Community Groups & Health Advocates Face CPMC in Planning Commission Showdown

by Randy Shaw on September 20, 2010

San Francisco community groups and health care advocates will finally get a chance to tell health care giant California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) about the problems with their proposed Cathedral Hill mega-project at the Planning Commission’s September 23 EIR hearing. CPMC’s proposal to build fifteen and nine story buildings on the site has created an opposition coalition spanning from Bernal to Pacific Heights, including the California Nurses Association, health care advocacy groups, neighborhood residents, and local property owners. Among the issues that has gotten little attention to date is the EIR’s ignoring the project’s traffic impacts in the Uptown Tenderloin. CPMC plans turn the neighborhood’s streets into speedways, bringing thousands of cars rushing through the community each day to reach the new hospital. And while CPMC worsens the quality of life for neighborhood residents, it also plans to deny health services to most low-income people living near the planned facility.

CPMC has moved like a steamroller in crushing opposition to proposed new facilities in Alameda County and the North Bay. Now the health giant is expected to have its employees out in force at the September 23 San Francisco Planning Commission to support its Cathedral Hill mega-project.

But San Francisco may be the only city in California with the political will to contest CPMC’s agenda. This week’s hearing will be a major test, as opponents seek a project that serves the public agenda rather than simply maximizing hospital profits.

Health, Housing and Transit

While it is common for development projects to meet resistance from those concerned about health, housing or transit impacts, CPMC’s $2 billion project has aroused great concerns around all three. This has led to the formation of a number of broad opposition coalitions, including the Good Neighbor Coalition, of which the Tenderloin Housing Clinic – publisher of Beyond Chron – is a member.

It was the health issue that originally got the opposition going. CPMC’s plan poses a direct threat to the future of St. Luke’s Hospital in the Mission District, and the Bay Citizen July 29, 2010 story cited the history of the struggle and how key players like Supervisor David Campos and Assembly member Tom Ammiano are committed to saving St. Luke’s.

Today, the health care issue has intensified with concerns that CPMC’s new facility will not only largely exclude nearby Uptown Tenderloin residents, but, by taking away high end business, could soon force nearby St. Francis hospital – a key provider of health care for the poor – to close.

Many activists see CPMC as following Wal-Mart’s strategy of building new hospitals that put competitors out of business, leaving CPMC with a near and possibly complete monopoly. This is certainly the view of the California Nurses Association, whose objections to Sutter Health’s (parent of CPMC) expansion plans have led the company to say it is “disappointed” in the union.

Sutter’s monopoly would leave SF General as the only hospital serving the poor. And mean that low-income Uptown Tenderloin residents would be denied access to a hospital only blocks from their homes.

Stephen Tennis, 61, lives at the Hartland Hotel, 909 Geary Street, which is near CPMC’s project. Tennis must currently go to SF General for tests or specialized care, and considering he has no car and doesn’t always have bus fare, the trip to and from the hospital takes him all day.

Tennis is irate that CPMC’s current plans will likely deny him and most neighborhood residents’ access to the hospital: “Living four blocks from a hospital I can’t access? That’s terrible. Who do they think they are trying to do that to this neighborhood? It’s a slap in the face to the residents here.”

City Housing Requirements

A broad coalition has also emerged to ensure that CPMC contribute over $200 million in affordable housing funds as is required by the development requirements in the Van Ness Special Use District. As Malcom Yeung of Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) puts it, “the law requires anyone building in the Van Ness corridor to produce three square feet of residential for each foot of non‑residential. Why should CPMC be any different”?

CPMC essentially seeks to replace zoning laws with project-by-project “deals.” If the Board of Supervisors approved CPMC’s request, then no affordable housing requirements in any community would be safe.

In light of the current extreme shortage of affordable housing funds, nonprofit housing groups who have built in the project’s vicinity – including Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, CCDC, and the Community Housing Partnership – are organizing to ensure that CPMC complies with city law and pays its fair share.

Uptown Tenderloin Traffic Nightmare

In the face of efforts to improve the livability of the Uptown Tenderloin, CPMC’s project plans on routing thousands of cars each day through the residential neighborhood’s streets. The EIR estimates 10,000 trips a day, and if they come equally from four directions, the Uptown Tenderloin would have a minimum of 2500 additional cars using the neighborhood as a speedway to get to CPMC.

The EIR assumes that those coming to CPMC from Mission Bay, SOMA, or Potrero Hill will take Van Ness to reach the facility, and projects a big traffic impact at Van Ness and Market. But drivers know that the fastest route is to either go up 7th Street, which becomes Leavenworth north of Market, or up 9th, which becomes Larkin.

Most avoid driving on Market or Van Ness whenever possible. So the EIR’s assumption that the Uptown Tenderloin will be spared from massive increased traffic ignores reality.

In 2007, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) released the Tenderloin-Little Saigon Neighborhood Transportation Study. The study recommended a comprehensive strategy for traffic calming and increased pedestrian safety, including corner bulbs, wider sidewalks, more lighting, and an overall more attractive streetscape (the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head, led the study outreach effort, which included city staff and the Southeast Asian Community Center and Asian Neighborhood Design).

Everything necessary to implement the report, included detailed engineering plans and budgeting, was completed. But like too many traffic-calming proposals, the Study was well received but never funded.

Now CPMC wants to worsen Uptown Tenderloin traffic by putting at least 2500 more cars on its streets each day. Drivers not bringing business to the community, but simply using its streets to get to CPMC.

This is not going to happen. The people of the Uptown Tenderloin and their allies are not going to allow CPMC to turn the neighborhood into a speedway, damaging its quality of life. And CPMC will not be permitted to add insult to injury by denying health care access at the new hospital to those impacted by increased traffic.

CPMC Can Solve its Traffic Problem

CPMC can address these negative environmental impacts by funding the implementation of the Tenderloin-Little Saigon Transit Study. This will not only slow traffic through the neighborhood, but also divert traffic away by reducing the time drivers can save by using Larkin and Leavenworth Streets rather than Van Ness.

CPMC can also easily grant health services access to residents of an adjacent low-income community. Given its massive expected profits from the $2 billion project, the cost of such access will barely be noticed.

CPMC has a choice to pursue a classic “win-win” approach. But CPMC has thus far completely ignored its project’s extreme Uptown Tenderloin traffic impacts, as well as the neighborhood’s health needs.

Based on its success in other cities, CPMC may believe that it can stiff arm San Francisco city officials and politicians into caving in to a sweetheart deal. The September 23 hearing is the opposition’s chance to show otherwise.

Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century is now available in paperback.

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