Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happenings: You Can Ring My Be-e-ell

Tonight, it wasn’t eminent domain and property rights that inspired the most fervent speeches and heated debate; it was the old Saugus school bell. Before getting to that pithiest of topics, though, there is much more City Council meeting to discuss[1].

So It Begins
The meeting began some 14 minutes late because of a closed session that runnethed over. After the opening formalities, we listened to the November installment of the Public Safety Topic of the Month program. The topic du mois was safety for kids, something near and dear to many a Claritan heart. The greatest dangers to our valley’s youth, we learned, were posed by swimming pools and hot cars. These summertime killers claimed three lives this year. Other dangers mentioned were prescription drugs and strangers, as well as the combination of taking drugs from strangers while in a hot car that’s sinking to the bottom of a swimming pool.

Councilmember comments followed and ranged from boring to innocuous to syrupy. Councilmember Ender mentioned Clarita’s recognition as the most business-friendly city in all of Los Angeles County. Yes, so we’ve heard. Calling Santa Clarita “business-friendly” is kind of like calling a whore screaming for customers “gentleman-friendly”, i.e., rather quaintly understated[2]. Councilmember McLean used her time to read a proclamation making December 18th “Day Without a Bag.” It's an effort to draw attention to the wasteful use and disposal of millions of plastic bags by Santa Claritans every year. We were then treated to a riveting story of how McLean used to forget her reusable grocery bags in the trunk of her car but now usually remembers to bring them.

Eminent Domain and Dental Offices

The City Council (acting in their “Redevelopment Agency” capacity) approved use of eminent domain to take the building occupied by Just Passing Thru piercing parlor[3]. They need the property to build a big new commercial building with a side of library, the latter element thrown in to make eminent domain a defensible tactic.

This library project has long been hailed as the cornerstone of downtown Newhall’s revitalization—along with three small murals and brightly painted trashcans.

Tom Fitterer, father of the guy who runs Just Passing Thru, owns the space in question. He showed up to play David to the City’s Goliath. Unfortunately, he left the sling and stone at home. Indeed, his speeches were not very good, more rambling and tangential than compelling. After describing himself as something like the Donald Trump of dental office real estate, he talked about what a sweet deal his son has (no rent!), then how the space would probably be better suited to a dental office, and then about the state of business these days. He closed by saying that the City’s appraiser didn’t understand the value of the property and was offering to buy it for far too little, with a few passing shots at how the City Council really messed things up with the road realignment in old town Newhall.

After he spoke there was little discussion and both recommended actions concerning the Just Passing Thru property were approved. Thus, Just Passin Thru’s name has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Consent Calendar
During normal City business, normal things happened. Alan Ferdman pointed out that it seemed silly for Santa Clarita to award $380,000 in contracts to companies that monitor landscaping. These contractors don’t actually do landscaping but rather drive by and check that other companies have done landscaping. I suppose they’re like a task-force of Mrs. Kravitzes saying the rose bushes are overgrown, except getting hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. Despite the protest, the City will be awarding the contracts for monitoring.

Then there was discussion of temporary speed cushions for Benz Road. All those who spoke on this issue were from the Benz Road neighborhood and subject to the cut-through traffic that the speed cushions were being proposed to curb. These speakers said speed cushions would only increase noise and not mitigate traffic, and they advised the City to save the money and forget about them. Naturally, the City Council decided to install the speed cushions instead (Ferry, McLean dissenting). There were a number of legitimate concerns raised in the ensuing discussion. Councilmember McLean, for example, noted that speed cushions can slow emergency response vehicles and potentially cause mechanical damage: “I cannot condone doing something that is going to hinder our public safety agencies and cause damage to their vehicles.” Speakers noted that the speed cushions would be temporary, and their community would be saddled with the cost of installing permanent cushions if they were found effective. In short, it wasn’t a widely popular decision and indicates that the City Council is willing to try just about anything to help resolve the Benz Road traffic problem. Weste and Ender expressed sincere hopes for learning a lot from the installation.

There’s a really old bell that was made and hung at Saugus Elementary School in the early 1900s. In 1978, custody of the bell was given to the Santa Clarita Historical Society, and about a decade ago, the bell was hung in a special tower near the Newhall metrolink station. Saugus school district, which is celebrating its centennial year, wants the bell back.

How nine speakers and an hour of the City Council meeting was spent on this conflict remains beyond my comprehension.

Of the nine speakers, fully one-third were elementary school students. Their parents wrote them some lovely speeches (actually, I think the two girls may have written at least part of their speeches) which they proceeded to read much to the delight of all at City Hall. They wanted nothing more than for the bell to return to Saugus, its rightful home. Mayor Kellar, the old softie, let the little parrots get applause without admonishing the audience for their clapping.

Several others came forward to support the City’s bold plan to write a letter requesting that the historical society give the bell back to Saugus. Two speakers offered Kellar gifts of Saugus lapel pins. (Why the Mayor did not recuse himself after openly receiving these gifts I do not know.) Then, members of the historical society spoke and said they had the right to decide the fate of the bell and that its present location was most appropriate and afforded many people an opportunity to marvel at it.

Much of the controversy arose from the question of whether the City Council had a right to meddle in the bell custody battle, why the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society hadn’t sat down with the Saugus Union School District to talk about the bell directly, and the price tag to move the bell—some $31,000. Councilmember Weste was hesitant to get the least bit involved: “I think it is a mistake to set this kind of precedent. […] It is definitely not within the City’s purview to do this.” Both she and Councilmember McLean said no to the letter while the other members of the City Council gave it the go-ahead.

Public Participation
The meeting closed with a handful of comments from the public, mostly on the topic of the G&L Realty/HMNMH expansion. David Gauny reiterated his hopes that the Council would delay approval until there was chance to work out a compromise between Smart Growth SCV and the developer. Noting, quite accurately, that the City had let many major flaws in the project slip by undiscussed, he said “All of these things will come out in litigation.” One hopes.

Many council watchers must have "reacted" when Mayor Kellar closed the meeting with a reminder of the imminent “installing” of Frank Ferry as Mayor of Santa Clarita. Indeed, the reign of Ferry cometh.

[2]I showed some real restraint by leaving out some adjectives before the word whore.
[3] Technically it was a “resolution of necessity” to acquire the property and negotiations between the City and owner may well continue. The words “eminent domain” only escaped Paul Brotzman’s lips once, and in a hushed, I-don’t-like-having-to-say-those-words sort of way.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happenings: Bend Over, Santa Clarita

NOTE: I'm just starting to edit this at 2:55am, so it will likely not be my best work. Still, I think getting most of the information across is the most important thing. [...time passes...] Now it's 3:37am and I need to be up in a couple hours. I wrote way too much, but I think there are nuggets of valuable information and decent writing littered across this wordscape. Good luck, brave reader. I won't have a chance to bring things up to my usually stellar standards until tomorrow afternoon.

“Good projects do not keep us out here until one in the morning.”
--Mayor Bob Kellar

IN BRIEF: Decisive Action and the 5 Guys in a Room Deal
Just before 1am, it passed by a vote of 4-1, Mayor Kellar being the sole dissenting vote. “It” was (1)A resolution to approve the final EIR for the HMNMH project, (2)A resolution to approve the overriding considerations (i.e., list of justifications for why the developer could violate zoning and cause significant impacts to the community), and (3)A resolution to approve the Master Plan. There will be a second reading on Tuesday, December 9, when things will pass once and for all.

While the result was predictable, the path was not. The meeting included a hilariously awful video production presented by Roger Seaver, a lot of talk about breasts, and more than three hours of public comments by over 70 people. Most bizarrely of all, there was what Laurie Ender christened “The 5 guys in a room deal.” It was an agreement that involved Newhall, Gauny and Seaver and that was arranged by Rasmussen and Goldman--all prominent Claritan businessmen of one sort or another. The men met without attorneys and signed a quasi-legal document representing a major compromise between the developer and Smart Growth SCV the day before the meeting. Not that any of this is suspicious or anything, but do you remember what I said about incest amongst the power players? Then, there was quite literally a backroom project involving the developer, the developler’s attorneys, and the City Assistant Attorney—and it all happened during the public comment period with Council’s blessing! Details about all the intrigue and how none of it really ended up mattering follow.

Calm Before the Storm
Councilmember Laurie Ender was charged with this evening’s convocation. She spoke about the “Character Counts” program going on at local schools and the importance of good character for everyone in the community. (No further comment necessary). Next, all of the councilmembers agreed to hold their general comments and reports for next week which, as Mayor Kellar pointed out, was “a good call.”

With the opening formalities out of the way, Mayor Kellar was able to open the public hearing less than 6 minutes after 6pm.

Staff Presentation
Lisa Webber, City Planning Manager, gave a presentation to start. Her smart gray jacket and professional tone said she meant business. Webber went over errata to the final EIR, project sequencing, and other details. It was a good balance of review and newer information and less overtly pro-expansion than prior presentations, so I was pleased. Next, a consultant came forward to talk about parking and how there seemed to be enough of it in the Master Plan. He mercilessly assaulted us with unnecessary details about how many feet constitute 1 curbside parking space, etc.

Presentations By Seaver and Gauny
Those in favor of and against the hospital expansion each got to present their case. Roger Seaver gave a brief PowerPoint presentation full of slides bearing titles ripped from knock-off Hallmark cards such as “Improving…for you.” Then, out of nowhere, Seaver introduced one of the most spectacularly ridiculous videos I’ve ever seen. It started with some weird upbeat music—maybe toned-down German dance music a la 1992—and quick cuts between the words “VOICES for the EXPANSION” and community members speaking.

Whoever produced the video pulled out all the stops. They got the Flemings to speak on behalf of the expansion (FLEMWATCH ALERT!), Moe and Linda Hafizi to chime in for the Master Plan(incapable editors of elite magazine), and many hospital staff members to say they supported it. It was all one great big appeal to emotion (i.e., "help the sick people!"), that lowest of rhetorical strategies.

After the video, David Gauny got his chance to speak on behalf of SmartGrowth SCV in opposition to the Master Plan. He delivered a very, very compelling presentation. His core argument was that the “overriding considerations” were based on illusory promises, or non-binding elements of the contract that were used to justify harm inflicted by the project. For example, saying that the hospital “will allow for” Centers of Excellence was not legitimate justification for the project as it could not be assured. He very reasonably pointed out some major flaws in the plan.

Enter the 5 Guys in a Room Deal
Before taking the first break of the evening, Councilmember McLean brought up something that she and other council members had just received that day. It was a half page agreement that parties from Henry Mayo and Smart Growth SCV had signed on Tuesday the 18th (if I have the timeline correct). Roger Seaver wanted to avoid litigation, so he was willing to concede one floor in height from the planned Inpatient Building to allay concerns about blocking views. He also agreed to some ever-so-slightly stronger language on getting the Inpatient Building built promptly. In return, it was agreed that if any lawsuit was brought against the developer, the concessions were void and the project could be built as originally planned (5 stories instead of 4, original triggers for development). In short, it was a very, very weak deal that I’m frankly shocked was signed by representatives of Smart Growth SCV.

Once the City of Santa Clarita got to learn about this, there was a 15 minute break. Upon returning, Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry called David Gauny forward and tried to see if they could figure something out. He wanted to give the City Council the option of turning the informal agreement hammered out the day before into a compromise that could be tacked onto the development agreement. Ferry suggested that Gauny along with Assistant City Attorney Joe Montes and attorneys from HMNMH/G&L could try to work something out during the public comment period. Yes, Frank Ferry was that presumptuous and brazenly disrespectful to people who waited up to 5 hours for a chance to speak. He wanted a few lawyers to try and broker an agreement because, one can infer, nothing any speaker could say would change Ferry's mind. He said this addendum drafting would be something “worthwhile”, thereby implying that public comments were not.

Laurie Ender and Mayor Kellar were the voices of reason, saying that a few men didn’t represent the Council or the community at large and didn’t get to decide how things went down for everyone. However, it was clear that the lawyers were going to work on formalizing the 5-guys-in-a-room agreement. Gauny wanted time to consult with his own attorney, who wasn't present, to make sure that he didn't sign onto something prematurely. But Ferry kept pushing forward in a manner not unlike some oafish schoolyard bully. David Gauny told Ferry “You’re putting me in an impossible spot.” Ferry knew this and pushed forward anyways. And indeed, Assistant City Attorney Montes met with parties from the developer while the public delivered its testimony.

Public Comments—3 Hours and the Breast Brigade
Doctors: There was some troubling polarization here. Some doctors from HMNMH spoke out against the expansion, saying it would reward G&L Realty, a company that had price-gouged physicians off of the campus. Other doctors stepped forward, the majority of them speaking passionately to the need for more O.R.s and thus supporting the expansion. As Dr. Gene Dorio pointed out, though, many physicians weren’t well-versed in the fine details of the plan, and at least a few admitted to this. Dorio went onto say he personally heard a doctor being intimidated/punished for opposing the plan.

Expansion Plan Fans: A number of nurses and members of the hospital board also came forward to express their support for the Master Plan and Development Agreement. So too did Charles Gill and Larry Mankin, Chairman and President/CEO, respectively, of the Chamber of Commerce. It wasn’t too much of a shock that these two advocated expanding business in a community-be-damned sort of way.
Then, there was the Breast Brigade. No fewer than 20 people mentioned the Sheila R. Veloz Breast Imagaing Center as an example of a Center of Excellence that needed both a hospital and medical office space, thereby proving the importance of medical office buildings. They were nice stories, some of them moving, but totally immaterial. Having an excellent breast imaging center in no way guaranteed centers of excellence elsewhere on campus or a new Inpatient Building.

Expansion Plan Foes: Of roughly 70 speakers, less than half were speaking out against the expansion, although there were far more written comments against than for. Reena Newhall, perennially creative and incisive, spent her time talking about what anonymous doctors that she telephoned thought of the plan and how Roger Seaver put pressure on them to support it. "Doctor 1" said he couldn’t speak out or he would “Risk retaliation, be ostracized.” Doctor 2 agreed, saying “I can’t afford to make waves.” Doctor 3’s opinion was “It’s all for profit bull****” and Doctor 4 noted how many fel trapped because “They’re on the hospital's payroll.” Sure, this is hearsay, but at least three respectable Claritans delivered the same message this evening (Dorio, Newhall, Kellar). Another expansion foe was Lynne Plambeck who said “It’s discouraging to say these things knowing they will not be heard or addressed”. After she and other speakers finished, it was time for Boydston.

TimBen Boydston, Patron Saint of the Study of Very Important Yet Terribly Boring Parking Ordinances, pulled off quite a coup. Since speakers are afforded only 3 minutes but his meticulous research on the parking problem demanded more time, he enlisted the aid of 7 other speakers. Together, they cobbled together a surpisingly coherent and thoroughly damning presentation on major parking shortfalls or “built-in parking deficits”. There was even a PowerPoint presentation that ran alongside the narrative.

Based on parking guidelines put out by experts, he calculated that there was a 953 space deficit if demand for parking was calculated based on number of hospital beds, and an 817 space deficit if demand was calculated based on number of employees. Going by City Code alone, there was still a deficit potentially in excess of 200 spaces.

The error in calculating parking needs, he explained, arose from many sources. For example, the parking study used for the Master Plan counted red curbs, handicapped, and staff only parking spaces as “available but unused” during a peak-use period. This suggested a much lower demand than there really was/is. Furthermore, counting unmarked spaces went against City Code, and the parking consultant did just that.

Staff Responds
Paul Brotzman came forward, and his voice was tired (I’m tired at this point too—it’s 11:25pm). He and other City staff members responded vaguely. Paul Wilkinson, parking consultant, responded to TimBen Boydston essentially by saying that it was alright to count unmarked spaces even though this is a direct violation of City Code.

The Assistant City Attorney had also met with the developer and the developer’s attorney during the public comment period. He returned with a one-page statement. The language said more or less exactly what the 5 guys in a room had tentatively agreed upon. If ANYONE initiated a lawsuit against the campus development, the campus could forget its 4-story inpatient building and build a 5-story one instead and ignore new demands on centers of excellence. Basically, the part that made the deal attractive (less obtrusive build-out) was rendered null and void because when literally anyone sued over the development, the agreement would become meaningless and the project could be built as originally planned. Ferry enthusiastically pushed forward, and so too did McLean, who showed a weirdly vengeful streak when David Gauny said he wanted more time before giving his approval for officially adding these conditions.

I ended up being a Laurie Ender fan for a moment when she said “The process has not been served in this.” She spoke with clarity, passion and conviction. It was really inapprorpiate to have all of this wheeling and dealing going on at the meeting.

Then things totally broke down.

Everyone sensed that Laurie Ender was right—this thing was flying by way too fast and without any public input. So the Council let Gauny and others come forward to speak. Frank Ferry had the audacity to call David Gauny “rude” for trying to express his dismay at how the agreement to not sue in return for a shorter Inpatient Tower was being railroaded through. Even worse was City Attorney Carl Newton who said with a straight face “There are copies of this [the legal language drafted that night] available for the public to view.” It was midnight, and he was suggesting that everything was quite seemly and that the public could review the proposed backroom agreement if that was their will. Needless to say, Cam Noltemeyer, Tony Newhall, David Gauny, and Bruce McFarland all strongly objected.

Council Deliberates
Eventually, though, the public hearing closed. Marsha McLean made a few stipulations to the agreement, something about recycling. With this and Laurie Ender’s outrage over the potential addendum to the development agreement drafted by the Assistant City Attorney, I was actually a bit hopeful. I thought we’d at least get a continuation till next week.

Then Laurene Weste started to talk, and the small bit of hope I had allowed to well up in my chest immediately vaporized. She read off a litany of reasons why she’d approve the project, largely ignoring the parking issue and other issues brought up over the course of the evening. Despite TimBen Boydston’s hundreds of hours of work researching the parking deficits, she said she “had to” trust the parking consultant who had clearly violated City Code and common sense to set the parking needs. Given Weste’s sentiments, I allowed myself to entertain the thought of Weste voting “aye” and Ender being a surprise no vote or vote for a continuation (It was late; I was allowed to foolish). Weste’s ultimate reason for supporting the plan, it seems, was fear. “What happens if there’s a homeland security breach? Where are you gonna go?” Thusly motivated, she was willing to vote for any chance she got at more hospital.

Next, Mayor Kellar spoke. He expressed that he supported “The Hospital”—not the whole campus, G&L and all, but just “The Hospital.” He was saying that he was going to be voting no, and went on to explain why. In particular, Kellar found the mixing of private and public development very troubling. The Mayor, like Dr. Gene Dorio and Reena Newhall, had also talked to some doctors who told him that many statements in favor of the hospital were coerced. He astutely pointed out that “Good projects do not keep us out here till 1 in the morning” and that this was, indeed, a bad project, one building too much on too little land or “putting 20 lbs in a 5lb bag.”

To close, Mayor Kellar opened up on how he felt about G&L Realty, the Beverley Hills developer that spent $30,000 on an election in Santa Clarita: “You come into our town and buy our electon?...I think it’s disgusting…Shame on you!”

By this point, we had Ferry Yes, Weste Aye, and Kellar No. McLean was looking like a “Yes” and Laurie was still being quiet. It was 40 minutes after midnight.

Then, quite suddenly, Marsha McLean motioned for alternative 2 from the EIR—an expansion project with just 2 MOBs and a 4-story Inpatient Building. There was no second. She then motioned alternative 3, where all 3 MOBs were built with a 4-story medical office building. There was no second again.

Laurie Ender moved the recommended action (3 medical office buildings, a 5-story Inpatient Tower). When it came time to discuss tacking on the language drafted that evening about the lower tower/no suing trade-off, Ender mentioned her continuing suspicions and lack of comfort with the process. Basically, the 5 guys in a room deal and what the Assistant City Attorney had drafted had all come to naught, didn't matter. Thus, unadorned, the Council voted on Ender’s motion. Everyone said yes, save Mayor Kellar.

In a subsequent motion to move for a second reading, everyone but Kellar and McLean said Yes. Thus, it all comes back December 9th.

Cam Closes

There was still public participation for this meeting, but only Cam Noltemeyer requested to speak. I’ll close with her quotation:

“What we’re seeing is big money taking over our community. We saw it here tonight. It isn’t a small community anymore. We didn’t move out here for what is happening here.” Agreed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Happenings: A Kind Of Final Decision Quite Possibly Looms--Maybe

It’s time, y’all. There is a special City Council meeting at 6pm today, Wednesday, November 19. And there is only one item on the agenda: a public hearing about good ol’ Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital and plans to expand the campus. Laurie Ender is set to open the meeting, likely with a brief remark about the fires that she may or may not try to link to the need for high quality medical and emergency facilities. Afterwards, there will be a lot of talking. How much? I’m not sure; please vote in the poll above to tell me.

After the jabbering has gone on for a while, the most likely course of action will be a motion to approve the recommended action, which is this:

"Receive staff and applicant presentations and public testimony and close the public hearing; adopt a resolution certifying the Final Environmental Impact Report prepared for the project and adopting a Statement of Overrriding Considerations and the Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Program; adopt a resolution approving Master Plan 04-022, subject to the Conditions of Approval; introduce and pass to second reading an ordinance entitled: "AN ORDINANCE OF THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF SANTA CLARITA, CALIFORNIA, APPROVING DEVELOPMENT AGREEMENT 06-001 FOR MASTER CASE 04-325 (MASTER PLAN 04-022), FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE 15-YEAR MASTER PLAN OF THE HENRY MAYO NEWHALL MEMORIAL HOSPITAL MASTER PLAN PROJECT IN THE CITY OF SANTA CLARITA, CALIFORNIA."

By passing to a second reading, the development agreement isn't exactly a done deal but essentially is. It means nothing, yet also everything. Such is the paradox of City Council.

Regardless of what happens, here is a drinking game for those watching the meeting. If you play by the rules, an ambulance will be rushing you to Newhall Memorial for alcohol poisoning by 7pm. While thematically appropriate, such a trip is not advised. Consider sipping coffee instead—you’ll need it.

Drink Once:
*When you see Frank Ferry texting
*Every time Mayor Kellar tells the “Ladies and Gentlemen” of the audience to hold their applause
*Every time we have to hear about someone’s wonderful life-saving surgery at Henry Mayo (drink twice if they recovered from something really freakish, like auto-cannibalism or rabies or Ebola)
*Every time someone mentions the recent wildfires which, interestingly, is a ploy that can work equally well for both sides

Drink Twice:
*Every time Roger Seaver says “committed”
*Whenever someone speaking in favor of the expansion is condescending
*Every time you hear “NIMBY”
*Every time you hear “recuse”

Drink Thrice:
*Every time a member of the Newhall family comes up to talk
*Whenever the ladies on CC need a potty break
*If a public speaker starts their comment with a knock-knock joke
*Every time someone mentions the community holiday tree, CT
*If someone gets a chant of “G & L, go to hell!” going

Down All The Alcohol in the House When:
*The City Council sends G&L Realty back to the drawing board by rejecting the development agreement

Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section. I'll see y'all at the meeting.

non sequitur

I'm tired of writing the acronym HMNMH. You're probably tired of reading it. So before I do a last post on the subject, here are some YouTube videos completely unrelated to the campus expansion or Santa Clarita. I know, the first one's old, but I love it so.


Hooray for the rabbit.


HMNMH Countdown: Reasons 2 and 1 To Say No

Reason 2: Friends Watching Out for Friends

Santa Clarita is growing into a bigger city by the day. However, the power players remain few, and they are all well-connected and interested in looking after each other. It’s all a bit incestuous, really.

Unsurprisingly, the Master Plan never had a chance of being fairly evaluated in this environment.

*City Staff. Do you remember the word “collusion” from way back in 2007? You know, the scandal around some advice that City staff planned to communicate to a former boss turned hospital lobbyist[1]? Perhaps you do. Well, that was one sign that a lot more “chatting” may go on behind the scenes than we ever normally hear about, which is troubling.

*The Signal. This paper has never given the expansion much in the way of fair, balanced coverage. Several of its stories have run like ads for the hospital and prompted me to ask “Who needs P.R. when you have The Signal?” more than a year ago[2]. An editorial[3] from this weekend was typical: “There are no guarantees in life, but thanks to critics of the hospital’s growth, there is a greater guarantee of a new hospital wing in the current version of the development agreement than there ever was before.” (Rejoice at will--we've got a chance!)

*City Council. We know that the Master Plan has two unfailing advocates on C.C.—Laurie Ender and Frank Ferry. So committed are they to the plan, in fact, that there was a movement to have them recuse themselves from the proceedings for being so unfairly biased.

Here I may break with the pack a little. I don’t think Laurie Ender's recusal would have been warranted. Sure, she got $30K worth of supportive election mailers from G&L Realty (albeit indirectly). But while she has expressed her support, she didn't cross certain lines. Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry, on the other hand, made it very clear that nothing would change his mind about approving the Master Plan. He should have recused himself, and could still save face by doing so.

In short, I don’t think the Master Plan has been weighed objectively. There are too many overlapping interests, and the City Council should recognize these are a driving force behind Master Plan support.

Reason 1: It’s Never Been About the Hospital

Despite appearances to the contrary, the Henry Mayo Master Plan has never had much to do with hospitals. HMNMH was in a financial crisis, so they sold land they had received as a gift to for-profit G&L Realty. G&L wants to make the most money it can from its land holdings. But rather than play by the rules and build medical offices that comply with zoning ordinances, they wanted more. They proposed a much bigger, denser project than was ever envisioned for this area of Valencia, one that would require special approval by the City Council. And for years, they have tried to use the proposition—not the promise—of a new Inpatient Building as leverage for getting what they want from the City of Santa Clarita.

Sure, there have been a few reductions, but the project remains much too large. 4 parking structures. 3 medical office buildings. 2 helipads. 1 inpatient building (maybe). 15 years or more of construction. It’s too much. To show that the Santa Clarita City Council expects applicants to respect the people of Santa Clarita, nothing less than a firm, unanimous NO to the Master Plan will do.

[1]Those kinder, simpler days of collusion
[2]Old post

Monday, November 17, 2008

HMNMH Countdown: Reasons 5, 4, and 3 To Say No

Reason 5: A Very Worried Tree

It’s been a while since last we’ve checked in with the Community Holiday Tree (he goes by CT for short). CT is the Deodar Cedar who stands proudly on a grassy knoll in front of Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. In previous interviews, he has expressed some deep misgivings about the campus expansion. There is good reason for CT to be nervous: he and dozens of his leafy kin will be hacked down to widen McBean and build a subterranean parking structure.

The developers say they’ll put in a new community holiday tree, but we heart CT! Offering the people of Santa Clarita a CT replacement is like telling the kids “We’ve decided it’s in our best financial interest to snuff out Scruffy. But hey, we’ll buy you a new puppy tomorrow!” How about this instead: CT and the other trees stay, approval for the Master Plan goes.

Richard Gottlieb (the G of G&L Realty) would rather have a parking lot than a beautiful holiday tree. The man who would steal Christmas from the children of Santa Clarita…bah humbug!

Reason 4: The Common Claritan Counts

Here I’ll be brief. Many, many Santa Claritans have come before City Council to give testimony on the hospital. Throughout the meetings on the HMNMH Master Plan, passionate voices of opposition have always out-numbered voices in support. The speakers have come from many backgrounds, but whether we heard Dr. Gene Dorio, Reena Newhall, David Gauny, or Cam Noltemeyer, the sentiment was the same: our community deserves a top-notch hospital, not to be sold out to real estate interests. The City Council would do well to listen to the community, something the Master Plan applicants have elected not to do.

Reason 3: “Overriding Considerations” = Blindly Optimistic Speculation Run Amok

If you read the HMNMH item on the Wednesday’s City Council agenda[1], you’ll find this statement:

“As a result of the significant unavoidable impacts of the project, if the City of Santa Clarita approves the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital Master Plan, the City shall be required to adopt findings in accordance with Section 15091 of the CEQA Guidelines and prepare a Statement of Overriding Considerations in accordance with Section 15093 of the CEQA Guidelines. The Council must find that each of the unavoidable, adverse environmental impacts of the project identified in the section above is outweighed by environmental sustainability, economic, social, technological, and other community benefits.”

Whoever writes these things then endeavors to provide ten such “overriding considerations” to justify the significant, unavoidable negative impacts of the plan. Most of these arguments are laughable. Take consideration the first:

“The proposed HMNMH Master Plan project will provide needed hospital facilities […] The proposed expansion would allow for additional acute care hospital beds, additional technologies and medical service capabilities and specialties such as Centers of Excellence”

This is utter crap (or, if I choose to be polite, it's speculation run amok)! It is reckless and irresponsible to make it seem as though centers of excellence are coming when there is no binding provision for them in the development agreement. We can't just say that positive things that may happen justify negative impacts we are certain will happen. And that’s not even the silliest argument (this coming from someone who talks to trees, I know). Considerations 8 and 9 say the architecture and landscaping associated with the campus expansion will fit in well with the community. How, one wonders, does camouflaging a huge new project with shrubs and paint “outweigh” the fact that the project is too big to begin with?

These overriding considerations should be the crux of the approval process, clear justification for erecting concrete towers, over-building the hospital campus, and changing the face of a whole neighborhood. Yet, they are empty and meaningless. The only considerations I find valid and reasonable are those that say campus expansion will make some new jobs and that the helipads will help in emergency responses. But these alone are woefully insufficient reason to approve the Master Plan. I suggest you read all ten "overriding considerations" for yourself[1], and I offer you the letter below as additional, excellent meditation on this and other expansion-related subjects[2].

[1]Read the agenda here
[2]I very much recommend that you read this excellent letter. It's written by Christopher Townsley.

HMNMH Countdown: Reasons 7 and 6 To Say No

Note: Regarding plans for writing about HMNMH, Reasons 5 and 4 are written and will be posted later this afternoon. Reasons 3, 2, and 1 will be posted tomorrow. Finally, on Wednesday morning, I will post a drinking game for those of you watching the City Council meeting at home and those of you who like to bring a flask into the actual meeting. Hey, no judgement here.

Reason 7 To Say No: The Hospital Expansion Gave Me E.D.!

“City staff do not support the use of eminent domain on any residential properties to complete roadway improvements at that intersection.”

So wrote City Manager Ken Pulskamp in a letter sent to residents concerned that eminent domain would be used to improve traffic on McBean[1]. For someone professing to be stiffly against E.D., Pulskamp’s reassurances seem more flaccid than firm. Never once does he write “Your home is safe” or even “We will not use eminent domain.” No, he gave three reasons for a homeowner to be confident that City planners will at least try something else first. Why couldn’t he rise to the occasion and promise no E.D.? The second letter I've posted[2], sent out by David Gauny of SmartGrowthSCV fame, speculates why.

Ultimately, there would be huge homeowner protests over taking homes or forcing sell-outs under eminent domain. So that leaves us with reason number 6...

Reason 6 To Say No: Traffic

Increased traffic created by the hospital expansion will be a “significant and unavoidable” impact of hospital construction according to the Environmental Impact Report. As Santa Claritans and Southern Californians, we all know the exquisite pain of gridlock, idiot drivers, never-ending commutes... in short, we’ve met the beast called “traffic” and we hate it.

As such, City of Santa Clarita planners and the developer have gone to great lengths to assure us that traffic impacts (again, “significant and unavoidable”) are going to be mitigated by clever design. Unfortunately, McBean can be widened only so much, even with land dedications to the City by HMNMH. And even if widened for the blocks on which the hospital campus resides, all that traffic will eventually have to be mushed back into a narrower road.

McBean is the most important road in Santa Clarita. Making another reason for people to stop on McBean—whether it’s detours for 15 years of campus construction or visiting the new medical office buildings--is going to make a lot of trips longer and more unpleasant. The marked increase in building density could also exacerbate traffic problems on the campus itself, and no one wants that. If we knew we were getting a new Inpatient Building, we'd probably suck it up and deal with this traffic. But since we're not being guaranteed a bigger hospital, it's not worth crippling flow along McBean for for-profit G & L Realty.

[1]Read the City letter here

Thursday, November 13, 2008

HMNMH Countdown: Reason 8 To Say No

Reason 8: ¿Dónde está la excelencia?

The majority of the Henry Mayo expansion consists of medical office buildings (MOBs) and parking for people who will visit or work in these buildings. While invariably fugly, medical office buildings can be convenient--even important. The Good Lord knows we need more places for injections of Botox, Restylane, Radiesse, collagen, Juvederm, et al. lest the fine ladies of Clarita go walking around town with saggy jowls, wrinkly foreheads and skinny lips.

Being a reasonable person, I will freely admit that as the valley grows, so too will our need for medical office space. However, our need for more MOBs isn’t terribly pressing, as I suggested in a prior post[1].

We could get some really useful, high-quality services at the planned MOBs if there was a meaningful, written commitment to developing Centers of Excellence. But there isn’t. Even still, it would be great to give Santa Clarita’s brightest-and-bestest doctors (the ones who are going to flock to Henry Mayo upon its expansion) the option of keeping an office on the HMNMH campus. But who knows if the developer is even going to get around to constructing the new Inpatient Building? Alas, surgeons need operating rooms in which to ply their trade, and operating rooms are in very, very short supply. I think that before some more are built, it would be premature to anticipate providing non-existent doctors with ample, conveniently located office space.

Reason number 8 to say “No!” to the Master Plan comes down to office buildings. They’re just too light on Centers of Excellence and much too heavy on the community and our quality of life.

[1]Here--it's funny, I promise

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

HMNMH Countdown: Reason 9 To Say No

Reason 9: Rhymes with Fugly

The Henry Mayo campus expansion is going to be ferociously ugly. Dozens of mature trees will need to be ripped out, and it will take decades before anything comparable grows back. Parking structures will assault our aesthetic sensibilities with their massive concrete facades. A skyline once lush and leafy will be replaced by one barren and boxy. The reason that street-level renderings aren’t shown on Henry Mayo’s website is because they would drive home the point of just how grotesquely over-built the campus stands to become.

But ugliness is just part of the problem. With its 5-story parking structures and industrial looking medical office buildings, the expansion will forever change the character of this highly visible bit of Valencia. Until now, the well-planted berm along McBean and the Summit-ish hillside at the rear of the campus have done much to camouflage the hospital. This will no longer be possible with buildings twice or more as tall as present structures. People don’t want to look at such a scene, so home values in the vicinity will decrease, contrary to Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry’s people-love-to-buy-next-to-hospitals assertion. And it's not just the visible environment that will change for the worse. Echoes and increased traffic will flood nearby homes with sound pollution, and there will almost certainly be more odors from exhaust and waste. A precedent will be set for other businesses that want to build high and dense along McBean. In short, the area will stop looking and feeling like a pleasant, quiet neighborhood.

Most everyone would be OK with forever blemishing our landscape with the expansion if only we were assured that we’d get a bigger, better inpatient building. But there are no assurances, no guarantees. The City Council shouldn’t take destroying the character of whole neighborhoods lightly. The fugly factor: it’s the ninth reason to say “No!” to the Master Plan.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

HMNMH Countdown: Reason 10 To Say No

Barring some compelling new information or developments, the issue of Henry Mayo campus expansion will be decided on November 19, 2008. The more cynical among us may say this issue was decided months or even years ago, and the vote on the 19th will be nothing more than a formality. I tend to agree, and I've made up some numbers to prove why.

Likelihood They'll Say "Yes" to the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital Master Plan:
*Will say "Aye" instead of "Yes"

G&L Realty and Roger Seaver & Co. have performed some amusing tricks to try and win the councilmembers over. They reduced by a hundred-thousand square-feet here, threw in a healing garden there, but most of the changes have been superficial. The project remains far too ambitious and offers no guarantees of the new Inpatient Building we so desperately need. The proposed expansion will not enhance but diminish quality of life in Santa Clarita.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious, it's the City Council that has all the power. The C.C. has just as much right to say "No!" as "Yes!" to the Master Plan. It doesn't matter if there has been money spent to make new EIRs and draft new plans. If the project remains unacceptable--and it does--the City Council should show that they mean business and send G&L Realty back to the drawing board.

Over the days leading up to the big vote, I will be giving my top ten reasons to say no to the HMNMH Master Plan.

REASON TEN: Peters and Barstis (Arrogance and Condescension)

On September 23, the people of Santa Clarita had the distinct displeasure of listening to Craig Peters, Senior V.P. of Industrial Properties at CB Richard Ellis. (He also happens to serve on the hospital board). In his speech before City Council, Peters was arrogant and condescending. He presented the "argument" that if everyone in SCV knew as much as he did about commercial real estate, we'd understand why the Master Plan doesn't promise an actual hospital and why so many medical office buildings are going to be built. Our opposition to the expansion, he explained, grew out of ignorance.

On October 13, things got even uglier. In one of the most self-important and insulting letters ever published in TMS[1], Dr. John Barstis wrote "Community activists do not, in fact, have as much expertise as health care professionals and city planners. Thus the whole debate has been hijacked." The opinions of "community activists" were deemed inexpert and unwanted. Never mind logical arguments about conflicts of interest and the need for outside perspective. Barstis was none too keen on hearing what the unwashed masses had to say against the campus expansion he so desperately championed.

Why have Master Plan proponents been so condescending? Quite simply, they know the people of Santa Clarita aren't on their side. If we were in favor of the Master Plan, they would say things like "the people of SCV know what's best for their community, and we should listen to them!" But we aren't in favor. Thus, Peters and Barstis tried to convince the City Council that their opinions counted for more than ours. This is wrong, and it's the #10 reason to say "No!" to the Master Plan.

[1]Read it here, if you have the stomach.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Happenings: SCV's Voice (Un)Heard

***SPOILER ALERT! If you don't want the surprise of who won the presidential race ruined for you, read no further!***






Barack Obama Wins Presidency

As Obama delivered a thoroughly uninspiring acceptance speech during which he opted not to smile nor to explore new talking points nor to try out new phrasing, I wept[1]. The anecdotes about senile old ladies on whom speechwriters projected empty idealism. The tacky split-screens showing Obama and the Lincoln Monument, juxtaposition at its most inept. The phallic stage jutting lewdly into a mass of people for whom election research was reading monosyllabic campaign posters promising “change” and “hope.” It was all too much.

If Santa Clarita were a person, she would have voted for McCain (though a sizable percentage of her would have been conflicted about the decision[2]). To see Santa Clarita’s voice so willfully ignored was more than I could take. You spoke, Clarita, but the rest of America did not listen.

But all was not lost.

When it came to state ballot measures, Santa Clarita indeed led the way. Here are some highlights of our victories, assuming results/trends at 11:19pm on election night reflect what the final results will be:

Prop 1A: You want to build a big old fancy train that doesn’t make a stop in Santa Clarita? We think not! We righteously smote this measure, and the rest of California followed suit.

Prop 2: Claritans like to treat their pets well, buying them Christmas presents, taking them to dog parks, and letting them star in car dealership commercials. We have led the way in humane treatment of animals, and now the whole state has fallen in line by agreeing to let farm animals stretch their limbs before slaughter.

Prop 3: Before you improve/build hospitals for kids, we'd like to have a few years of meetings at City Hall. Fail.

Prop 8: Us Claritans are of the traditional sort. Weddings should be expensive, have plenty of booze, and be of the heterosexual persuasion. So too thinks most of the rest of California, and this proposition passed.

Prop 10: If we're going to subsidize any vehicles, they'll be the kind that get our kids to their soccer matches safely, not weird, dinky natural-gas-sippin' hippy-cars. In allegiance to auto row, we--and California at large--voted no.

Clearly, our voice does matter some of the time. We're always right, and the broader world sometimes has the wisdom to listen to us. Santa Clarita remains the best part of America, and we intend to continue leading the way no matter what.

[1]As my sister said “It sounded like an ‘Oh, shit, now I actually have to prove myself’ speech.” Being as objective as possible, I think McCain gave a better concession speech than Obama gave an acceptance speech. And no, I didn’t really weep—not on the outside, anyways.
[2]Here I'm guessing since that information isn't all tabulated as of yet. Still, I think it's safe to guess that SCV is conservative.