Secretive plans for biotech lab in S.F. leave neighbors jittery

Nestled high on the bluffs between rugged National Park Service land and the sloping hills of the Outer Richmond in San Francisco, the campus of the Veterans Administration Medical Center offers some of the most spectacular views in a city fabled for them.

Along its western edge, visitors can see the shimmering expanse of the Pacific Coast, the Golden Gate Bridge, panoramic views of The City and the stunning backdrop of the Marin headlands all the way to Point Reyes.

Yet for all its beauty and history as home to Fort Miley, a coastal artillery outpost of the U.S. Army more than a century old, the site of the VA hospital is virtually unknown to most San Franciscans. And as neighbors in the area have found out, the reason the medical center remains a mystery is because federal officials work so hard to keep it that way.

That will explain how the hospital's ambitious expansion plans have become the focus of a federal lawsuit filed by a number of neighborhood group earlier this year. The lawsuit came after VA officials refused to do an environmental impact review for a controversial biomedical research laboratory it wants to place within 75 feet of a string of homes along Seal Rock Drive.

But as much as anything, the legal dispute is an extension of years of acrimony between medical center officials and members of the community who feel site directors have gone out of their way to keep them in the dark despite the obvious impacts the hospital has had on the surroundingneighborhood.

“We didn't have any choice but to file a lawsuit because they have been beyond nonresponsive,'' said Julie Burns, a member of Friends of Lands End, one of the Richmond-area groups that joined the lawsuit. “We're not wild and crazy environmentalists. We just want the medical center to be a good neighbor.”

The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the planned 14,440-square-foot biomedical lab known as Building 16 until an environmental impact study (EIS) is done. Medical center officials contend that they don’t have to do an environmental review of the research lab because it’s smaller than the 75,000-square-foot benchmark required under federal guidelines. But the groups maintain that the building is just one small part of an overall master plan that calls for the construction of nearly 325,000 square feet in new development on the 30-acre campus, saying VA officials are trying to skirt federal environmental regulations by “piecemealing’’ the buildings in one EIS-free step at a time.

Over the years the site has quietly morphed from an aging 1930s-era hospital and rehabilitation center into a bustling research mecca with 1,700 employees. The VA facility in San Francisco is the largest research center of its kind in the country, with $75 million in grants being shelled out to physicians, clinicians and researchers from UCSF, which staffs the hospital and surrounding laboratories. The growth has “exasperated the zoning chaos on campus,’’ according to one planning document, and hundreds of vehicles spill over into the neighborhood each day since the parking lots are filled by early morning.

Gene Gibson, spokeswoman for the VA facility, said the proposed lab building would involve basic medical research that is already taking place in other areas of the center. Curiously, however, when the neighborhood groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get more information about the lab and what kind of airborne contaminants and hazardous materials might be involved in the research, their official query came back with a firm “denied’’ stamp from the Department of Veteran Affairs.

One of the reasons? Homeland Security issues involving “countermeasures for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear and other emerging terrorist threats.’’ That’s one sure way to calm the community’s jitters.

“We’re not saying that they’re using toxic materials that could kill 3,000 people if they were to leak out,’’ said Gene Brodsky, an attorney and a board member of the Planning Association for the Richmond, a 1,600-member neighborhood association “We’re just saying that we have a right to know what’s being used.”

Even a simple thing like asking for the VA directors to submit a list of the center’s Mayan-influenced buildings nominated for placement on the National Register of Historic Places has been met with silence. Is it because having buildings cited as landmarks would possibly interfere with future building plans?

Barring unexpected forthrightness, the case appears headed for a ruling in U.S. District Court later this year, where a judge will decide whether the VA is within its rights to adopt a bunker mentality.

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