Neighbors question Lenox Hill Plans

A community member addresses (left to right) Lenox Hill Hospital project architect Tomas Rossant, project attorney Melanie Meyers, Lenox Hill Hospital executive director Dr. Jill Kalman and Community Board 8 committee co-chair Elizabeth Ashby. Photo: Michelle Naim
Representatives of Lenox Hill Hospital discussed their redevelopment plans at a meeting with Community Board 8 members and local residents
By Michelle Naim

The Upper East Siders who turned out last Thursday for Community Board 8’s zoning and development committee meeting spent the first part of the evening listening to presentations from the Manhattan District Attorney’s construction task force and the Waterfront Alliance. But when it was time to ask questions about those briefings, it quickly became apparent what people were most interested in.

“What about Lenox Hill Hospital?” said one woman. “That’s why we’re here!”

A Hospital and Neighborhood Transformed

She was referring to the hospital’s massive redevelopment plan, first reported exclusively in Our Town in January by Douglas Feiden, in a page 1 story that outlined how the institution was exploring the sale of a portion of its frontage on Park Ave. for high-end residences to help underwrite the costs of the plan.

The meeting was the public’s first opportunity to hear about the project directly from Lenox Hill representatives. There was a palpable sense of tension in the room. Community members were concerned about the size and impact of the development, which would transform the entire city block between Park and Lexington Avenues and 76th and 77th Streets.

Plans call for razing or stripping to the shell the entire existing hospital campus in phases as taller, modern structures rise up on site to replace them. When completed, which is expected to take 8 to 10 years and could end up costing as much as $3 billion, the hospital complex will occupy 1.32 million square feet, compared to 780,000 square feet today.

“It’s just too big for our neighborhood,” said Park Avenue resident Christina Wood.

Another Park Avenue resident was worried about the height of the planned buildings, which include a 516-foot, 30-story hospital tower on Lexington and the 490-foot, 41-story residential tower on Park. “Once our neighborhood allows this to happen we’re going to lose light,” she said, “and it’s going to become a very depressing place to live.”

Tomas Rossant, the architect from Ennead Architects, hired to design the new hospital, acknowledged the large scale of the project, but said, “It’s big because the changes that are coming to healthcare in the near future cannot fit in your beloved hospital. We have to make it bigger.”

Community Concerns

Rossant was met with laughter when he showed a rendering of the Mother-Baby Hospital planned for the corner of Park and 77th Street and talked about keeping the project “in harmony with much of the aesthetics of Park Avenue.” As Rossant left the podium, one man in the audience shook his head and said “Terrible, terrible.”

The cost of apartments in the new residential building was a concern among neighbors and community board members alike, as was the lack of an affordable housing plan. “I don’t think I could support something unless it had an affordable housing component to it,” said board member Tricia Shimamura.

The Lenox Hill representatives in attendance included executive director Dr. Jill Kalman, and Joshua Strugatz, vice president of Manhattan redevelopment, who described the project as “a multi-billion-dollar endeavor to build the state-of-the-art hospital.”

Kalman mentioned the importance of upgrading patient rooms from double rooms to all singles. “Healthcare has changed. The intent is to bring the patient and their family and loved ones into the same space so that we can deliver patient-centric care ... relationship-centric care.” She added that single rooms are also state-of-the-art in terms of infection control. And she said the single rooms would allow for imaging and other types of special care without moving patients to another wing of the hospital.

Many community members expressed concern about the cost of care in the new Lenox Hill. “We want to make sure that this is still a hospital that cares for everyone and not just the wealthy or the elite,” said Rebecka Hawkins-Beatty, executive director of the New York Professional Nurses Union, who lives at 79th Street and York Avenue. But Strugatz said “The plan, and the way the reimbursement works, in the future Lenox as we proposed it, there is no additional charge. There is no out-of-pocket, there’s no added payment from insurance for a private room. That is the standard.”

Speaking as an official of the union that represents the nurses and nurse practitioners who work at Lenox Hill Hospital , Hawkins-Beatty said “I think we still have a lot of concerns about where it’s going, but obviously our nurses are really excited about the possibility [of getting] a new facility that’s actually modernized.” She addded that the nurses are nevertheless cautious, wondering, for example, if the residential part of the project might get bigger while the hospital gets smaller.

Strugatz clarified that the hospital would remain open during the time of reconstruction, and that it wants to maintain the number and quality of its employees during, and after, redevelopment — another concern for many of the community members present.

Subway Worries

Strugatz also said that the hospital is working with the MTA to design improvements to the Lexington Avenue and 77th Street subway station, “Our focus right now is on ADA accessibility, as well as improving many of the conditions that exist ... including the particularly narrow stairwells and the sidewalk pedestrian experience,” he said.

Board member Valerie Mason was met with applause and bravos from the crowd when she said “One of the things you really need to look at is what is this project ... going to do to the density and overcrowded nature of our entire Upper East Side.” She said she was “extremely disappointed in that quote-unquote expansion of the subway entrance.” She told the Lenox Hill team, “When you come back we need to see you thinking beyond that tiny entrance right there. I mean that is really disturbing to me ... I try to be open minded but ... this is not going to work right now for me because there’s just not enough accessibility here to public transportation. This is not going to do it.”