“Everybody was upset about everything,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said, describing the months of turmoil that followed Northwell Health’s announcement early last year of plans for the multi-billion dollar redevelopment of Lenox Hill Hospital.
Community leaders and neighbors of the hospital, whose ten buildings occupy the block between 76th and 77th Streets, from Lexington to Park Avenue, were appalled at the scale of the project, estimated to take as long as nine years to complete. Among other things, the massive undertaking, first described in an exclusive Our Town story, included a land sale to facilitate the construction of a 41-story luxury residential tower at the corner of 76th Street and Park Avenue.
As the end of 2019 approached, and after “seeing all the angst without anybody talking to anybody else,” as she put it, Brewer and Council Member Keith Powers created a special task force to bring all the parties together, including Northwell. “The hospital wanted to have one place where everybody’s concerns were discussed,” Brewer said, “and it seems to be going pretty well. It’s a very sophisticated group of people, needless to say. Community Board 8 is very active. And we’ve been having some good discussions.”
In fact, after just three meetings – the first one was in early December – the residential tower was dropped from an “alternative configuration” that Northwell presented to the task force on February 4. Under the original plans, the proceeds from the residential component were intended to cover a significant potion of overall hospital construction costs, initially estimated at more than $2 billion and possibly reaching the $3 billion range.
Without that level of funding, the rest of the project would necessarily be scaled back. As a result, in another major change, the revision calls for renovating eight of the existing hospital buildings instead of tearing them down and replacing them with new construction, as described in the original plan.
Northwell prepared the revised plan in less than a month, after Brewer and Powers requested it in early January. “They’re not going to get their project through unless they have dialogue and unless they make changes,” Brewer told Straus News. “I think they knew that, and so they’ve been responsive. I think they weren’t responsive until the task force started meeting.”
Joshua Strugatz, Northwell’s vice president for Manhattan redevelopment, said the task force, which includes board members from residential buildings close to the hospital, as well as representatives from the Committee to Protect Our Lenox Hill Neighborhood, a group formed to oppose the original project, offers Northwell a chance “to really listen on a smaller scale than what we might have experienced previously in community boards and things of that nature. We’ve found that this has been a very productive process and an efficient use of time. And both Gale and Keith have exemplified some terrific leadership.”
Strugatz also made clear that the process is ongoing, and what Northwell presented was a potential alternative and not the new plan. “I would just caution everyone that this [revision] was done in a very short period of time and there is a lot more study and analysis that would be required,” he said. “By no means have we come to a definitive conclusion. We will continue to listen to the concerns, we’ll continue to work through this task force.”
In a background document that Northwell issued with a statement about the task force, it emphasized that certain core elements of its original plan, including single-bedded patient rooms, a new emergency room to replace the current crowded and undersized facility, and state-of-the-art ORs, are not negotiable. “These are all necessary features for a modern healthcare facility and cannot be compromised as part of Lenox Hill’s revitalization,” the document reads.
In line with that position, the alternative plan preserves the 516-foot, 30-story main hospital tower on Lexington Avenue that was part of the original plan. Last March, Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell, told Straus News that Lenox Hill needed to modernize to keep up with other city hospitals. “Other major facilities in Manhattan have advanced their physical plants dramatically and expanded over the past couple of years,” he said. “And we cannot just stand still and continue to exist where the youngest building in this facility today was built 40 years ago.”
In contrast to Northwell’s view of Lenox Hill as a Manhattan-based, world-class medical center, the Committee to Protect Our Lenox Hill Neighborhood, a fierce opponent of the redevelopment project, sees the Upper East Side institution as a community hospital. In a statement, the group called the alternative proposal a step in the right direction, but said “the massive size and scale of the proposed hospital tower are still unnecessary and unacceptable, and this fight is far from over.”
Derek Dillon, a neighborhood resident and committee board member, said it’s all a matter of scale, and the hospital tower is wildly out of proportion to the neighborhood, where current zoning limits building heights to 210 feet on Park and 170 feet on Lexington. “We support a better Lenox Hill, not a bigger Lenox Hill,” Dillon said.
For his part, Keith Powers, who, along with Brewer, has the biggest say in the matter, is optimistic now that people are talking. “The task force has served as a productive forum to bring together stakeholders and share feedback on the proposal,” he said in a statement. “In the coming months, we will continue to work through the task force to find a plan that best balances the needs of the aging hospital with the community’s input.”
"It’s a very sophisticated group of people, needless to say ... And we’ve been having some good discussions.” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer