Surrounded by soft lighting and beige carpet, the three microphones pass back and forth across the tabletops as the committee members address one another in the calm tone of an extended sigh. “The administrative errors that have been made have since been fixed,” says one member. Another asks about traffic mitigation. Soft lighting bounces off the white ceiling. Starbucks coffee marinates in urns beside a tray of supermarket cookies and a small fort of pizza boxes. On the wall, two projector screens display a screensaver.
Then the public comment period begins.
“This is one of the most depressing and terrible things that I do in my month,” resident Abel Bradshaw tells the committee. “I’m tired of coming to these meetings and seeing our neighborhood chewed away at with words.”
She’s referring to the proposed expansion of Swedish Hospital’s Cherry Hill campus, which is co-owned by the nonprofit hospital and by the Sabey Corporation, a private developer. The Community Advisory Committee (CAC) she’s addressing has spent the better part of two years considering the expansion proposal (called a Major Institution Master Plan, or MIMP), which essentially asks the city for special zoning permissions on account of the hospital’s good deeds.
The neighbors of Squire Park aren’t buying it.
“This is just absurd and should be rejected out of hand,” says resident Murray Anderson.
“It’s just too big,” says resident Ken Torp. “It is three pounds of manure in a two-pound bag.”
“I urge the CAC to reject, in its entirety…the MIMP,” says resident Jack Hanson. “Send Swedish back to the drawing board.”
“Overwhelmingly, the community feels that this project is out of scale with the neighborhood,” I’m told later by Katie Porter, CAC chair and Squire Park resident. Neighborhood opposition to the expansion, grounded in fears of congested traffic and what resident Joanna Cullen calls “monolithic structures,” is climaxing as the CAC approaches its final votes on whether and how Swedish/Sabey is allowed to expand. Porter says she expects the CAC will issue its recommendation in March. After that, the City Hearing Examiner will decide what expansion, if any, to allow.
Swedish/Sabey’s latest proposal. (PDF)
For their part, representatives of Swedish/Sabey maintain that their work creates enough public benefit to justify the expansion, and say they’ve bartered with residents in good faith. As Andy Cosentino, vice president of the Swedish Neuroscience Institute, told me (writing for PubliCola) in August, “We have gone through ten iterations of amendments to our draft, and all in response to neighborhood concerns…To say they have not had a voice, I think, is disingenuous.” (You can see Swedish’s description of its public benefits here, and WA CAN’s criticisms of said benefits here.)
In contrast to some neighbors’ calls to scrap the entire MIMP, Porter advocates setting “certain thresholds that need to be met” by Swedish/Sabey before they can start building up and out. As an example, Porter says the CAC could mandate that Swedish/Sabey “be in compliance with [their] own Transportation Management Plan before any building permit is issued.”
It’s been a long road for the CAC members, who have managed to whittle down the size of the hospital’s proposals (which initially would have (PDF) more than doubled the heights of some buildings) but have not achieved anything like stakeholder consensus: Swedish and Sabey want an expansion, and residents don’t.
Porter says she hopes the unavoidable problems (PDF) the expansion will bring to the neighborhood — mostly related to increased traffic and the aesthetics of gigantic building — can be counterbalanced with other benefits. But those benefits are not yet well-defined. “Frankly,” she says, “we have not seen much from them in terms of how this is going to improve our community.
The CAC’s next meeting will be at the Swedish Cherry Hill campus on Thursday, January 15, from 6:30-8:30 PM.