Last week, the Landmarks and Land-Use Committee of Brooklyn Community Board 6 voted 11-1 to reject an expansion plan from New York Methodist Hospital. Though the decision is non-binding, anti-expansion community group Preserve Park Slope hopes it will serve as a rallying point for reducing the scope of the project, which calls for the demolition of several nineteenth century brownstones owned by the hospital — as well as part of the hospital's existing facility — and the construction of a nine-story building.
The proposed expansion comes at a moment of crisis for Brooklyn hospitals, with Interfaith Medical Center on the verge of bankruptcy, Long Island College Hospital still facing closure, and both Brookdale Medical Center and SUNY Downstate in financial peril.
We spoke with Eve Gartner, a Park Slope resident of fifteen years and a member of Preserve Park Slope, about the fight against expansion, and why she believes the Methodist plan won’t solve Brooklyn’s health care woes.
When did you first find out about the proposed expansion? Can you talk about how you came to oppose it?
Some time over the summer. Honestly, when I first heard about it, I thought, “This will just work itself out.” It seems very large and overreaching, but I figured that the systems, the politicians and other neighbors would get involved, and bring it down to size.
But I was disturbed. The community board was scheduled to have a hearing in late October, and by mid-October, we still didn’t have the same final proposal from Methodist. I thought, “How can the community board be going forward with a hearing on a proposal where we haven’t seen anything in writing explaining exactly what they’re doing?”
I’m sure you’ve read some stuff about the intersection here, between this hospital wanting to expand, and so many hospitals in Brooklyn shutting down. It just seemed like there was just a fundamental lack of planning. When I dug in, it seemed as if what they were proposing to expand, the services that they were proposing to add, didn’t really seem like they were addressing the needs of the borough in terms of health care. There’s very high rates of diabetes and respiratory disease, a lot of people that don’t have hospitals in their neighborhood to provide basic hospital care. And here, they’re going to spend probably close to a billion dollars to build a building that isn’t serving these kinds of fundamental health care needs.
LICH is closing, a couple of hospitals farther out in Brooklyn are closing, and people are losing basic hospital care, and yet Methodist is proposing to build this massive building, and they’re adding endoscopy suites, and radiation oncology — kind of specialty services that, frankly, probably bring in a lot of insurance money. They’re also saying that once they build this new building, one of the things they want to do in the existing building is convert all or most of their hospital rooms to private rooms. One thing that’s interesting about private rooms is that Medicaid and Medicare won’t pay for them.
It just seemed like there was so much irrationality to this: building this massive building in a really residential block that doesn’t have the infrastructure to support this.
About 4,000 kids go to school within a three-block radius of this site. And there are significant air quality issues involved both in the construction, which would involve diesel vehicles, and then, also, the hospital itself has a boiler operation. They burn fuel to do their own heating, and their own hot water. Right now, they’re considered a major source emitter of certain air pollutants; they actually operate under a state permit that allows them to emit, but they emit over 25 tons a year of nitrogen oxide, which is a precursor to ozone, which is a well-known contributor to asthma, and other kinds of respiratory disease. If they build this new building, they’re probably going to have to double the amount of emissions and hazardous air pollutants.
It’s a lot of things. It’s about air quality, it’s about the impact on the kids, it’s about the irrationality of why with all these basic hospitals closing, why are they building basically a specialty ambulatory care center? Is this really a rational use of healthcare resources? That, and just anger at the politicians for dropping the ball on this, for not asking the hard questions. Just signing off before they understood.
What’s your vision for the neighborhood in terms of development?
I think the very short term and specific goals is that the scale of this building needs to be reduced. This isn’t an industrial neighborhood, and this is essentially an industrial site that’s being plopped literally in the middle of homes, in the middle of schools.
In addition, I think that somebody has to take a step back and look at how this fits into the Brooklyn-wide health care needs. I think there’s a widespread recognition that there’s been a hospital crisis in Brooklyn. And De Blasio, one of his campaign promises was to create a health care authority for the borough of Brooklyn, to bring rationality to the way services are provided. My concern is that if this goes forward now, it really undercuts the idea of bringing rationality to Brooklyn, because this is an irrational proposal.
When you think about Lenox, that stretch of York Avenue where Sloan-Kettering is, New York Hospital, Cornell — those are mega-buildings. I think of those big campuses of hospital providers in Manhattan. This is not the place to put a health care campus, just in terms of accessibility, in terms of available space. Unlike Manhattan, where there’s like a million parking lots, there’s one paid parking lot, owned by Methodist, and it’s not very big. It’s constantly full. There was this study done by Transportation Alternatives a couple of years ago, where they found that 65 percent of the traffic in Park Slope are people driving around in circles trying to find a parking spot.
It’s true! People joke that it’s “No-Park” Slope. And it is. And that’s before they bring in 1,000 new patients a day. Their projections are that 80 percent of the patients that come will drive. That just shows that this isn’t a good place. You shouldn’t build a major hospital center in an area where 80 percent of the people are going to go by car. You need to put it near a major transportation hub.
Maybe there’s a site on Fourth Avenue that would be a better location for a new facility. Fourth Avenue is much more accessible to the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 lines. If you take the subway to Atlantic Avenue, you can switch to the R train, which goes along Fourth Avenue. So it’s much more conducive to getting there by public transportation than this area. And it’s zoned for big buildings. At this point at least, there’s definitely under-used lots, actually some empty lots. I’m just speculating, but it just seems at least possible to me, that if there’s only going to be a few big hospitals left in Brooklyn, and if Methodist is going to be one of them, then what’s the future, and where is it going to be able to expand to? Here…
But in the long term, that’s not going to be enough space for it either, because we know how these health care institutions are, and there’s no place else for it to go, because everything else in the vicinity is landmarked, and privately-owned.
Going back to your point about how you feel about the political process, I don’t know Brad Lander particularly well — he’s not my councilman — but the only time I ever hear about him is with regards to land use.
He’s actually known for several really great things.
He’s very popular…
He’s very popular. He’s a really smart, well-intentioned person, and has done some very good things in the district, but I think he’s really missed the ball on this. You know, I don’t know why, but I think very early on, he came out in support of the proposal, before anyone knew the details of it, and I think it would’ve been better if he’d waited to see the details and actually met with members of the community.
I’m sure he was in touch with the hospital, and the hospital explained to him why they thought they should go forward with this, but at the Land Use Committee meeting, a week before last, there were hundreds of people from the community coming out in opposition to this, and speaking really eloquently and passionately about the problems, and most of the people that spoke in support of it, a lot of them didn’t even live here.
There was an overwhelming sense that the community opposed this. I felt like the role of the city councilperson is to represent their constituents, and on this, he doesn’t seem to be representing his constituents. He probably is thinking, “Oh, well, he supports health care.” And how could you be opposed to health care? But I guess my concern is: is this really the health care we need? Is this really going to replace LICH? I don’t think it is.