Though an environmental study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs determined a greenfield property off Brownsboro Road is the “preferred alternative” for a new $935 million VA hospital, most citizens speaking at a public meeting Tuesday made it clear they could not disagree more.
The Department of Veterans Affairs held the meeting at Christ Church United Methodist — less than a mile from the proposed site — to present information and receive feedback on their draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released in October. Nearly all of the 35 speakers — many living near the site, some veterans and family of veterans — voiced strong opposition to the VA’s choice for a number of reasons, including traffic congestion and the lack of consideration of other locations they said would better serve the city and veterans.
Dec. 12 is the deadline for public comments, which will be incorporated into a final report expected to be completed early next year. Asked at a press conference before the meeting what effect these comments will have on the finalized EIS, the VA’s project manager George Odorizzi said, “It depends on the information provided in the comments, whether or not it’s new information that we hadn’t previously considered or evaluated. If there’s new information, obviously we’ll want to evaluate that.”
Asked if he anticipated the project moving forward at the Brownsboro site, Martin Traxler — director of the Robley Rex VA Medical Center off Zorn Avenue — said “it’s our thought that we’ll continue to move forward with this location, until something in this process would tell us that we need to go somewhere else.”
Traxler and the VA say the current facility on Zorn built in 1952 is outdated and needs to be replaced.
“The differences between the two buildings are so stark that they’re hard to compare,” said Traxler. “When we do anything that includes adjustments to utilities in our current medical center, it’s very challenging based on the space between the ceiling and the next floor. This new medical center is designed to offer care well into the next 50 years, whereas our current medical center has many limitations based on its original design.”
Odorizzi said roughly $17 million already has been spent on the design and development process for a replacement facility, in addition to the $13 million spent to purchase the Brownsboro property — a price that a VA Inspector General report concluded was improperly inflated by up to $3 million. Assuming Congress appropriates the funds needed to build a new hospital here in the near future, he said construction would begin by the fall of 2018 and be completed by the end of 2022 — nearly 15 years after the replacement project first was announced.
The VA’s draft EIS has been criticized by many for failing to examine viable alternative sites for a new hospital besides Brownsboro, as the only other options studied were staying at Zorn and another site further northeast on Factory Lane that is already slated for another private development. Asked why this second property was considered in the EIS, Odorizzi said, “I can’t speak to whether or not the site will be developed at some future point. I know that our consultants have consulted with, or have reached out to the existing property owner, who has expressed that if the VA were interested that he would be willing to talk to us. But that doesn’t mean that he would consider shifting his plans.”
The most common theme among public speakers at the meeting was disbelief of the EIS conclusion that traffic near this already congested intersection could be sufficiently mitigated. They said the thousands of vehicles coming in and out of the new facility would not only inconvenience those living in the area, but add to the travel time of patients and the many hospital staff going back and forth from UofL’s downtown medical center, which could affect the quality of care.
James Wilkinson, a retired chaplain with the U.S. Army, said he’s been to many VA medical facilities around the country and asked why Louisville couldn’t follow the example of Nashville, which put its VA facility next to Vanderbilt University Hospital where its residents support both programs.
“I’m more concerned about the impact of veterans than the environment,” said Wilkinson, who also noted that the VA plans on closing three community clinics around the city. “If we’re going to do something new, let’s do something new, not just relocate.”
Army veteran Kyle Ellison expressed the same opinion about a downtown location providing a higher quality of medical care for veterans, adding that beyond just studying the environmental impact, “I’d like to see a medical impact study about the quality of care.”
Nearby resident Sharron Hilbrecht also noted that the Kentucky Medical Association passed a resolution stating veterans would receive the best care downtown, an opinion shared last year by UofL’s associate dean of Graduate Medical Education Dr. John Roberts, who noted that two-thirds of their residents and fellows are assigned to the VA facility on Zorn and often travel back and forth to it.
Other speakers suggested an alternative site in West Louisville, arguing such a facility would be much more welcome in an economically depressed area that could use an anchor institution supported with federal spending. Greg Wright — a pastor at United Church of Christ in the Russell neighborhood just west of Ninth Street — noted that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development could soon spend $40 million on a revitalization effort in that area; specifically, he noted Beecher Terrace offers the same amount of acreage as the Brownsboro site, in addition to other West Louisville plots now available due to the collapse of the Walmart and FoodPort projects.
Wright said veterans were not able to give enough input during the site selection process, suggesting “let’s go back to the drawing board long enough to hear them and give them feedback.”
Local developer Gill Holland repeated many of the themes from his recent joint editorial in The Courier-Journal arguing against the Brownsboro site, saying the city is wasting a golden opportunity to provide a significant economic boost to parts of the city that would actually need and want such a project.
“I don’t know why the city hasn’t shown leadership in providing an economic impact statement,” said Holland. “Because when we talk about other sites — whether it be west of Ninth, Broadway and 18th, or closer to the county line — we could have a huge positive economic impact for our community with this massive infusion of federal infrastructure dollars. So this is a project that can have a huge positive ripple effect, as opposed to driving down property values over here, which then reduces our tax base.”
Metro Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, who represents the district of the Brownsboro site, repeated many of her criticisms of the VA’s transparency and competence throughout this entire process. She noted that the EIS didn’t actually study any viable alternatives and that the agency is already repeating many of the same mistakes it has made around the country on other hospital construction projects, such as the one in Denver that is now $1.1 billion over budget. Leet said she wants the site selection process opened back up again to make sure the city and veterans have the best facility, and she is willing to take the heat for delaying the process.
However, these sentiments were not unanimous, as three local veterans spoke up to support moving forward with the long-delayed construction at Brownsboro.
Korean War Navy veteran Alan Ware said that when the VA held a public meeting on site selection in 2011, “no veteran who spoke wanted it downtown, so thanks for removing it” from consideration. Carl Loud, a 3o-year Navy veteran who also worked for two decades at the Zorn facility, said “I don’t care where they build the new hospital, just build one,” dismissing the many environmental and traffic studies that have been conducted by saying that sometimes “you can study something to death.”
Veteran James Downing said that there is “too much flooding” downtown to make a new hospital there viable, adding that veterans don’t want to go downtown and “most homeless veterans don’t even visit the VA hospital.”
“A number of veterans like me will not go downtown,” said Downing. “I won’t go downtown for any reason. I don’t like it, it’s too crowded and the last time I was downtown, I nearly had two accidents.”
Army veteran Kyle Ellison — who spoke against the Brownsboro site due to traffic congestion affecting neighbors, patients and staff — replied to Downing by stating “I am one veteran who is not afraid to go downtown. There are lots of things I learned to be afraid of in the military. Going downtown is not on my list.”
The VA is accepting written comments on their EIS through Dec. 12, though attorney Randy Strobo — who is consulting the neighboring city of Crossgate in their opposition to the Brownsboro site — said Tuesday he is seeking an extension of that deadline.