On Deadline: A long, often bumpy road to a new Stanford medical complex
Monday night's approval of the massive rebuilding of the Stanford Hospital/Medical Center complex concludes the first chapter of the biggest single development in Palo Alto's history.
Winning city approval took only about four years — long enough for a college education. And important lessons seem to have been learned, by both the city and Stanford, enough to graduate with honors, perhaps.
For those of us who have witnessed or been part of the decades-long history relating to Stanford Hospital and the School of Medicine, the council's approval of this new plan is truly momentous. It is the culmination of an interweaving of Stanford and community that dates back into early 1900s, when the "first hospital" in Palo Alto was a building just off Lytton Avenue that was converted to a hospital by Stanford students. It closed in summers.
But to me the most significant element of the council approval this week is a huge change in the tone of the relationship between Palo Alto and Stanford. For years, a pattern has existed that when Stanford proposed something — such as its long-term General Use Permit from Santa Clara County in the late 1990s — community critics would attack the proposal as too big with too many traffic, housing and other impacts.
Stanford would retaliate by activating Stanford loyalists who would weigh in with letters to the editor, presentations at meetings. It was like calling out the "my Stanford right or wrong" rooting section. There was name-calling and contentiousness, some of which left scars that have been slow to heal.
That pattern seemed to be kicking in when the big new medical complex surfaced as an official proposal in 2007. It had all the earmarks of a head-to-head struggle, with both sides warming to the fray. Former City Manager Frank Benest was pulling together a list of things Stanford would need to address, and the list was approaching 100. Stanford was digging in.
But something changed along the way. Then-Mayor Pat Burt recalls one meeting in particular last year when bristling gave way to a realization that the project was really too big for old patterns. A new city manager, James Keene, brought a softer tone to the discussions, and Stanford made substantial concessions.
Offers included $23.2 million for "infrastructure, sustainable communities and housing" — only about $2 million of which would be required. Stanford offered to spend $90 million over the years on Caltrain GO passes or other transportation measures, plus $25 million to expand its Marguerite shuttle operation.
More recently it agreed to contribute $12 million to a "climate change fund."
So history has shifted, again.
Following the student hospital came a series of small hospitals located on Embarcadero Road, the site of the current lawn-bowling park. They kept burning down, retired surgeon Hewlett Lee recalls of the days when his father, the late Russel V.A. Lee, was co-founding the Palo Alto Medical Clinic.
Then the solid Palo Alto Hospital, now the Hoover Pavilion, was built on Stanford land.
The Stanford School of Medicine, meanwhile, was based in San Francisco. Under prompting from Russ Lee and other community physicians, Stanford and Palo Alto in the 1950s agreed to build a jointly owned hospital at Stanford and combine it with the medical school.
In 1959 both moved into the rambling edifice designed by Edward Durell Stone, marked by a square-block design on the outside that some felt resembled swastikas. To be contrary I once commented that they reminded me of benevolent symbols of some American Indian and Eastern religions.
Almost immediately the hospital proved to be too small — a problem that has plagued health care in Palo Alto just about forever, it seems. There was a constant push and pull for bed space and operating rooms between Stanford and community physicians in the early 1960s. At one heated meeting a doctor reportedly waved a shoe in angry emulation of Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev's famous shoe-banging episode.
By the mid-1960s Stanford had enough and offered to buy out the city's share. It took three years of talk to conclude a deal, based on a cash payment and 40-year guarantee of access to community physicians.
OK, back to the present, or perhaps that should be back to the future.
The scale of the current plans is staggering, physically, organizationally and financially.
With formal city approval, the next phase is Stanford's massive challenge of raising funds for what ultimately will be a $5 billion project, give or take some chump change of a few hundred thousand. The first $3 billion phase of rebuilding the Stanford Hospital and Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital is targeted to get underway late next year, 2012.
There is a time urgency for Stanford Hospital in that it doesn't meet state earthquake-resistance standards. It is under state mandate to shore up or rebuild.
A second, $2 billion phase of rebuilding the School of Medicine, laboratories and physician offices will come later.
The development agreement allows 30 years to complete everything — perhaps reasonable for something that should last at least 100 years.
The new complex will house most of the next century's health care, complementing the non-Stanford medical services in the community and serving as the community hospital for Palo Alto, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and other Midpeninsula cities, towns and unincorporated areas.
The new complex will be constructed on a specially zoned site northwest of the existing facilities, extending to Welch Road. Existing buildings will eventually be torn down.
The Hoover Pavilion, once Palo Alto's hospital, will be refurbished for medical offices. There's life left in the old place yet.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.