Watching the Palo Alto City Council talk last week about a proposed rebuilding and modernization of the Stanford Medical Center made me wonder if we have misplaced priorities in this community.
The council was told that Stanford needs to build 1.4 million square feet of new facilities at the Medical Center, to replace 700,000 square feet of existing facilities. In large part the rebuild is dictated by state legislation that requires all acute-care hospitals to meet new seismic standards by 2013.
The physicians appearing before the council -- Dr. Jerry Shefren and Dr. Harvey Cohen -- carefully documented the need for more room. Stanford Hospital's emergency room frequently is at capacity, as is the hospital itself: 500 adult patients had to be turned away last year because of a shortage of rooms.
The hospital provides the highest level of trauma care, which didn't even exist when it was built in 1959. The demand for inpatient and outpatient care is increasing as the area's population ages. There's need for modern facilities to accommodate new medical technologies and to conduct more research.
Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital is almost at 100 percent capacity daily, and last year it could not accommodate 200 critically ill children a year because of lack of room.
"We are having to say no to children in our community," Cohen said.
So what were some of the first comments from our council?
Council member Peter Drekmeier said he knew this was a hospital rather than a university project, but he was worried about open space, and said the goal should be to dedicate more open space.
"The fear in the community is that growth is just happening," he said.
Councilman John Barton called this a "gargantuan project with significant impacts" that have to be "mitigated," meaning Stanford will have to give something to the community in return for the expansion.
Councilman Jack Morton went even further, saying Stanford was "threatening" the council by asking that discussion be limited to the Med Center. "I want this to succeed in a way the community is satisfied, (acknowledging) our love of open space, our love of the horizon. ... We value the overall environment and we wish you valued it the same way."
Funny, I thought the project under discussion was expanding a Medical Center to provide the community with more and better medical care.
Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto said she was worried about traffic, since the project would bring more people to Stanford and she wanted no new traffic impacts. And she and a few other council members have suggested to Stanford in the past that if the Med Center employs more people it needs to provide housing for these employees.
But the demands do not just stop at housing, for Stanford has been told if these employees require housing they might also require schools, parks and maybe even a library. Kishimoto talked about more bike paths and reintroducing the idea of redeveloping the train station area to include more housing.
"We are concerned not about just what happens in the study area but we are looking at impacts in a larger area," she said.
So we have four council members telling Stanford they want more housing, less traffic, more schools, compensation for three tall (130 feet) patient towers (that will probably house some of us when we are in the hospital), more open space and maybe even some land in the foothills -- all in exchange for a state-of-the-art medical facility that will serve thousands of patients for years to come. By comparision, Hoover Tower is 285 feet tall, Palo Alto City Hall is 127 feet, Palo Alto Square is 132 feet and 101 Alma is 140 feet high.
I've heard more than one council member say that Stanford is a rich university so it should in effect "pay" for the hospital expansion. Stanford may be rich, but the hospitals depend on patients for their income.
I, for one, would not want employee housing or bike path costs hiking up my medical bills.
Only council members Judy Kleinberg and Bern Beecham acknowledged that the council was talking about a medical center whose space and medical needs were of great importance.
Kleinberg was particularly upfront on her support, saying she didn't take Stanford's proposal to limit discussion to the Med Center as a threat. And while there will be more patients and employees, there also will be more benefits that are not just monetary -- such as saving lives.
As to the towers, she said she would prefer the hospital go up instead of out, to allow more space and more sunlight as well as greater functionality and efficiency in the hospital.
Why are some council members suggesting that if we expand the Med Center we are somehow endangering the quality of life in our community? Isn't the reverse true? By having a hospital that is one of the best in the country, aren't we guaranteeing that quality of all our lives will be improved?
As some residents pointed out at the study session last week, expanding the Medical Center is not simply a construction project that must be negotiated. The hospitals will be the center of our medical needs, particularly if there is a disaster. The Medical Center is a world-famous institution that is involved in cutting-edge research -- it attracts the best and the brightest of physicians and researchers, despite the high housing costs in our region.
And the Med Center does not just serve Palo Alto. It accepts patients from the entire area, even the entire country. As to requiring that housing be provided, it need not be up to Palo Alto alone to provide housing for hospital employees -- the entire region is available for housing, meaning a regional approach may be appropriate to absorb the housing impacts of a regional facility. Some communities, such as San Jose, are reporting a surfeit of housing.
The council needs to focus on what the Med Center is all about -- saving human lives. That is the top priority.