Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Cancer Care Pavilion Plan Faces Community Complaints

Cancer hospital Memorial Sloan Kettering has finalized plans for a new 31-story patient pavilion on York Avenue–to be connected by a skybridge–that is set to start construction in 2024. However, as a “MSK Task Force” convened by Community Board 8 demonstrated, some UES residents voiced concerns that additional resources for patients would not be worth the tradeoff of construction disrupting their lives.

| 05 Jul 2023 | 03:47

The world-renowned Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center is set to dramatically expand patient care by upping its capacity, with the construction of a new 31-story “pavilion” set to take place between 2024 and 2030. The site will be located on York Avenue between E. 66th and 67th Sts., and according to a release by the hospital will reputedly offer “28 operating/procedure suites and approximately 200 inpatient beds.” Their rationale is simple: as per data collected by the CDC, “by 2050 the annual number of cancer cases in the United States will increase by nearly 50 percent as a result of the growing and aging population.” MSK will be partnering with construction behemoth Turner Lendlease to complete the project.

MSK wants community input on the project, naturally, and as such has held four virtual “task force” meetings (Program Needs, Architectural Response, Environmental Impacts, Construction) with Community Board 8 (CB8). The hospital says that a hotline and “30-Day Look Aheads” will also be established in the interest of furthering transparency and accountability.

If the June 29th “construction” meeting is any indication, however, it seems that the public is far from sold on the utility and necessity of the pavilion despite copious evidence of patient benefits. MSK emphasized collected data that indicated that there are 40,000 new cancer cases per year in NYC.

The construction process will roughly unfold along the following segments: demolition, rock excavation, laying foundations, and building the facade and the interiors of the pavilion. There will also be the construction of a skybridge–granted by the city under revocable consent–linking the new proposed pavilion to the main hospital. According to a slideshow provided to CB8, the two most relevant public concerns that MSK seems to be taking into account prior to breaking ground are “dust mitigation” and “noise mitigation.” Dr. Jeff Drebin--the Chair of the Department of Surgery at MSK and one rep for the hospital at the meeting–was quick to assert that “exacting standards” for noise, dust, cleanliness, and efficiency were being followed.

Yet no amount of reassurance on these counts could assuage community members that were predisposed to opposing new construction in their neighborhood. Nathan (last name not given), the first local granted speaking time on the June 29th Zoom call and “a resident on 66th St.,” seemed to question the entire premise of the data MSK was relying on; rather than presenting their statistics in a way that he believes suggests that “1 in 3 people WILL have cancer,” Nathan suggested that MSK clarify that “1 in 3 people will be expected to have cancer.” He went on to proclaim that he thought everybody knows that “estimates out of the CDC aren’t really accurate,” and concluded that “this project doesn’t serve the needs of the community, it serves the need of Sloan Kettering. Let’s not fool anyone on the line, it’s serving Memorial Salon Kettering and no one else.”

Other residents had concerns about theoretical traffic jams, which to them would negate any noise improvements built into the construction process. Laura Jackson, another local, said that she’s “lived on 66th between 1st and York for 31 years,” before adding that “everyday I witness the bottleneck of cars trying to get into MSK’s parking garage. It is my understanding that MSK will not be adding any additional parking spaces.” She was quickly echoed by Katherine Anderson, who chimed in to claim she had witnessed “fistfights” over parking at MSK.

The members of Community Board 8 seemed hung up on a few things about the construction themselves. Co-chair Anthony Cohn, who was moderating the meeting, predicted that if “construction is going on 24/7, 365 [days] over the next five years, I think everybody will be more upset.” He suggested that MSK should balance their permits to switch off between weekend and weekday work.

Board member Alida Camp came prepared with a ream of concerns: would there be asbestos or paint dust emitted during construction? Would construction materials be domestically sourced instead of from, say, China? Would there be street lighting to discourage muggings? Charlie Whitney, a rep for Turner Lendlease, was emphatic that it is “not an option to have hazardous dust. We assure you that the building will be clean before it comes down.”

CB8 member Judith Schneider brought up possible issues that seemed to have uniquely contemporary solutions: growing vegetation on the building to offset the fears of UES residents that would possibly lose green space during construction, and even assuring that congestion pricing tolls would work as advertised coming off the Queensboro Bridge–ostensibly to reduce the MSK traffic problem. This latter point was likely raised to gain attention from fellow board members rather than the hospital, who aren’t in a position to enforce the congestion scheme.

The most telling contribution to the meeting came about midway through, when actual self-identified cancer survivor Kathleen Steed chimed in. She prefaced her comment by reflecting on looking out her back windows thirty years ago and seeing “trees...and people’s gardens.” After developers swooped into the UES, she only saw “bricks and concrete.” She seemed bothered by the notion that other future or current cancer patients would come to know similarly obstructed views. Nonetheless, she stated that “proper treatment and enough facilities are important for me here.”