Fisher: Common sense and a hospital project

July 13th, 2010

By Patty Fisher — Mercury News,

In 2006, when Stanford University unveiled plans for a massive medical center expansion that would add 248 beds, 1.3 million square feet of space, 2,242 new employees and a 115-foot-tall hospital building that was more than double the city’s height limit, the Palo Alto community assumed its reflexive defensive posture.

What, more traffic? Thousands more workers demanding places to live and trying to get their kids into Palo Alto schools? More noise from ambulances and helicopters bringing patients to the fancy new hospital? More trees cut down and native species disturbed? And is Stanford really thinking about demolishing that historic 1959 hospital building where Norman Shumway performed the first heart transplant in the United States? No way.

Even though the current medical center was obviously outdated and overcrowded, and must be brought up to earthquake standards by 2013 to comply with state law, opponents on the City Council and in the community began to dig in. It looked like the approval process could get ugly.

That’s why I’ve been stunned by the veritable love fest during the current round of city discussions of the project. For the past month, the planning commission and the City Council have been dissecting a voluminous draft environmental impact report on the expansion, which is expected to cost $3 billion and take 12 years to complete. I figured these meetings would be jammed with people complaining, in the usual Palo Alto style, about construction noise, rush-hour traffic, the 71 mature trees that would be lost. And the height of the building, which has grown from 115 feet to 135 feet since it first was proposed.

But the crowds have not turned up. Except for the usual gadflies, the community seems to have tuned out of this discussion, at least for now.

Why?

It could be the economy. Bringing 2,000 jobs to town doesn’t seem quite as evil as it did in 2006. Local merchants could use the business.

There also has been a change in leadership. Two of the council’s toughest critics of Stanford, Jack Morton and Yoriko Kishimoto, stepped down last year. The new council, led by Mayor Pat Burt, seems eager to pass the project. Monday night, council members raised tough questions, but generally praised Stanford for its sustainable design and its success in promoting mass transit.

Here’s what I think happened. During the past four years, Palo Altans gradually have been overcome by common sense. They realize that the hospital is not just another grandiose Stanford building project. While it’s hard to see the public benefit of a fancy new classroom building, anyone who has been to Stanford’s emergency room, where patients are jammed six to a room, can understand the need for expansion. Anyone who has been wheeled through Stanford’s endless hallways can see the advantage of a high-rise hospital, where patients travel by elevator. Want to remember that historic first heart transplant? Put up a nice plaque.

While there are still issues to resolve, the hospital is one Stanford project the community can get behind. It’s worth it to put up with some inconvenience in order to have some of the best doctors in the world right there when they need them.

Imagine if current town and gown leaders could work together and set a similar tone for future developments. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.