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/ March 8, 2012
Seniors Freeze Outside St. Vincent’s Demolition Hearings

While many of last fall’s Occupy protesters were too young to legally purchase alcohol, the clamor across from City Hall on Tuesday morning came from concerned citizens who could remember a time before Medicare. For over three hours, dozens of senior citizens braved some of the first freezing temperatures in weeks to attend a City Council hearing at 250 Broadway to decide the fate of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which closed in early April 2010.

In April 2011, a federal bankruptcy judge approved developer William Rudin’s purchase of the hospital’s main campus for $260 million. The purpose of Tuesday’s hearing “was to assess Rudin’s request for city approval for zoning changes,” so that the demolition of St. Vincent’s Hospital could proceed and construction on Rudin’s planned condo development could begin.

The throng of mostly elderly people who waited outside to gain admission to the hearing demanded a modification to the Rudin plan. Emily Lyon, a neighborhood resident previously served by St. Vincent’s, said, “All of these people here are living in fear that they’re going to need to go to the emergency room. Where are they going to go?” 

The zoning changes have already been approved by the City Planning Commission. The proposal includes 450 condominiums, 11,200 square feet of retail space, a 564-seat elementary school, a neighborhood medical facility and a 15,000-square-foot public space, according to real estate blog The Real Deal. Advocacy group Hands Off St. Vincent’s describes the planned ‘neighborhood medical facility’ as an “experimental 2-bed stand-alone-emergency room,” wholly inadequate to meet the needs of the neighborhood.

Ted DuBois, 71, was unequivocal about the effect the City Council decision might have on his life. “I think there’s a good chance that I will die in an ambulance in traffic on 14th St.,” he said, but he had few hopes that the hearing would result in change. “It’s a done deal. I’m just here to give myself the satisfaction of having tried to do something but I know it’s a done deal… I have no illusions. It’s done,” he said.

Gwen Fabricant , 79, echoed DuBois’s frustration. “I’ve never seen the nakedness of power as much as I have with losing St. Vincent’s,” she said.

Others had already seen the danger that comes with losing neighborhood health care. Long-time resident Siggy Raible described what had happened when her husband had a heart attack in 2010. “[He] ended up at Beth Israel hospital. St. Vincent’s was closed, and he had to wait 18 hours to be taken care of,” she said. “We need a hospital on the west side.”

Patti Liebman, who offered us her gloves, described her long-term relationship with the neighborhood and its old hospital.

“I’ve been a nurse for 32 years, and I feel unsafe at my age not having a hospital nearby… I received all of my care from St. Vincent’s since 1971. I was introduced to St. Vincent’s when I was an undergraduate student at Washington Square College of NYU and I never needed to go anywhere else, and now that I really need a hospital there isn’t one here.”

In the March issue of WestView News, the neighborhood print monthly which advertised the meeting, Dr. David L. Kaufman wrote an impassioned plea to City Council members. Kaufman practiced medicine at St. Vincent for thirty years. He wrote, “Let the Rudins build their luxury condos, let them make the billions in profits, but please, PLEASE, make your approval… absolutely contingent on the building of a new hospital.” There are no hospital beds below 57th St. and west of Broadway, an accompanying graphic noted, while “below 14th St, there is [only] one hospital: New York Downtown Hospital with 180 certified beds.”

The only successful “mic check” of the morning was led by one Evette Stark Katz, an older woman who said she felt blocked out of the meeting, and that construction union members had deliberately filled the seats within the hearing room early so that others could not be seated.

“Mic check! The union! Men and women! Were here! At seven A.M.! Padding! The room! Upstairs on the sixteenth floor! I just! Heard this! From the security guard! Who’s very handsome! And is standing next to me!”

Throughout the hours-long wait, there were arguments between seniors and security guards about the availability of the warm lobby to wait in, as admission was dependent on someone inside the packed hearing room leaving. The security guards were adamant that waiting in the lobby would constitute a fire hazard.

While NYU Local did not gain admittance to the hearing, George Sosa of Trust 2020 Media told NYU Local that there were “about sixteen to twenty members of local labor unions” at the hearing. Sosa, a local independent filmmaker, has been covering the community’s battle to regain a hospital via his video blog, Why Are They Closing St. Vincent’s Hospital? Rich Davis, a lawyer waiting for admission to the hearing to speak on issues other than St. Vincent’s, explained why these unions might support the Rubin plan and its lengthy construction. “For those three and a half years, [the jobs] could be in the thousands,” he said.

Tom Allon, who is running for mayor in the upcoming 2013 race and recently advocated for a replacement hospital in an editorial in the Huffington Post, stepped out of the hearing to speak with the people waiting outside and described candidly what he had seen inside.

“I saw a really bad case of democracy at work,” he told those waiting in line outside 250 Broadway. “The developers are speaking first, clearly there are people who signed up to get into the room who were hired by developers to get in. This is going to be unfortunately another vote against the community… I don’t know why they have a room that fits forty people for a hearing that should seat two hundred.”