After hearing from representatives of New York Methodist Hospital and close to 50 speakers during a four-hour hearing in Park Slope on Thursday night, Community Board 6's Landmarks/Land Use Committee rejected NY Methodist’s request for a zoning variance to construct a new, outsized ambulatory center.
"Landmarks requested that Methodist withdraw their application, and voted to deny the application on the chance that they don't withdraw," said CB 6's Jerry Armer.
The committee’s vote is non-binding but will serve as a recommendation to the full board.
NY Methodist, located on Sixth Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, has proposed to demolish more than a dozen buildings that it owns in the block between Fifth and Sixth streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenue to build a nine-story state-of-the-art outpatient care center reaching a height of close to 140 feet. The surrounding buildings are roughly 50 feet high.
NY Methodist says that if it to remain a successful institution, it has to be able to change to an inpatient-focused model of healthcare delivery.
Those opposing the expansion say they have no problem with the new healthcare model -- it’s the out-of-scale building and the increased traffic flow they don’t like.
Some also say that NY Methodist should consider taking over Long Island College Hospital (LICH) instead of building a new facility. LICH, in Cobble Hill, has been working to find a new operator once SUNY Downstate, its current operator, walks away.
The committee rejected the application for two reasons, Armer said. The project as proposed "would alter the essential character" of the historically small-scale Park Slope neighborhood; and the requested variance was not the "minimum that could be requested" to address the applicant's needs.
Both of these requirements, along with several others, must be satisfied before the Bureau of Standards and Appeals issues a variance.
Armer said the committee wanted NY Methodist "to work with residents, officials and the Community Board” to reduce the bulk of the sections of the proposed structure that were out of compliance with zoning regulations.
Bennett Kleinberg, a neighbor, told the Brooklyn Eagle after the vote, “It was a long process, and I’m very pleased with Community Board 6’s efforts to date.”
Roy Sloane, a member of Community Board 6 and president of the Cobble Hill Association, said, “This turn-down is a call for comprehensive health care solution for the entire borough. I hope our elected officials recognize the need for a solution that benefits all of the residents of Brooklyn. That’s what’s needed.”
Hundreds attended the hearing, filling the auditorium at the John Jay Educational Campus, and many protested outside the before it began, chanting, “No high-rise in Park Slope.”
“A hospital is fine, it’s the scale of what they’re proposing that I’m against,” said Sarah Habibi, a mom whose two daughters attend one of the many schools in the area. “This neighborhood is filled with schools, and already it can’t handle the volume of traffic going to the ER,” she said.
Park Slope resident Isabell Hill said, “I’m not opposed to the concept, but the size of the plan is massively out of context . . . The neighborhood already experiences traffic issues. It’s not in keeping with the DNA of Park Slope.”
Marvin Ciporen, a resident of Park Slope for 41 years, told the Eagle that while he supported the hospital -- “I don’t move because of New York Methodist” -- the proposed building “is an abomination. Everybody is in favor of more and better health care, but this is an overreach.” He said the project “is keeping the Mayor [Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio] from developing his comprehensive health care plan for Brooklyn because it’s sucking up all the private pay patients and hundreds of millions in bond funding. Stop, come up with a comprehensive plan for Brooklyn, then see how it fits in.”
Gary Shaffer, a Park Slope resident for 32 years, and former Assistant Commissioner of Regulatory Policy and Enforcement at the NYC Department of Buildings, said that NY Methodist had created false choices. “They put forth ‘a’ complying plan and said it doesn’t work.” He said the hospital provided no evidence to support several of the design options they had chosen which served to make the project bigger than it needed to be, such as building vertically rather than horizontally, and choosing to make one large building rather than connecting two smaller ones.
But Lyn Hill, spokesperson for NY Methodist, said hospitals across the U.S. were building similar outpatient facilities. “They provide care more efficiently; they remain financially healthy; and they provide state-of-the-art healthcare.”
She said that NY Methodist had made changes previously to the building’s facade, green space, mass distribution and traffic patterns in response to neighborhood input.
“We continue to listen to the public,” she said, adding that NY Methodist was making further changes, such as closing the pedestrian entrance at Sixth Street and Eighth Avenue to all but employees during the day to cut back on traffic.
Hill defended the one-building layout, saying that the plan would afford “large floor plates” which would facilitate the coordination of care-givers and minimize having to support shared spaces.
If the variance is rejected, Hill warned, “We will build two towers as proposed.”
Stewart Klein, an attorney representing the group Preserve Park Slope, said NY Methodist’s claims were unsupported in its application. “There are no programmatic needs on this application, and no facts supporting cost premiums.” He said that since Methodist claimed they were still designing, “Then why are we here tonight?”
Beth Morrow, a resident of Seventh Street, testified, “I support the effort to modernize, if the size and scale” minimize impact to the neighborhood. She added, however, that the current impact was “very flawed,” and the plan had incomplete traffic studies.
“On Seventh Street, ambulances are routinely stacked up at the ambulance dock. The EMTs take the patients out in the middle of the street while traffic honks,” she said. The traffic studies neglected the six local schools with 4,600-plus students and the large percentage of cars circling in traffic looking for parking spaces, she said.
Some speakers said they were worried about sewer capacity on Sixth Street. After the spring rains, raw sewage flooded basements, creating mold and attracting vermin, according to the president of the 565 Block Association, representing Sixth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. “Any increased occupancy will exacerbate it.”
Dr. Andrew Vickers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering and a professor of public health at Cornell said, “I’m very pro-expansion -- just not this expansion. Don’t build a mega-hospital on a small, residential neighborhood street.”
Julie Lipton, a mom who has lived in Park Slope for seven years, was all for the plan. “I believe in Methodist, it’s a first-class hospital and I feel fortunate it’s in my backyard.”
Another mom also supported the expansion. “My daughter was born last year, and we got better care at Methodist than at any other hospital. The expansion will bring long-term benefits, with all the other hospitals that are closing.”
Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter of the Old First Reformed Church on Carroll Street supported the idea as well, saying, “Inpatient care is merging with outpatient care. This project anticipates the interconnectedness of health care.”
Rev. Dr. Ernest Jones of the Greenwood Baptist Church on Sixth Street said that the borough’s needs were growing. “Outpatient care is less stressful than the ER. I’ve seen the impact of major illnesses on people’s lives as a pastor.”
Other backers included the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and Assemblywoman Joan Millman, represented at the hearing by Josh Levin.
City Council Member Brad Lander, who drew some catcalls for his support of the proposal, said that his thinking in the case had been influenced by his fight to save LICH. “LICH is failing in part because they didn’t have a good, long-term strategy.” He added that he doesn’t believe that NY Methodist has “nefarious intentions.”
“This is a non-profit. I don’t believe they’re here to make a buck or screw us. They have been listening and made a bunch of changes. Let’s hear more ideas, see how we can push and adapt the plan to make it work.”
Lander said he had put together a traffic task force to look into issues concerning traffic safety. “We’ve had two meetings, one a walk-around. We’ve seen a whole series of traffic challenges already.”
The blocks of Park Slope containing the hospital and its properties are not included in the historic district agreement struck in 2009.