Community of Concern 

As Children's Hospital asks voters to finance a required retrofit, its tense relations with neighbors worry backers of the measure.

When Bob and Jovita Schenker bought their North Oakland house in 1999, they thought they'd found the home where they'd spend the rest of their lives. They bought a place that used to be an old neighborhood market, glad to find something affordable. But almost as soon as they moved in, they began getting calls from a buyer's agent who wouldn't disclose for whom he was working. The calls came almost nightly, even though Bob always said that he and Jovita wouldn't sell. When an agent representing Children's Hospital knocked on their door offering to buy, he declined yet again.

For a while the couple was left alone. Then, one September night, he came home and found a flier pushed under his front door. It seemed like good news — Children's Hospital & Research Center was going to stay in Oakland, thanks to a new expansion plan. But Schenker was shocked by the details: An orange blob depicted a new hospital that would be built atop his and other homes on Dover Street, between 52nd and 53rd streets. Checking his watch, Bob realized that a "community input" meeting was taking place in five minutes. So he rushed over to voice his objections.

The impetus for the hospital's expansion is a retrofit deadline spurred on by the Northridge quake in 1994. The law requires all California hospitals to be "earthquake safe" by 2013. To retrofit the current facility at Children's, which is nearly one hundred years old and about one mile from the Hayward Fault, administrators say they would have to close for three years. So they decided it would be more cost-effective to build an entirely new building for patients, and then shift their offices and labs into the current building.

On February 5, Alameda County voters will be asked to choose between two competing tax increases designed to finance the hospital's plans. If either measure passes, county taxpayers will hand over about $350 million to the private nonprofit hospital. That would translate to about $24 a year over thirty years for home-owners, $100 a year for small businesses, and $250 a year for large businesses. Measure A would make the hospital apply for the funds from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, while Measure B would simply hand over the money. Under Measure B, the county also might be liable for any lawsuits related to the construction project, while having no guarantee that the hospital would even be built within its borders.

Hospital officials say they will have to close their doors if they don't receive the funds. "It's not a threat — the hospital will have to close," said Mary Dean, the hospital's Senior Vice President and Chief Strategic Development Officer, during a recent meeting with two hospital neighbors, which a reporter was permitted to attend but not participate in. Dean said she sympathizes with the concerns of hospital neighbors, but stressed that the hospital's mission is to serve its patients' needs first. "We are the county hospital for children," Dean said. "Sixty to 65 percent of our patients are MediCal recipients."

The hospital has been offering to buy the homes of displaced residents at 5 to 10 percent above market value. But the prospect of using eminent domain is also a possibility. At a recent meeting with some hospital neighbors, Dean said, "We will explore that use if we can't get the property other ways."

Neighbors who won't be displaced have concerns of their own. When Crow and Molly Bolt bought their two-bedroom fixer-upper at the corner of Dover and 53rd Streets four months ago, they had no clue that a major construction project was planned directly across the street. They now worry about the ill effects that 24-hour noise and light pollution, traffic congestion, and dust will have on the children they plan on having. "We want every construction mitigation possible," Molly said. Toward this end they want more community meetings and opportunities to discuss their concerns with project architects.

Such concerns might seem insignificant next to the needs of the children served by the hospital, and neighbors who are opposed to the proposal tend to preface their case by stating that they are not against sick children. But critics grumble that the hospital's administration has been known to use the smiles of ailing children to deflect criticism away from its sometimes heavy-handed behavior toward its neighbors. "It's like a featherweight in the ring with a heavyweight," said resident Phillip Falkell, who doesn't trust the hospital. "It's not fair and it's not right."

Hospital officials declined to discuss their relations with the community despite repeated requests.

This tense relationship with parts of its own community is the backdrop against which the public will vote on the hospital's expansion. "I'm frightened that with this hostile working relationship that they're going to lose this measure to save this incredible institution in Oakland," lamented County Supervisor Keith Carson, who wants Children's Hospital to remain in Oakland. "We are fighting these days for funds with private entities. You don't want to lose any existing infrastructure because you won't be able to rebuild it."

Still, even Carson, one of the tax measure's architects, is only lukewarm in his support for Measure A. "It's the best of two bad worlds," Carson said. "I'm not happy with the whole process that's gotten us to this point." And he's not the only one. Chris Gray, the chief of staff for board president Scott Haggerty, worries that the hospital's campaign could encourage other private hospitals to look at ballot measures as a funding source. Haggerty opposes the tax measure.

In early 2007, the hospital paid petitioners to gather signatures in support of Measure B, which the Registrar of Voters rejected twice for minor ballot irregularities, but which ultimately qualified for the February 5 election. Once the Board of Supervisors caught wind of the measure, the five county supervisors filed a ballot argument against it and called a meeting with Dean and the hospital's CEO. After a series of meetings between the supes and hospital administrators, Measure A was born.

Carson says the measure is, at best, a compromise. It does relieve the county of liability for the loan, and also requires that the county be compensated for any administrative costs related to levying the tax. But it still hands over public money to a private entity. It also would divert available funds needed to retrofit the county-owned Highland Hospital. "The public needs to ask the hard questions," cautioned Carson, who said he will vote for Measure A. "When do you stop letting people you don't know dig further and further into your pockets?"

In a short e-mail statement to the Express, Dean explained the hospital's rationale. "We are a not-for-profit hospital serving a public good," she wrote. "Our mission is to serve all children regardless of their ability to pay. ... Two-thirds of our patients live in Alameda County. So, we are asking Alameda County voters to help us pay 40 percent of the total cost of building a new home for Children's Hospital Oakland by voting yes on Measure A."

Children's Hospital already has received some state funding. In 2004, Prop 61 provided $750 million in general obligation bonds to build, renovate, and equip California children's hospitals. Children's Hospital Oakland received $74 million. It used $45 million for outpatient facilities, and should still have about $30 million in reserve.

Even if one of the two tax measures passes, it still would only provide about 40 percent of the $750 million needed to build a new facility. The hospital then plans to seek foundation support to complete project funding.

While officials say they don't yet possess specific designs for the new hospital, the plan is for a 10- to 12-story structure designed specifically to accommodate 254 patient beds and a new helicopter pad. Dover Street would be closed to traffic between 52nd and 53rd streets. Whether or not either measure passes, neighbors are bracing for a fight against the tower.

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