Hospital standoff

A skeptical Board of Supervisors opens hearings on the massive, high-stakes CPMC project

CPMC wants to build a 550-bed hospital on Cathedral Hill, a project with big impacts.

The controversial and long-awaited proposal by California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) to build a 550-bed luxury hospital atop Cathedral Hill and to rebuild St. Luke's Hospital has finally arrived at the Board of Supervisors -- where it appears to have little support.

So far, not one supervisor has stepped up to sponsor the deal, and board members say it will have to undergo major changes to meet the city's needs. "There are still a lot of questions that remain," Sup. David Campos told us, citing labor, housing, community benefits, and a long list of other issues that he doesn't believe CPMC has adequately addressed. "It tells me there's still more work to be done."

CPMC, which is Sacramento-based nonprofit corporation Sutter Health's most lucrative affiliate, has been pushing the project for almost a decade. Its advocates have subtly used a state seismic safety deadline for rebuilding St. Luke's — a hospital relied on by low-income residents of the Mission District and beyond — as leverage to build the massive Cathedral Hill Hospital it envisions as the Mayo Clinic of the West Coast.

But the project's draft environmental impact report shows the Cathedral Hill Hospital would have huge negative impacts on the city's transportation system and exacerbate its affordable housing crisis. And CPMC has been in a pitched battle with its labor unions over its refusal to guarantee the new jobs will go to current employees or local residents and be unionized. There are also concerns with the market power CPMC will gain from the project, how that will affect health care costs paid by the city and its residents, and with the company's appallingly low charity care rates compared to other health care providers (see "Lack of charity," 12/13/11).

CPMC had refused to budge in negotiations with the Mayor's Office under two mayors, for which Mayor Ed Lee publicly criticized the company's intransigence last year. But under pressure from the business community and local trade unions who support the project, Lee cut a deal with CPMC in March.

That development agreement for the $2.5 billion project calls for CPMC to pay $33 million for public transit and roadway improvements, $20 million to endow community clinics and other social services, and $62 million for affordable housing programs, nearly half of which would go toward helping its employees buy existing homes.

While those numbers seem large, community and labor leaders from San Franciscans for Healthcare, Housing, Jobs and Justice (SFHHJJ), which formed in opposition to the project, say they don't cover anywhere near the project's full impacts. And given that CPMC made about $180 million in profit last year in San Francisco alone — money that subsidizes the rest of Sutter's operations — they say the company can and should do better.

"This is about standing up to corporate blackmail," SFHHJJ member Steve Woo, a community organizer with the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, told us.



CPMC is perhaps the most high-profile project the board will consider this year, one that will impact the city for years, so the political and economic stakes are high.

The Planning Commission voted 5-1 on April 26 to approve the deal and its environmental impact report, citing the project's economic benefits and the looming deadline for rebuilding St. Luke's. The Board of Supervisors was scheduled to consider the appeal of that decision on June 12 (after Guardian press time), but activists say supervisors planned to continue the item until July 17.