Blocked Artery: P&Z Recommends Denial of St. Luke's Master Plan 

"I think we need a thorough cost-benefit analysis and a hard look at the closing of Jefferson. This would clearly be the public loss of an important street."

It was once considered a frontier hospital: six beds to care for settlers, miners and their families struggling with scarlet fever, smallpox and typhoid. When St. Luke's Hospital opened its doors in 1902, the city of Boise had been the capital of the newly formed state of Idaho for only a little more than a decade. The Idanha Hotel had recently opened in Boise, the city was talking about the possibility of creating a public library and the Davis family of Boise was offering up some of its orchards to become a public park named after wife Julia.

The following century saw an effort from the local Episcopal Church to keep the doors open at the modest hospital through what it called "Hospital Sunday" offerings on the weekend after each Thanksgiving; the construction of a four-story facility in the 1920s to "rival any modern hospital in the West"; the opening of a new "million-dollar wing" in 1952; breakthroughs in cancer research and treatment during the 1960s; the hospital's first Medicare patient in 1967; its first open heart surgery in 1968; a $10 million south wing in 1977; a $48 million expansion in 1993; and the opening of Idaho's only Children's Hospital in 1999.

However, St. Luke's most ambitious growth, which some argue will see more than its share of growing pains, is still to come.

In a 300-plus-page master plan, which met considerable opposition Feb. 9 during a four-hour-plus Boise Planning and Zoning hearing, St. Luke's officials outlined a vision to grow its East Boise footprint—an expansion of its heart and vascular care, women's care, ortho/neuro services, children's hospital and cancer treatment facilities.

The master plan proposes a new 357,000-square-foot medical tower; a new combined central plant and parking garage; 100,000 square feet of additional medical office buildings; and a total floor-area expansion of approximately 567,000 square feet. The hospital also wants to move its main entrance farther north from Bannock Street to First Street near Fort Street. To date, City Hall staff like what they see.

But the real show-stopper, and the cause for much of the opposition, is St. Luke's plan to close a portion of Jefferson Street, cutting off its connections to Avenue B, the main thoroughfare linking Fort Street to Warm Springs and Broadway avenues. If St. Luke's planners have their way, motorists would need to wind their way to State Street to the north or Idaho Street to the south to get to Avenue B.

For the better part of two hours on Feb. 9, St. Luke's officials, with help from the city's planning department, outlined their master plan.

Planning Director Hal Simmons, in a letter to P&Z commissioners, gave his department's approval: "The various elements of the St. Luke's Master Plan have been carefully reviewed for consistency with all chapters and subsections of the Boise City Comprehensive Plan, and no conflicts have been identified."

But the plan, and particularly the proposed Jefferson closure, drew the ire of some of St. Luke's neighbors.

"Clearly, the closure of Jefferson caught a lot of people off-guard. A lot of us still have trouble wrapping our heads around that," said Erik Kingston, a certified professional community and economic developer and an East End neighborhood resident since 1994. "My concern as a neighbor is: How do I get to the center of government, the center of commerce, through that Jefferson corridor that we all use? To see something this massive, dropped into place and cutting off one of our major access points, has a significant impact that really isolates our neighborhood from the rest of the downtown core."

Kingston looked down at a map of the St. Luke's Master Plan that shows a large new building being built where Jefferson Street traffic currently flows.

"I think about Saint Al's when I look at this," said Kingston, referring to the campus surrounding Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center on Curtis Road, near the Boise Connector.

"I look at the impact of the neighborhood around Saint Al's and that massive facility," he added. "They serve and function and employ a lot of people. But would I want to buy a house near that? No. And that's the only thing I can think of that has a comparable scale to what's being proposed here. But think of it: Saint Al's has easy access—it's right near the Connector."

Therein lies Kingston's dilemma with a proposed shutdown of Jefferson Street. He's not alone.

"The closure of Jefferson Street would forever and negatively influence the principles [of Blueprint Boise] and set a horrible precedent," wrote Alan Shealy to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and Boise City Council members. "Having already blocked off Bannock Street, I view the intent to block Jefferson Street as being sheer arrogance on the part of hospital authorities."

Shealy should know. He spent nearly nine years as a Boise City Council member, approving and rejecting plans that were or were not in sync with the city's development plan. In fact, he would routinely receive such letters from citizens concerned about encroachment.

Shealy stood before Boise's P&Z commission Feb. 9, to urge its denial of the St. Luke's plan.

Deanna Smith, a longtime Boise community activist and program coordinator for Idaho Smart Growth, said she remembers the last time St. Luke's lobbied (successfully) to close off a Boise street.

"It was the late 1990s. That's where the journey starts for a lot of us, and that's when we were asked to vacate Bannock," said Smith. "We said, 'We'll support you. We have Jefferson.' But back then, we had a genuine conversation. And honestly, back then, we had a sense that St. Luke's was looking south or possibly out to Meridian for any major new expansion. That was then."

St. Luke's officials insist that Smith and Kingston have been heard, along with a lot of other Boiseans, in a process that began in 2008.

"The East End Neighborhood Association does not have unanimous opposition to the closure of Jefferson," said Theresa McLeod, director of community relations at St. Luke's. "Our work has been to reach out to all people who have absolutely any concern about the closure of Jefferson and talking to them about what might actually improve connectivity and mobility in this whole area."

The city of Boise has already asked St. Luke's to include and construct roadway improvements in its plan, including roundabouts, wider sidewalks, cycle tracks and bike lanes.

"When we talk to cyclists and neighbors—moms with strollers, moms with young kids on bikes—they get excited about the opportunities that bring buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks and 10-foot-wide sidewalks," said McLeod. "They get very excited about the mobility of the area."

None of that "excitement" was on display during the Feb. 9 P&Z hearing, as resident after resident expressed displeasure over the possibility of seeing Jefferson closed off.

Four hours came and went as P&Z commissioners heard from a long list of people wishing to testify; and just before a Monday night was about to become a Tuesday morning, commissioners were faced with what many considered to be their biggest decision in recent memory.

"Anybody?" P&Z Chairman Stephen Bradbury asked his fellow commissioners, hoping for someone to break the awkward silence.

That's when Commissioner Milt Gillespie leaned into his microphone and burst St. Luke's bubble.

"I recommend denial," said Gillespie. "This does not comply with substantial elements of the city of Boise's Comprehensive Plan."

Opponents of the plan sat up in their seats, beginning to sense that their complaints had not fallen on deaf ears.

"I think we need a thorough cost-benefit analysis and a hard look at the closing of Jefferson. This would clearly be the public loss of an important street," said Gillespie.

Commissioner Rick Just admitted to "going back and forth" on the issue "at least 16 times" during the evening's hearing. "This is a very close call for me," he said. "But connectivity trumps design in this case."

Commissioner Rich Demarest agreed, saying, "I think the case has been made by the public that an undue burden would be placed on the public by closing Jefferson."

Only Bradbury voted in favor of the St. Luke's Master Plan.

"I struggled with this one, too," said Bradbury. "But I prefer to defer action on this rather than to recommend a denial."

By then, Bradbury was a minority of one. The six other P&Z commissioners voted to recommend that the Boise City Council deny the St. Luke's plan because it did not fit appropriately enough into the city's bigger comprehensive plan.

The Council will have the final say in the matter in a future meeting, possibly as soon as March.

"Yes, we're very, very happy," Kingston told BW the next morning. "But we also know that this is far from over."

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