Vincent’s Hospital. The zoning map changes the applicant seeks would increase the allowable Floor Area Ratio (F.A.R.) for residential use by 175 percent on the Seventh Ave. frontage and by over 200 percent on the midblock, without serving a similar public purpose. We do not think it is appropriate for the applicant to use the excessive height and bulk allowed to the former hospital as the basis for constructing a luxury condo development larger than the site’s current zoning would permit. … Rudin Management should only be allowed to build within the pre-existing zoning for residential development on this site,” the two politicians wrote.

Needs affordable housing

Glick and Duane also strongly urged that the project include affordable housing. The Rudin condos are being offered for sale at prices ranging from $1.4 million to $12.9 million, they noted, “out of reach economically for all but very high high-net-worth individuals who far exceed the area’s median income.

“It is unacceptable for the applicant to avoid these essential components of affordable housing, especially in such a lucrative market,” Duane and Glick stated.

They also said Rudin should provide “a substantial capital investment” toward the construction of new school seats in the district, “such as through the purchase and renovation of 75 Morton St.,” a state-owned building that would be an ideal fit for a new school.

The two legislators called for eliminating the parking garage from the project.

Don’t ‘trump’ park plan

In addition, they said, the triangle park should be transferred to the city Parks Department, since privately owned parks historically have had “many legal and logistical challenges.” Furthermore, they said, while they applaud the design process for a late-breaking, proposed AIDS memorial for the park, they don’t feel that design should “trump” the community park plan for which Community Board 2 “spent months gathering input.”

C.B. 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman’s testimony was in line with that of Glick and Duane: Rudin shouldn’t get an increase in development rights; should create affordable housing; should make a financial contribution toward establishing a new school at 75 Morton St.; and should transfer the triangle park to the Parks Department. Hoylman noted that Board 2 is on record supporting restoration of a full-service hospital for Greenwich Village.

Nadler ‘concerned’

In his written statement, Congressmember Jerrold Nadler said he was especially concerned about the planned construction’s height and bulk, its impact on school overcrowding and its lack of affordable housing.

Corey Johnson, chairperson of Chelsea’s C.B. 4, said with 27 million square feet of new construction slated for the Hudson Yards, healthcare will be at a premium.

“Basically, that’s a new city,” he said. “We’re in need of a full-service hospital on the Lower West Side.”

Michael McGuire, director of the Mason Tenders’ District Council, a construction workers union, spoke in support of the Rudin proposal.

“The problem is the opposition is positioning the question at hand as a full-service hospital versus the proposed project,” McGuire observed. “I think a full-service hospital would be best for the community. It’s just not feasible.”

Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said, “Special zoning considerations granted for a facility which served such a necessary public service as a hospital should never be passed along for a development which provides no such similar public service, as would essentially be done in this case.” He also called for preserving the Reiss building.

A very political issue

Hoylman, Kurland, Johnson and Berman are all potential candidates in 2013 for Greenwich Village/Chelsea’s Council District 3, currently represented by Speaker Christine Quinn, who will be term-limited out of the seat. Quinn, whose district includes the hospital, didn’t testify, since, on most issues, she usually doesn’t state her opinion until the final City Council vote.