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Divided council approves Valley hospital project

Times Staff Writer

A divided Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to approve a 101-bed hospital expansion project in the San Fernando Valley, rebuffing efforts by a union-backed coalition that had demanded a more thorough environmental review.

The council fell two votes shy of the 10 votes needed to require an environmental impact report on the four-story wing planned by Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.

The vote occurred one day after a coalition of community groups wrote a letter warning that they probably would file a lawsuit if the project was approved.

Councilman Richard Alarcon seized on that letter, saying a costly legal battle would delay the project far longer than an expanded environmental review process.

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“This project won’t be resolved with this” vote, said Alarcon, who favored an environmental impact report. “I believe this project will be thrust into the courts.”

Alarcon and seven other council members sided with a coalition composed of neighborhood councils, nonprofits, a powerful healthcare workers union and the labor-backed Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy -- all of which warned that the hospital expansion would create too much traffic and too few parking spaces.

The coalition, Community Advocates for Responsible Expansion, said low-income neighborhoods had been shortchanged by the lack of extensive environmental reviews.

Alarcon, facing the prospect of a defeat, tried without success to persuade Providence to agree to a 45-day delay.

But five council members -- Tony Cardenas, Wendy Greuel, Bernard C. Parks, Jan Perry and Greig Smith -- sided with the hospital, which had argued that the expansion is needed immediately in a county where 10 emergency rooms have closed since 2002.

The hospital also said its critics were part of a larger campaign by United Healthcare Workers West, which has pushed for years for new organizing rules at Providence hospitals.

As part of the Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers West waged one campaign in Washington state, where it tried to block a Providence hospital project, and another in Northern California against the healthcare company Sutter Health.

The letter from Community Advocates for Responsible Expansion threatening a lawsuit over Providence Holy Cross was written by the law firm that is retained by United Healthcare Workers West.

Despite the threat, Providence executives said they intend to go forward with the expansion.

“Obviously, anybody can sue anybody,” said Kerry Carmody, the hospital’s chief executive.

The fight over the hospital has been treacherous territory for some council members. Some were loathe to cross Alarcon, whose district includes the hospital, for fear that he and his colleagues might interfere with projects in their own jurisdictions.

Council members also were mindful of the views of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose top official had lobbied them to demand more review of the hospital project.

The federation gives considerable support to council candidates, and, for example, spent $163,000 on the candidacy of Councilman Jose Huizar in 2005.

Huizar voted Tuesday to support a full environmental review during a meeting of the council’s Planning and Land Use Committee. Although Huizar was absent Wednesday, his colleague on the planning committee, Councilman Ed Reyes, said he would follow Alarcon’s lead, since the hospital is in his district.

Alarcon said Wednesday’s debate was about the environment, not the healthcare workers union. Nevertheless, the councilman repeatedly warned that Providence could face the same fate as Sutter Health, a medical chain that has seen several of its hospital construction projects blocked by United Healthcare Workers West.

Providence executives tried to sway the council by bringing medical professionals, a former patient who was treated by the hospital for a gunshot wound in 1999 and a group of nuns, including one who spoke with an Irish brogue. Sister Rose Byrne told the council that lives would be lost if the hospital project was delayed even for just 45 days.

Neighborhood leaders in the San Fernando Valley had a different take, saying that Wednesday’s vote would undermine their efforts to scrutinize large development projects.

“Our community will have trouble winning any negotiations with a big developer ever again,” said Nicholas Krall, a board member with the Sylmar Neighborhood Council.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.


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