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Highland Hospital's expansion worries residents

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Highland Hospital officials are planning a $70 million expansion that adds four more stories to its southeast wing. That part of the hospital, near Mt. Vernon Avenue and Bellevue Drive, is currently only three stories tall.

Even though the expansion is within the hospital's current footprint, the size and mass of the building has many residents in the neighborhoods near the hospital concerned.

Before that can happen, the city needs to rezone the property to a Planned Development District. Highland has to submit an application to the city's Zoning Board, one of many reviews and approvals in a long process. Hospital officials don't expect to break ground until 2020, completing the project in early 2022.

But some residents oppose the rezoning and say they want the city's help in preventing what they see as overdevelopment. The Highland Park Neighborhood Association sent a letter to Mayor Warren and City Council members saying the addition and the rezoning "threaten to compromise the scale and character of the neighborhood we share."

Although the hospital hasn't gotten to the design phase of the project, residents have recommended a tiered, stepped approach, using wider setbacks from the street. Hospital officials say that they like the concept but that it's not financially feasible.

Mike Thompson, one of about a dozen residents who have been meeting with hospital officials about the expansion, says residents don't want to see a tall building with imposing walls that tower over the nearby homes.

"We like Highland and that it's a community hospital," he says, "but most people move here because of the proximity to the park." They're don't choose the neighborhood in order to be close to a growing hospital, he says.

In the past, Highland planned to expand into the neighborhood, and it bought a house on Bellevue. It resold the house after it neighbors objected. In 2016, Highland completed an expansion that added new operating rooms. And neighbors fear that once the new expansion occurs, and if good design principles aren't enforced, it will be harder to stop future expansions, Thompson says.

In the past few years, noise and traffic from employees and visitors have increase, he says. And competition for on-street parking in the area is growing because some hospital visitors don't want to pay to park in the hospital garage, Thompson says.

Highland has long been valued almost as much for its convenience and unobtrusive size as for its medical services. For much of its existence the small hospital, perched on South Avenue near Highland Park, was barely noticeable, but that has gradually changed.

Hospitals officials are keenly aware of their unique location adjacent to a historic park and residential neighborhoods on the others, says Maureen Malone, a spokesperson for Highland. But the hospital needs to grow and undergo major remodeling to remain competitive, Malone says. Highland was founded in the late 1800's, and a good bit of the existing hospital is older construction, she says.

The latest expansion would allow the hospital to offer patients private rooms, something that most prefer and that's an industry trend because it helps prevent infections, Malone says.

The hospital has 261 beds, but about half are in semi-private rooms. The expansion would increase the number of private-room beds to 214.

Residents like Thompson argue that even though the expansion sounds like a relatively modest modernization project, residents are concerned that the facility's capacity and use is increasing. The north side of the hospital has become more commercial-looking, and trees on some streets are dying due to heavy salting during the winter months, he says.

It's in Highland's best interest to help preserve the neighborhood's distinct character, Thompson says. "It's about striking a balance."

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