August, 19, 2009

Guest columnist

Hearing examiner made the right choice rejecting Seattle Children's expansion plan

Seattle Children's has not done enough to accommodate the concerns of the Laurelhurst Community Club in its plan to expand its existent hospital off Sand Point Way, writes guest columnist Jeannie Hale. A Seattle hearing examiner was right to recommend the City Council not approve the plan.

By Jeannie Hale

Special to The Times

NO one should have been surprised when, on Aug. 11, the Seattle city hearing examiner issued a recommendation for denial of Seattle Children's application to add 1.5 million square feet of development in Laurelhurst. Children's hospital already occupies 900,000 square-feet there. The denial became inevitable as Children's painted itself into a corner in the application process.

For 30 years, the Seattle City Council has relied on a hearing examiner to make recommendations on development proposals by hospitals and universities designated on the city's law books as "major institutions."

These include such local "favorites" as Swedish Medical Center, the University of Washington, Harborview Medical Center, Children's, etc. They are all beloved by many, including the Laurelhurst Community Club. They all have critical, lifesaving missions for patients young and old.

And they all must go through a major institutions planning review. No one has to appeal to trigger the city's hearing examiner review; it is required under the city's "major institutions code."

The hearing examiner's Web site says it all: Her job is to "conduct fair and impartial administrative hearings" and her office is "separate and independent from all other City departments." She decides based on just the facts and the law; no media pressure from the commentators of the right and left, no phone calls from the mayor, no lobbying by important political "players."

For the Children's application, the examiner held more than a week of hearings. She read thousands of pages of exhibits, studies and testimony. She reviewed the multivolume environmental-impact statement required under Washington's environmental laws. And, after reviewing it all, she came to the key conclusion that under the city's zoning laws and state-required growth-management plans, Children's proposal was too much in the wrong place.

As summed up in her 40-page denial recommendation: "Children's is asking that the proverbial 'square peg' be forced into a 'round hole,' but it does not fit."

For example, it does not take a rocket scientist to recognize that thousands of additional vehicle trips per day through the Montlake Boulevard to Highway 520 and Northeast 45th Street and Sand Point Way choke points will overwhelm them. This is not just a Laurelhurst or citywide commuter issue. Emergency vehicles and parents transporting seriously ill children will be delayed in traffic along with everyone else.

Two years ago, when the application process started, the Laurelhurst Community Club pointed out that Children's proposed expansion was more than the neighborhood could support or the law could bear. It was just plain unrealistic. The Club asked Children's to put on the table a compromise in keeping with the city code requirement for balancing "facilities for the provision of health care with the need to minimize the impact of Major Institution development on surrounding neighborhoods."

Children's refused.

As the application process ran its course, Children's was the beneficiary of a smear campaign against Laurelhurst on the part of special-interest groups and some segments of the media.

It was easy for some to dismiss Laurelhurst's concerns as "NIMBY" (not in my backyard), ignoring the 900,000 square feet already very much in its backyard. Not anymore.

Editorial fist-shaking or loud attempts to intimidate the City Council into ignoring the hearing examiner and the law will not solve this problem. What is needed is a modified proposal by Children's that steps back from "all or nothing" as a planning principle.

A Times proposal on this theme would have been helpful. Instead, The Times' Aug. 14 editorial's don't-confuse-us-with-the-facts approach will just encourage disrespect for the law and the process.

For its part, Laurelhurst Community Club is ready to move forward immediately with a realistic expansion plan for Children's. Will you join us?


Jeannie Hale is president of the Laurelhurst Community Club Board of Trustees.

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