Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Lorraine Driscoll: Suburban has room to expand without gutting community

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The Gazette’s unconditional endorsement of Suburban Hospital’s expansion plan falls short of the high standard the paper has set for reasoned and informed opinion (‘‘Easing Suburban Hospital’s growing pains,” Aug. 8 editorial). It’s possible to support hospital modernization, as we certainly do, and insist it be done in a responsible way.

The fact is, Suburban has sufficient undeveloped property — now used for surface parking — to accomplish its goals without closing public streets, destroying homes or building commercial offices on residential property. Avoiding all that is in everyone’s best interest.

Suburban, for its own purposes, has chosen to locate in Huntington Terrace, one of the oldest residential communities in the county. For six decades, our community has welcomed Suburban. As Bethesda has prospered, the hospital has thrived.

We have asked in return that Suburban respect the residential character of our community, the safety of our residents and the quality of life that led us all to make Huntington Terrace our home. That is the bare minimum any community anywhere has the right to expect from its corporate neighbor. It’s also the law.

Suburban’s current expansion plan would toss aside that sound approach.

The plan calls for Lincoln Street, the central artery of our community, to be abandoned and given over to hospital use. Our community relies on Lincoln Street. Closing it would disrupt traffic in ways that could endanger commuters and pedestrians in our community. There is no precedent in our county for a hospital forcing the closure of a public road over the objections of those people who use it, and there is no justification for it happening here.

The plan also calls for the destruction of homes, to be replaced by a commercial office building and a parking lot. Neither belongs in a residential community, and neither is needed here. There is sufficient office space near Suburban — along Democracy Boulevard, Rockville Pike and other commercial areas — without having to destroy an irreplaceable residential enclave.

In blessing that imprudent trade-off, The Gazette points to Holy Cross Hospital, which has bought nearby homes in the past. The editorial failed to note that Holy Cross did not destroy those homes or close streets in the successful expansion that followed. Instead, Holy Cross worked closely with adjacent neighbors and county planning professionals to develop an expansion plan that was acceptable to both the community and the hospital. We’ve urged our friends at Suburban to do the same.

Unfortunately, Suburban has not reached out to its neighbors. It has dismissed our concerns. The result is a plan our community rejected, in a 155-0 vote.

Suburban has placed before the people of Montgomery County the radical notion that we simply cannot have prosperous hospitals aside healthy residential communities, but must somehow choose between the two. That’s a false choice; we can have both.

The way to do that is not to throw out the very policies that have served our hospitals and our residents so well for so long, but rather to respect those provisions that enable us to strike the right balance between hospital goals and community needs. We believe in that approach. We’ve seen proof that it works. And we are committed to helping Suburban develop an expansion plan we can support, one that makes sense both for our community and for our corporate neighbor.

Lorraine Driscoll of Bethesda is president of the Huntington Terrace Citizens’ Association.