Battle Lines

Richmond residents take aim at plans to expand a medical center they say is already overbuilt

Don't look now but an on-again, off-again conflict between San Francisco's Veterans Administration Medical Center and its neighbors in the Richmond is on again.

Only this time, the dispute has landed in U.S. District Court.

Angered by what it calls a stealth attempt by the VA to greatly expand medical research on the densely packed, 29-acre campus amid spectacular parkland of the Golden Gate headlands, the Planning Association for the Richmond, or PAR, has filed a lawsuit to block those plans.

At issue are the VA's plans to immediately add more than 150,000 square feet of facilities devoted to research, including a new biological laboratory for low- to moderate-risk pathogens in the southwest corner of the campus next to existing homes, and perhaps another facility of up to 200,000 square feet to follow within a few years.

"They're trying to squeeze too much into an already overly confined space, without regard to how it affects the community," says Ron Miguel, PAR's president.

Acrimony between residents and the medical center — much of it over parking, or the center's lack of it — has become severe enough to warrant intervention from none other than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Representatives of PAR, the city's largest neighborhood group with 1,600 members, accuse the VA of stonewalling. They complain that they've had to resort to public records requests to learn the extent of the agency's plans for the campus, the largest medical research center of any Veterans Affairs facility in the nation.

The lawsuit seeks to force the VA to conduct a lengthy and time-consuming environmental review before going forward with its plans, something the VA has until now resisted doing. The group's demands for a so-called environmental impact statement echoes a strategy it employed in 1994 in successfully blocking the VA from constructing a drug rehabilitation center on some of the last remaining green space on campus, although it did not sue then. A spokesman for the VA said it would have no comment on the lawsuit.

Residents have long complained that cars from the medical center clog their streets and block their driveways, and say the proposed new construction will only worsen matters — a contention borne out by consultants hired by the VA in 2005, at Pelosi's urging, to study the matter.

"We know we have a parking problem, but we've always tried to be good neighbors," says medical center spokesman Ron Hunt, who insists that "by and large we have excellent relations with the surrounding residents," something Miguel and others dispute.

Opened as a VA Hospital in 1934, the medical center occupies the site of the old Fort Miley military reservation. It is surrounded on three sides by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and to the south by the densely populated residential streets of the Outer Richmond.

Hunt sums up the medical center's building dilemma this way: "There's obviously no ability to expand the footprint of the property. The only thing we can do is go up."

The campus' closely connected buildings include a 124-bed acute-care hospital and a 120-bed nursing home. But the lion's share of space is devoted to medical research in conjunction with UCSF, with which the medical center is affiliated, through the Northern California Institute for Research and Education, or NCIRE.

Opponents contend that the VA is incrementally trying to create a massive new research facility at a location that is inherently ill-suited for it, and without adequate public involvement.

"If it were a private sector facility, what they're attempting would never fly," says attorney and nearby resident Eugene Brodsky. "But because it's on federal property, they seem to have taken the attitude that they can do what they want and the community doesn't matter."

The work of the VA's own consultants has only fueled the fire with respect to the parking issue.

Noting that "existing zoning on the campus is chaotic due to the large number and scattered location of buildings there," the consultants' report, issued in 2005, concluded that the research institute's success "has unfortunately exasperated the zoning chaos."

It noted that as of July 2003 the campus contained only 1,214 parking spaces, far fewer than needed for the more than 2,000 people working there, and that up to 340 cars per day were being parked on nearby residential streets. The report concluded that the VA's announced expansion plan could push nearly twice as many vehicles into street parking.

"We're talking about going from a situation that is extremely bad to one that would be truly horrible," says Freddy Hahne, who has lived across the street from the medical center for 23 years.

Yet, he and other opponents say, the VA consultants' assumptions do not take into account additional construction on the horizon. The VA has expressed interest in building a massive facility of up to 200,000 square feet — on an existing parking lot by 2010.

If built, the facility contemplated for Lot J, would house research quarters for NCIRE under an "enhanced use lease plan," a legal provision enabling the government to lease its "underutilized properties" to non-governmental entities.

VA attorney Catherine Holden says the Lot J project is probably a moot point since there is no available funding for it and "no immediate plans that I'm aware of to go forward" with it.

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