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A Hard Look at Hardship

st vincents hospital redevelopment project new york city

MAS joined hundreds of others today in testifying before the Landmarks Preservation Commission regarding St. Vincent’s hardship application. To be sure, the hardship application is one of the most challenging and complicated issues that have come before the LPC in recent decades. St. Vincent’s must prove that maintaining the 1961 O’Toole building “prevents or seriously interferes with carrying out the [hospital’s] charitable purpose.” MAS believes that more alternatives need to be thoroughly scrutinized before the LPC can make the determination of hardship.

The LPC asked tough questions of the hospital officials, trying to figure out if indeed a hardship exists. Although today was the last opportunity for the public to speak on the hardship issue, the LPC did keep the record open so that additional comments could be submitted to the LPC in writing.

An additional meeting will be held in upcoming weeks to continue the questions from the LPC and the response from the hospital.

MAS Testimony on St. Vincent’s Hardship Application – Greenwich Village Historic District – July 15, 2008

The St. Vincent’s hardship application is one of the most challenging issues the LPC has faced in recent memory, and the LPC’s decision must be carefully made in order to ensure a precedent is not made that could have negative ramifications for the integrity of the Landmarks Law and its hardship provision. As the LPC knows, the two-step hardship process involves the LPC first determining preliminarily whether a hardship exists, and second, if a determination of hardship is made, exploring possible alternative plans that may meet the hospital’s needs while preserving the character of the O’Toole building.

Thankfully, the Landmarks Law anticipated that the issues that arise in both steps of the hardship process may go beyond the expertise of the LPC staff and Commissioners, and the Law therefore suggests that outside experts be engaged when necessary. In the St. Vincent’s case, independent experts in hospital design and needs are critical to help understand the issues at hand, and we urge the LPC to engage such experts if it has not already. MAS would be happy to help the LPC identify and reach out to experts who could be of assistance. We have already engaged some experts, who are still examining the materials for the application. Because of this, we urge that the record be kept open after today’s hearing so that further scrutiny on the hardship application can be submitted.

We have examined many of the critical questions the Commissioners have posed to the hospital, and we look forward hearing St. Vincent’s response to all of these questions. Many of the Commissioners’ questions concern the possible reuse of the property on the east side of 7th Avenue, and therefore the LPC must not make a final decision on the Certificate of Appropriateness for the residential development on this property until the hardship process has been completed. The two projects are inextricably linked, and separating the sites would close the door on several options which must be scrutinized before a determination of hardship is made.

In addition to the questions that the Commissioners have asked, we believe that the following questions should be explored, with the help of an independent hospital expert, before a determination of hardship can be made:

How can the hospital use the land it currently owns on the east side of 7th Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets to reuse or rebuild its hospital facility?

More specifically:

Can St. Vincent’s build a new hospital facility on the sites of Coleman and Link? Doing so may require the temporary relocation of the emergency room, and as such, how can the hospital temporarily relocate its emergency care and other essential facilities while constructing its new hospital?

Can St. Vincent’s build a new hospital on the site of the Cronin and Reiss buildings?

If the hospital is decreasing in size, why is the overall bulk of the hospital and residential projects increasing?

What financial issues are factors in this case?Is the hardship only a physical hardship?

Are there other sites that St. Vincent’s currently owns where it can locate its new hospital facility?

What solutions are there for the hospital to build on the site it owns on 6th Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets? If the footprint of the site does not allow for an adequate emergency room, is it feasible for the hospital to acquire properties adjacent to the site?

If the LPC does make a preliminary determination of hardship, we urge the LPC to explore developing alternatives in the second phase of process.

Some of the questions that should be asked in this phase include:

How can the O’Toole building be adapted for use as the hospital facility?

What solutions, which may not be acceptable under the LPC’s normal C of A process, could be developed as acceptable “inappropriate” additions or changes in order to save the O’Toole building?

How can the ground floor of the O’Toole building be adapted so as to allow enough space for a single-level emergency room?

Are there ways to cantilever the hospital tower over the O’Toole building?

If some of the uses from the lower levels are relocated above grade, would that help alleviate the issues with excavating under the O’Toole building if it is to be used for the hospital facility?

Are there other sites that would be more appropriate for St. Vincent’s new hospital facility, specifically sites outside of a historic district, which would allow the hospital to change and grow more easily in the future? Can the City help identify and acquire such sites? The hardship provision enables the city to use its power of condemnation in pursuing alternatives.

How will St. Vincent’s current plan to construct a new building on the site of the O’Toole building anticipate the hospital’s needs 30, 40, or even 50 years from now?

If St. Vincent’s sells its property east of 7th Avenue for residential use, where will the hospital expand and change in the future? When the proposed new hospital facility is outdated, how will the site be treated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission? How have other hospitals planned to anticipate future needs?

Without a doubt, there may be additional questions that need to be explored in both phases of this application. We therefore ask that the record not be closed at today’s hearing so that we may respond to any additional Commissioner comments and information provided by the applicant.