A significant change was announced Friday, April 3 that may provide some daylight in the public debate surrounding the St. Luke's master plan, which has included the permanent closure of a portion of Jefferson Street to make way for a big change to the medical center's downtown Boise campus.
Initially, the Boise City Council had set Tuesday, April 7 to take public testimony on the plan. Then, in the past week, the Council announced that it would take testimony over two evenings—April 7 and Tuesday, April 14—to accommodate the expected heavy turnout.
On Friday, the city announced that it had removed the issue from both its April 7 and April 14 Council agendas. Instead, the Council has decided to take up the issue—without public testimony—in an afternoon workshop session on April 14.
The city said it will hear and discuss "potential revisions" to St. Luke's applications.
"The revisions ... are designed to address concerns of impacted neighbors and the Boise City Planning and Zoning Commission," the city stated in a news release.
Planning and Zoning commissioners voted on Feb. 9 to recommend denial of the master plan because it included the Jefferson Street closure. The Boise City Council has the final say in the matter.
According to the Friday announcement, "The Council also will explore alternative options for addressing connectivity and transportation concerns voiced by residents. Council members will not make a determination on the application at the workshop and no testimony from the general public will be taken. Plans for continued public discussion of the application, including opportunities for public comment, will be announced after the April 14 meeting."
ORIGINAL STORY: April 1, 2015
It was a stunning vote. In a decisive blow to St. Luke's Boise Medical Center—the hub of medical care in downtown Boise for more than a century—Boise's Planning and Zoning Commission rejected the hospital's master plan, which includes a dramatic expansion of heart and vascular care, women's care, ortho/neuro services, the children's hospital and cancer treatment facilities. The most controversial piece of the plan is St. Luke's requirement that a portion of Jefferson Street be permanently closed to accommodate the expanded footprint.
It was a non-starter for P&Z, which voted 6-1 to deny to the plan.
"I think the case has been made that an undue burden would be placed on the public by closing Jefferson," said Commissioner Rich Demarest.
Commissioner Rick Just said he went "back and forth at least 16 times," but ultimately concluded "connectivity trumps design in this case."
Commissioner Mike Gillespie sealed the "no" vote by saying, "This would clearly be the public's loss of an important street."
Instead of returning to the drawing board, officials at St. Luke's have decided to double down, putting the fate of the hospital's master plan--and perhaps its future in downtown Boise--into the laps of the Boise City Council. Boise lawmakers will hear from St. Luke's and the public on Tuesday, April 7 and Tuesday, April 14--they've already decided that the issue is so important, and potentially volatile, that two public sessions will be needed before the council has its say on the fate of St. Luke's.
"There is no Plan B," St. Luke's Director of Community Relations Theresa McLeod told Boise Weekly. "If we don't receive approval from the City Council, and we understand that we don't have the opportunity to come before them again, well then... Well, then our leadership, over time, will have to determine where they locate these tertiary care services for heart, cancer, children--all those services that we believe is needed for that lateral, horizontal footprint."
In other words, if St. Luke's doesn't get the OK to close a portion of Jefferson Street, it could move some of its most critical services out of Boise's East End neighborhood--potentially out of Boise altogether.
"This is not an ultimatum at all," McLeod said, "but it's a real possibility. It could happen over time. We realize that, quite possibly, our community and our city leaders may not have understood the reality of those services."
The Emotional Tug
A recent St. Luke's video has already begun circulating--on the hospital's website, in emails and on YouTube--that, at first, is similar to something you might see on the St. Luke's Children's Miracle Network Telethon. It's a sweet video that shares the heart-tugging story of a young Boise couple that recently welcomed a newborn son named Jack--but Jack's arrival at St. Luke's was five weeks early.
"It was a really difficult time for us," says mother Jesse, fighting back tears. "You have this little baby that you want to take home so badly, and you can't."
Pediatrician Dr. Alicia Lachiondo appears next, saying "it's terrifying enough to take your child home from the newborn nursery with no complications, but to know that they've been monitored so closely and then have to take them home is pretty scary."
Trevor, Jack's father, is in the frame next, saying, "It was tense and nerve-wracking at times. But having the people at St. Luke's that we did helping us out, it puts you at ease."
At the 54-second mark, the video takes a subtle turn. It shows Jesse and Trevor walking through their Boise neighborhood as the camera pans up to a Jefferson Street sign.
"One of the biggest benefits of living in Boise, and specifically this part of Boise, is that it's a place where you can be pretty active. You can walk, you can bike, and it's great to be able to do that," says Trevor. "And to lose even a small piece of that would be unfortunate. But my thought on that is: to retain the services that are currently here, and to expand on them, is worth the trade-off."
The video's message then becomes a lot less subtle.
"St. Luke's needs city approval to modernize and upgrade Idaho's only children's hospital," says a narrator.
That plain appeal is then followed with full-screen email addresses of Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and the Boise City Council.
"Contact the city now to keep health care in Boise strong," concludes the narrator.
Should St. Luke's move its services, it would be to the west. According to the hospital's website, St. Luke's would "migrate our major services, over time, to Meridian, increasing the cost of care, jeopardizing continuity of care and disrupting the patient experience." St. Luke's also states that the loss of child care, cancer care and other services would force "longer commutes," trigger "a migration of physicians and employees who live and work in the downtown area" and result in "a significant loss to the Boise economy."
McLeod said St. Luke's isn't "playing a heavy hand and not putting down ultimatums. But we realize that our community has to understand."
"We're optimistic, but we're also very realistic," she added. "We know that there are still some concerns with some of our East End neighbors."
There Goes the Neighborhood
Meanwhile, those same East End neighbors say they love St. Luke's, but more than a few of them say they hate the idea of seeing Jefferson Street permanently closed for the hospital's master plan.
"We've become the city's sacrifice zone," said Erik Kingston, a certified professional community and economic developer and East End resident since 1994. "We lost East Junior High School to Boise State and that increased traffic as a result; we lost our only activity center at 111 Broadway, which became derelict and abandoned. We gave up Bannock Street to St. Luke's in the 1990s; we supported the hospital for its Life Flight helipad; now we're being asked to give up more."
Kingston thinks St. Luke's push for support, particularly among its business partners and supporters, might be counterintuitive.
"We've heard from a number of people that say they're being heavily pressured to testify on behalf of St. Luke's, and the fact that they're coming to us and saying that leads me to think that they really don't want to do that," said Kingston. "Something like their [video ad] campaign could actually backfire. Sure, they can pack a room, but these organizations are being asked to think that they need St. Luke's when, in fact, St. Luke's needs them."
The East End Neighborhood Association has launched keepboiseconnected.com and is distributing leaflets describing the St. Luke's master plan as a "sprawling campus," a "super block that isolates the East End" and "a bad precedent for any neighborhood."
Charles Honsinger and his wife, Lee, have lived in the East End for 20 years.
"Look, we're not professionals," Honsinger said. "We're just trying to preserve our neighborhood. It's a good place to live. We've been standing in front of M&W Market on Warm Springs talking about this, and everyone we've met hadn't heard anything about this, but they were immediately concerned about the possible closure."
On March 15, as the Honsingers were walking through their neighborhood handing out leaflets, things got a bit testy.
"A man approached us who was adamantly opposed to our effort. My wife talked to him first," said Honsinger. "He was getting louder and angrier, and when I tried to engage him a little bit, he called us selfish and said that if St. Luke's gets their way, it would increase his property value. He kept following us and getting angrier. Finally, my wife turned around with her cellphone and told him that she was taking a video of him. He took off pretty quickly."
Honsinger insisted that he would love St. Luke's to stay where it is and even expand.
"But it's all about Jefferson," he said. "That's what we're focused on. We've always said, 'Hey, if you want to expand, fine. Let's work out a way where we keep Jefferson open. But they're not talking about a Plan B. It's either this or nothing."
Honsinger said that he'll be at the April 7 hearing in front of the City Council.
"It's hard to guess what they might do," he said. "But I think we have a good shot."
The Man in the Middle
Ben Quintana may be in the most tenuous position when it comes to St. Luke's. He's a Boise City Council member but spends his days as an organization development program manager for the St. Luke's Health System.
"And that's why I'll be recusing myself; I won't be voting on this," Quintana told BW, adding that he may, in fact, have to step down from the Council dais during the public hearing. "I'll need to join the audience at that point."
Quintana also isn't allowed to advocate for, or against, the issue with his fellow lawmakers.
"I've been staying out of those conversations," he said.
That can't stop him from speaking publicly on the issue. Given that he's a St. Luke's employee, Quintana thinks there's way too much at stake not to approve the hospital's master plan.
"This is one of the biggest decisions the city will make in the foreseeable future," said Quintana. "This involves hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs."
Quintana acknowledges that a number of neighbors simply don't want to see Jefferson closed, but he also says that too many members of the public simply haven't seen the actual plan.
"I ask people, 'Have you seen the plan?' They say, 'No, I haven't.' When we're able to see what St. Luke's is trying to do and how it actually advances the city's overall comprehensive plan, I think the community will see how everyone greatly benefits from the proposal. There are so many improvements that go with this plan, but a number of people are only looking a portion of Jefferson Street being closed."
Alan Shealy knows a thing or two about testifying before the Boise City Council--he's been on both sides of the podium. Shealy spent nearly nine years as a councilman, approving and rejecting plans that were or were not in sync with the city's overall master plan. In an earlier letter to Boise City Council (and also posted to the "keepboiseconnected" blog), "I view the intent to block Jefferson Street as being sheer arrogance on the part of hospital authorities." And when Shely spoke to the city's P&Z commissioners, he said he had "high regard and respect for St. Luke's," but added that the plan to close Jefferson "was not in keeping with the spirit and letter of Blueprint Boise, our comprehensive plan developed while I was on the Council."
Shealy is expected to be one of scores of citizens to stand before the Boise City Council to weigh in on the debate on April 7 and April 14 before lawmakers cast their votes.
"Those meetings could be pretty long, but we'll do our best," said Kingston.
That remains one thing that Kingston and McLeod can agree on.
"He's absolutely right. They will be very long evenings," said McLeod. "But they will be evenings full of passion. There will be a lot of people there to either support the plan or oppose the plan; and all of that will come with a tremendous amount of passion."