CPMC's stunning arrogance

Plans for a new hospital center has to comply with the city's affordable housing laws

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The San Francisco City Planning Commission hearing June 9 on California Pacific Medical Center's expansion plans was remarkable — both in the comments that the commissioners had and in the mind-boggling arrogance of the giant hospital chain.

CPMC wants to build a massive new hospital and medical office building on Van Ness Avenue and rebuild St. Luke's Hospital in the Mission. The plans aren't even close to complying with city planning codes — the Sutter Health affiliate will need city approval to exceed height limits on Van Ness (by more than 100 feet); a modification of the housing construction requirement for new offices; permission to demolish existing housing units; permission to take over a part of San Jose Avenue — and a lot more. In other words, CPMC is asking a lot from the city.

And since this nonprofit controls four major hospitals in the city, its future development decisions need to be considered in the context of San Francisco's overall health care needs.

It's entirely reasonable that the city ask CPMC for a development agreement that provides benefits to city residents. Mayor Ed Lee has made it clear that the approval of this project will depend on whether CPMC can address affordable housing, healthcare access for low-income people, a secure future for St. Luke's, workforce development, and transportation impacts. Lee's proposals are more than reasonable: he's asking that CPMC pay the standard fee for affordable housing required of any major commercial developer; increase its level of charity care (now an abysmal 0.99 percent) to the average of other regional hospitals (2.3 percent); increase its Medical acceptance rate; and maintain St. Luke's as an acute care facility with an emergency room. Union nurses are asking that Sutter deal with them in good faith.

But Dr. Warren Browner, CEO of CPMC, showed little interest in working with the city. The demands are way too high, he told the commissioners, insisting that it was unreasonable to ask the hospital to contribute that much to affordable housing. He acted as if CMPC was somehow entitled to move forward — at its own proposed schedule — and that all of these city demands were nonsense.

That's not going to work.

A clear majority of the commissioners got the point. As Ron Miguel pointed out, Sutter is a nonprofit — and its tax-exempt status mandates a certain level of social responsibility. Every big commercial developer has to pay for housing and transit impacts. Gwyneth Borden and Bill Sugaya noted that hospital officials knew full well what the planning rules were when they bought the Van Ness site.

This is a $2.5 billion project. Community benefits need to be a significant part of the final plan. If anything, Lee's proposals are too limited (Sutter should agree to protect St. Luke's for 50 years, not 20). The planning commissioners should stick to their positions — this project is out of control, and if Browner wants to see it built, he needs to come back with a new set of numbers, and a new attitude.

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