With San Francisco's election over, hospital plan takes center stage

One of the biggest winners in last week’s election wasn’t even a topic of discussion for most of the campaign.

And that’s not that easy to do when you’re talking about the largest nonprofit medical center in San Francisco’s history.

That would be the plan to build a new $2 billion California Pacific Medical Center hospital in the heart of San Francisco that has trudged along for years, but somehow managed to bypass the usual rhetoric generated in heated mayoral campaigns.

The reason is simple. Both the hospital and the current administration at City Hall decided to set the issue aside during the election season rather than have the plans buffeted by the unions and activists that have been most vocal over the deal.

Yet now that the man who has been negotiating the development agreement with hospital officials has won a full four-year term, Mayor Ed Lee expects that a pact will be brokered before the end of the year. And the timing is critical, since CPMC’s hospitals are under a tight, state-mandated deadline to upgrade their seismically unsafe hospitals by 2015.

“We both have a shared interest in reaching an agreement,” Lee told me this week. “We don’t want to have it dragged out.”

That upbeat appraisal is a far cry from the state of the negotiations five months ago, when CPMC officials were crying foul over what they said were “fiscally impossible” requests from The City to get approval for the project. In return for getting the new hospital plan green-lighted, city officials had asked for more than $100 million to cover the cost of new housing, Muni bus line construction and traffic safety measures, as well as tens of millions to cover charity care and Medi-Cal reimbursements.

All told, The City’s demands would have cost the medical center nearly $2 billion over the next 50 years, according to a CPMC analysis. The hospital countered with a $1.1 billion offer, setting the tone for the last few months of negotiations. The final numbers are still being discussed, but Lee said the two sides “are very close.”

That must feel like a painkiller injection for CPMC officials, who have been running the public gauntlet that accompanies every major development in San Francisco. At one point, a member of the Board of Supervisors said plans for the 555-bed hospital and research center should be scrapped rather than lose 11 run-down single-room occupancy units on the block adjacent to the site at Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue.

Such is the reasonable discourse that has been part of the plan to build CPMC’s new headquarters, which has been enmeshed in ongoing fights over union jobs, money and entitlements. As part of its desire to relocate its medical facilities at the site of the now-closed Cathedral Hill Hotel, CPMC executives agreed to rebuild St. Luke’s Hospital in the Outer Mission, even though the hospital has been on life-support for decades.

That battle also had its own displays of farce. Several labor groups, led by the California Nurses Association, had been demanding a 300-bed hospital replacement for St. Luke’s, even though the average daily patient census there is around 50 beds.

There’s hardly been a neighborhood group that hasn’t weighed in on CPMC’s building plans — either over concerns about noise, safety or congestion, or the fact that some neighbors don’t want the hospital to close its Laurel Heights and Pacific Heights facilities.

Yet even if Lee and CPMC can work out a suitable development agreement, the plan must still undergo review at the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. That’s going to take a fair amount of time, and at least six votes.

Lee said that at every point in the negotiations, the plan has been molded to make sure that it can get “as many votes as we can” at the board, no small feat considering the heavy hand of the labor groups involved.

But even the math-challenged will have a hard time arguing over the numbers, with the project generating 1,500 union construction jobs and guaranteeing a new permanent home for CPMC’s 7,000 employees.

Remarkably, the hospital plan got a free ride during a rather tumultuous election. The rest of the road promises to be bumpy and bruising.

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