Swedish Hospital's Cherry Hill campus is reaching for the sky—literally. The multi-billion dollar nonprofit, partnered with the private developer Sabey, wants city approval for plans to add several stories to its buildings in the Squire Park neighborhood in anticipation, they say, of growing demand over the next thirty years. The result would be a 10 to 12 story edifice just uphill of Seattle University. But neighbors, along with lefty healthcare advocates, are pushing back against the expansion with a litany of complaints.
Squire Park resident, Swedish Cherry Hill nurse, and SEIU 1199 organizer Linda Arkava says the neighbors are worried about the expansion. Their fears include the possibility that the dense vertical build out will add to traffic and parking congestion, that the towers will blot out the sun, and that pedestrian paths will be clogged or eliminated.
An uncharitable observer might groan at this evident run-of-the-mill NIMBY-ism, but there's a second dimension to the objections against expansion.
"I don’t feel there is enough benefit for our neighborhood based on how detrimental this expansion, this increase of building density would be for our neighborhood," she says. Troy Meyers, a member of the Squire Park neighborhood council, agrees. “The general consensus of everybody in the neighborhood,” he says, is that the expansion “is completely out of sync with the neighborhood.” Meyers calls on Swedish to “actually have a dialogue with the community that [is] sincere” rather than the dog-and-pony show that he says he's seen so far.
An uncharitable observer might groan at this evident run-of-the-mill NIMBY-ism, but there's a second dimension to the objections against expansion. Chris Genese of Washington Citizens Action Network, a left-leaning activist group that advocates for equitable healthcare access, says in addition to worrying about the immediate impact on the neighborhood, he's concerned that Swedish is not making charity care accessible enough and isn't adequately supporting its low-and middle-income employees.
According to its website, Swedish spent about 7 percent of its revenue in 2013 on charity care and similar programs---though the term 'charity' may be misleading in this context, since state law requires hospitals to provide charity care to low-income patients. UW Medicine, by comparison, spent about 7.2 percent.
Speaking on behalf of the hospital, Andy Cosentino, Vice President of the Swedish Neuroscience Institute, says that Swedish has spent the past year meeting and compromising with neighbors. “We have gone through ten iterations of amendments to our draft, and all in response to neighborhood concerns,” he says. “To say they have not had a voice, I think, is disingenuous.”
He also points out that, in order to avoid encroaching on the surrounding neighborhood, the hospital has already scrapped plans to expand outward. As a consequence, he says, “we have to go vertical.” He emphasizes that the expansion will take place over three decades and forecasts a square-footage expansion of about 3 percent per year.
The city Hearing Examiner will ultimately rule for or against Swedish/Sabey's proposal based largely on a recommendation by a Citizen's Advisory Committee that's been mediating negotiations between neighbors and the hospital for more than a year. CAC chair and neighborhood resident Katie Porter says that Committee members want to be able to give the thumbs-up to the hospital expansion, but progress toward a workable compromise with neighbors has been hampered by deep distrust of Swedish. The hospital “hasn't tried to be a part of the community. They see their own needs and desires as trumping their neighbors'," she says, and notes that Swedish/Sabey are essentially asking for a special zoning permit based on the hospital's community service.
Porter is cautiously optimistic. “In the past few months, it's starting to feel more collaborative," she says. "But [that's] a few months of collaboration and discussion vs. 25 years of struggle and conflict.
"It's a start,” she adds with a stoic grin.