FASSULIOTIS: David versus Goliath – A Modern Tale

Submitted by Karen Fassuliotis, Greenwich, The views expressed are her own

It seems as though there’s a bit of “David versus Goliath” that is happening right in Central Greenwich. Local residents find themselves pitted against a powerful not-for-profit corporation, Yale-New Haven, which is seeking approval for a special permit from our Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) so that they can build a massive cancer center.

In Part One of this David versus Goliath saga, you may recall that the hospital proposed a massive cancer center on the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Lake Avenue. Our P&Z Commission wisely rejected the proposed building and Yale-New Haven filed an appeal in Stamford Superior Court.

Now there is a “stay” in the court proceeding to see if there is some sort of “compromise” that can be reached with P&Z. It’s a common tactic used by developers and, on the premise that it avoids expensive litigation by the town and the outcome of any litigation is unknown, it usually results in the approval of a slightly modified structure by our town’s P&Z.

Enter Part Two, with Yale-New Haven’s application of a modified version of Greenwich Hospital’s plan to expand into a residential neighborhood once again. So, what’s different?

Yale-New Haven’s proposed “re-do” of the cancer center as part of Greenwich Hospital still envisions a 57,000 square foot in the middle of a neighborhood and the number of patients it anticipates treating daily hasn’t changed. The size hasn’t really changed, it’s just that parking will now be underground giving the illusion that it is smaller with more “green space”. To put it in perspective, the proposed structure still equates to the size of a football field, and the size of a small big-box store, approximately 1.3 acres, in a densely populated neighborhood and abutting the Fourth Ward, another neighborhood recently threatened by overdevelopment.

It should be noted up front that no one in the neighborhood is opposed to a cancer center. Indeed, my father passed away from cancer this past May, so I understand the emotional toll that this disease has on the patient and on family members. Neighborhood opposition is focused solely on the location. Put simply, a building this size does not belong in this residential neighborhood.

After the onslaught of negative input from their last proposal, which also resulted in the P&Z denial of the application, Yale-New Haven formed a Neighborhood Advisory Council. For full transparency, I am a member of that group. The group meets quarterly to get input from hospital personnel on hospital plans and to give the hospital feedback on neighborhood concerns. The Council learned about the revised plans for the cancer center in April of this year and voiced concerns to hospital personnel. The Hospital’s Neighborhood Advisory Council overwhelmingly does not support the proposed expansion at the current site. We have repeatedly stated that view to hospital personnel to no avail. Yale-New Haven is determined to wield their mighty muscle to build this structure in central Greenwich. Any other location will not do.

And let’s also be clear. While no one wants to admit it, there is also extreme competition among hospitals, who are searching for reliable sources of income in a rapidly changing health-care environment. The Washington Post, in an article written by Brady Dennis and published on September 2, 2015 noted that “As with health-care growth in general, the expansion of cancer facilities is driven largely by math.” Cancer treatment is a lucrative business. “The economics of it are good,” said Patrick Duke, managing director at CBRE Healthcare, a consulting group that advises hospitals on real estate projects. “That’s a touchy subject for some people, but it is the reality…The procedures and the drugs are well reimbursed. It’s a big business.” (1)

The hospital “roll out” has resulted in a full scale marketing blitz by Yale-New Haven aimed at convincing the Greenwich community and P&Z that this cancer center, in their proposed downtown location is needed there and that no other site will do. They have taken out full page ads and have had articles written about their plan. They recently have threatened that if they do not get their cancer facility, they will sell the property to a developer who will build a large affordable housing complex. The hospital’s campaign may be working to their advantage.

At the P&Z pre-application for this project, one P&Z Commissioner said the hospital made a good case for why the town needs a cancer facility and why the proposed location was important. This Commissioner stated that, “This proposal is significantly improved from what we saw last summer in a number of ways – more green, smaller footprint and parking underground. I think it’s going to boil down to the very valid concerns and needs of the neighbors versus the town’s needs.”

Really? While the footprint may be smaller, the building is not. It will still service the same number of patients as was envisioned in the last application that was not approved by P&Z. As for the town’s “need” for a cancer facility. Perhaps this Commissioner is unaware that the hospital, in response to neighbor questions, admitted in their last application that they anticipate 60% of their patients will come from Westchester County. Additionally, Stamford Hospital, albeit a competitor of Yale-New Haven Greenwich Hospital, has the Bennett Cancer Center a mere 11 miles from Yale-New Haven Greenwich Hospital. Why can’t hospitals work together, instead of in competition, in the treatment of these dreadful diseases?

Additionally, while the hospital hired an outside consulting firm who declared that “…a high level – about 89 percent – [are] in favor of the proposed facility at Lake Street and Lafayette Place…” if the Commissioners were to do a deep dive of the survey, they would find that the questions asked of 200 individuals (in a town of over 60,000) were skewed to elicit a positive response. (2) Just another tool in Yale-New Haven’s arsenal of so-called “positive” propaganda to support their cause.

And is the reason for the proposed location that important? Take a look at Sloan Kettering, with a satellite facility in Westchester County, far away from their main campus. The main reason forwarded by the hospital for the location is for the “convenience” of its doctors. As for the safety of patients? Satellite facilities such as Sloan Kettering seem to have addressed this concern. Perhaps Yale-New Haven could look to the Sloan Kettering protocols as well.

What is also disappointing is the recent comment from one Commissioner who was quoted as saying that something to consider was the “downside of too much community input. Often you have fear of change. As a result, you may not do what’s right long term for a community….That’s why we’re here. To find that balance.” (3)

The neighborhood unequivocally does not fear change. Perhaps the Commissioners should take a look around the neighborhood. What they’d find is that there has been much change in the area surrounding the hospital, with more likely to come. Which gets us to the Plan of Conservation and Development, or POCD, which clearly states that preserving the character of Greenwich and its neighborhoods is a goal. Neighbors are alarmed at the size of the proposed structure in their neighborhood, and rightly so. This is not a case of “not in my back yard” and it is definitely not a “fear of change”. This is a case of preserving the character of Greenwich and its neighborhoods – something that our town’s POCD clearly envisions.

And as for “do[ing] what is right long term for [the] community”, (4) which is one Commissioner’s stated goal, if [Yale-New Haven] Greenwich Hospital is right and our town truly needs a cancer center then it should be built. But it should not be built in the location proposed by hospital personnel. It does not belong in the middle of an already dense neighborhood. It belongs in a location that is rightfully a hospital campus. And the corner of Lafayette and Lake Avenue is not part of a hospital campus – it’s part of a residential neighborhood, it’s that simple.

Indeed, a resident who lives in Glen Court, has alerted the town and Yale-New Haven personnel that his property faces devastating flooding if the plan is approved. Yale-New Haven’s reaction? We’ll talk about making sure your property has flood mitigation, in return we don’t want you to publicly oppose our plan.

And as to the hospital’s threats of what amounts to “be careful what you wish for” in insinuating the alternative is having a developer build an affordable housing complex on the site? Is this the type of neighbor the hospital wishes to be? I would hope not, but then again, they have proven that the neighborhood is not as important as they wish to convey to the public by that sentiment.

We all know the outcome of the battle between David versus Goliath. Hopefully that outcome will not change and our P&Z will preserve our neighborhood, just as they wrote in the POCD, and again turn down Yale-New Haven’s application.

(1) A cancer building boom, fueled by economics and an aging populationThe Washington Post
(2) Greenwich Hospital asked 200 residents about creating a cancer care facility. Here’s how they felt.
Greenwich Time

(3) P&Z Commission Seek to Balance Neighborhood Stress with Town Needs for Cancer Center
Greenwich Free Press
(4) P&Z Commission Seek to Balance Neighborhood Stress with Town Needs for Cancer Center
Greenwich Free Press

Karen Fassuliotis is a member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation. Her views expressed in this op-ed are entirely her own.