Medical Melodrama

Tucson Medical Center's neighbors anxiously await the hospital's revised expansion proposals

How high could it go? That will be the primary question on neighbors' minds next week when two or three options for a revised Tucson Medical Center campus are unveiled.

While some nearby residents are more interested in the traffic impacts of the master-planning project, all the nearby residents and their elected representative are all anxiously awaiting the proposals.

"I'm a little concerned about the height," says Councilwoman Carol West, referring to the idea for a 200-foot tower, housing 450 beds, that TMC unsuccessfully floated last year. "I don't know why (the new building) needs to be so tall."

"TMC may be moving away from the tower," suggests Janet Marcus, who lives north of the hospital in the Old Fort Lowell neighborhood and was West's predecessor on the City Council. "I think they appreciate the fact that tremendous height is a lighting rod for the community."

"I'm not against the tower," stresses Martha Bail, a resident of the neighborhood east of the hospital campus. "A 200-foot building isn't that much different from a 150-foot one. Unless it impacts traffic in the area, I don't care what goes over there at TMC."

Last year, conciliatory comments like those weren't shared by most other people living near the facility, even after some of them met with TMC officials in closed-door sessions for several months (See "Extreme Makeover" August 26, 2004). Proposing an amendment to the adopted area plan--which would double the permitted height of hospital buildings to 200 feet, along with a rezoning of the campus--administrators wanted to eventually demolish much of the existing one-story, sprawling complex which contains several historic buildings.

That concept upset many neighbors of the facility. In addition, the Tucson Planning Commission asked what justification there was for such a tall building.

In response to the public criticism, hospital officials retreated and hired the consulting firm of Ayers Saint Gross to help with the campus planning process. At a "listening" session held in December, planner Jim Wheeler told the few-dozen people in attendance that "perhaps the current layout (of the hospital) isn't the most efficient" and "hopefully we can go back to the city with a consensus view on the new project."

In addition to neighbors' traffic and height concerns, reiterated at the meeting, one physician added her own thoughts. Because of the long walks required through the rambling facility, she said: "The hospital is not sustainable as it is. We can't provide (quality) care in this space. It's impossible."

At another meeting in February, a small audience was told that 25 percent of the hospital's 116-acre campus is used for parking; a similar amount is covered by structures, and the remainder is devoted to undefined or unusable open space. "The current building is in pretty miserable physical shape because of deferred maintenance," emphasized local landscape architect Liba Wheat, a consultant on the project.

Those attending the gathering also heard that modern medical facilities are changing rapidly, with both patient and operating rooms getting considerably larger. Hospital floors are additionally growing taller, now ranging from 16 to 20 feet in height, to accommodate the complex mechanical equipment running above the ceilings.

While specifics of a new TMC facility weren't discussed at the last meeting, Wheeler did say: "The building still needs to go up more than one floor, but I'm confident it will be nothing like 200 feet tall." He also mentioned that a phasing plan which would allow for a gradual transition from current buildings into a new hospital might be possible, a prospect which intrigues Marcus.

"I hope they can figure out a phasing plan, because that's the only way this will wind up as a decent project," Marcus says. "It needs to be a really excellent design with a good landscaping theme and recognition of the importance of the historic buildings."

For her part, Bail opposes the once-proposed idea of transforming the corner of Grant and Craycroft roads into a hospital founder's park. "That intersection is a bus stop," she says. "Putting the park someplace else on the campus would be better."

While that complaint may be addressed next week, Bail's concerns about the traffic impacts of the master plan won't be examined in detail. Instead, that issue will be looked at more fully only after a final concept for the new facility is selected.

Marcus thinks the entire planning process is being rushed. The new building was originally scheduled to be completed by 2009, but TMC has pushed that date back by three years in order to open a 90-bed hospital on Tucson's far eastside. Based on that delay, Marcus wonders why TMC still insists on completing the master plan for the existing campus by June.

"I don't know what the hurry is concerning the plan," Marcus says. "This is a hard project, and they need time to do it right. A whole bunch of stuff, including technological changes, could come up in the next few years. They should push the (plan's completion) date back. What's the rush?"

From her perspective, West believes the process is going in the right direction.

"TMC will never make some people happy," she says, "and the neighborhoods are divided on the issue. But I must go along with a reasonable plan."

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