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Debate heats up over expansion of Aspen hospital

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
This rendering depicts the front of Aspen Valley Hospital once all of its planned phases of expansion are complete.
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ASPEN – In a public hearing lasting two hours Monday night, the Aspen City Council heard two dozen people speak for and against further expansion of the 35-year-old Aspen Valley Hospital.

At times, the debate was passionate. The future of the project’s third and fourth phases, involving an additional 83,000 square feet of new construction (21,000 of which is basement space), is at stake. A final council decision is not expected until next month – at the earliest.

The discussion centered on numerous project details involving lighting, noise, landscaping, mass, height, the need for improved services and costs. Among other uses, the two phases would provide greater space for the emergency department, a new entry, an ambulance garage, a breast center, a loading dock, a helicopter pad, mechanical and laundry services, a morgue, medical offices, a meeting room, an auditorium, public toilets, a cardiology suite, a chapel, parking areas and expanded cafeteria seating.

A council majority in 2009 gave conceptual approval to all four phases of the hospital’s proposed expansion of more than $125 million. Phase l already has been completed with the building of a 5,700-square-foot obstetrics unit. The council gave its green light to Phase II, which totals more than 139,000 square feet, in 2010.

That project began in spring 2011, and full completion is anticipated later this year. It involves a 63,000-square-foot hospital addition that includes hospital and doctors’ offices, 18 on-site employee-housing units and a 76,000-square-foot, three-level parking garage. The second phase has raised the ire of many of the hospital’s residential neighbors because of its sheer size and the amount of light it generates, an issue that hospital officials say they are working to address.

Before the hearing, hospital officials gave a presentation on their upcoming plans. CEO Dave Ressler acknowledged the community outcry about lighting, size and other concerns. He said the hospital has been thoughtful in its plans and “has made every effort to be good neighbors.”

“But at the end of the day we can’t forget the fact that we’re a hospital,” he said. “We’re here to serve a purpose, and we have a job to do, and that is to provide very high-quality medical care.”

Ressler also said that the hospital is simply trying to keep up with its current service levels. For many years, the hospital has maintained a high level of care despite the fact that it’s woefully small, he suggested. The expansion is not grounded in a plan to provide new services, he added.

“We don’t try to be more than what we are,” Ressler said.

Hospital board President John Sarpa said the facility is not expanding in order to better compete with Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.

“The directive from our board is, ‘Let’s build only what we need. We shouldn’t want to compete with the larger hospitals.’ They do what they do better because they have bigger volumes,” he said.

“So, in fact, (the project) you’re looking at today is driven by the services that are provided today,” Sarpa said, “with some flexibility because who can predict what the next 20 or 30 years will be? … It’s not us trying to take on Valley View – at all.”

Some residents of the Meadowood subdivision near the hospital took a turn during the public hearing.

Fred Drasner said helicopter noises, lighting and landscaping aren’t driving his concerns. Rather, it’s the cost of the project and the possibility that the hospital in the near future will turn to the community for extra tax revenue to help pay for it.

“The financial situation of the hospital seems to be fairly well-managed, but my concern is that with flat patient revenue and a core mission not to go into critical care but to maintain business as usual … will this hospital be back with their hat in their hand asking the council for additional support because the financial plan didn’t work out as promised?” he asked.

Nancy Tate Hall, also a Meadowood neighbor of the hospital, said the bird’s-eye view of the hospital expansion from her home reminds her of a chemical factory.

“As (the hospital) right-sizes, as they like to say, the facility that we see is huge, dense, overbearing, unattractive, out of character for a rural mountain setting,” she said. “I feel the actual size of Phase II was grossly misrepresented in the few renderings we saw.”

No amount of landscaping can mask the large boxes that house mechanical systems on the roofs of the new structures, Hall said.

“This has got to be the biggest development in Aspen history, and I feel like the scrutiny has been very lacking,” she said, later suggesting that half of the money toward the project would be better spent on wellness programs and alternative medicine.

Bob Rafelson, a Castle Creek Road resident, questioned the size of the project considering that the hospital is not planning to buy much new equipment.

With all the planning done in advance of the second phase, he asked hospital officials during the meeting why the neighbors had to point out the lighting problem.

“We made a mistake,” Ressler replied.

Many others spoke for and against the project; some fell in the middle, saying expansion was OK but that various details needed greater thought.

The council also heard from Dr. Steve Ayers, an emergency-room physician at the hospital who jokingly said hospital officials aren’t trying to replicate the Taj Mahal. The emergency room is unable to provide an adequate level of care and privacy to patients because of its size, he added.

“As one of my partners said, ‘It’s like driving a 1977 Gremlin. It’ll get you down the road, but not as safely, not as economically, not as comfortably,'” he said.

The next City Hall meeting on the hospital expansion is set for April 8.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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