Last Saturday, Sept. 15, near 5 p.m., a helicopter flew over Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle and hovered at a height of 240 feet. A crowd of men, women and children cheered. Chanting began.
It was not a re-creation of the 1968 "Piano Drop" in Duvall, which led to the Sky River Rock Festival, but a demonstration of the height of expansion planned for the hospital and a lure to TV news crews.
You won't be surprised to learn that the Laurelhurst Community Club, which represents 2,800 homes in northeast Seattle, including my own, has raised a fuss about the expansion. More about that in a moment. My interest is in how these controversies play out, and how daunting it is to tussle with an institution like Children's.
The hospital hardly needs the platoons of lawyers and publicists at its disposal – everybody knows the value of saving babies from pain, suffering, and death. If Children's says it needs to grow, and it does – "We have little little choice but to undertake it together. Our children deserve nothing less," declared Chief Executive Dr. Thomas Hansen – it's hard not to go wobbly. Who are we to argue? Let's not risk the care of children.
But the community club years ago fought Children's over plans to land helicopters on its campus. Doing so, it acquired an image in some circles as a fussy, perhaps spoiled community – never mind that Laurelhurst is actually a nice place to live and home over the years to various notables of civic spirit such as cartoonist Gary Larson, both Bill Gateses, Steve Ballmer, former Gov. Dan Evans, playwright Robert Schenkkan, parking czar Joe Diamond, Starbucks CEO Jim Donald, King Broadcasting CEO Ancil Payne, KING-TV anchor Jean Enersen, former KIRO-TV anchor Susan Hutchison, Nordstom CEO Blake Nordstrom, rockers Duff McKagan and Scott McCready, author Gary Kinder, and painter Jacob Lawrence.
Battling Children's cost Laurelhurst any measure of cool, and it became the city's least politically correct neighborhood. You can own a $1 million bungalow in Madrona or Queen Anne, but if you live in a house worth half that in Laurelhurst, you get grief. In 2005, when I ran for the Seattle City Council, I used a euphemism. I lived "near Husky Stadium." The cock crowed three times.
Children's says it needs to grow, and it will in some fashion. That's the nature of big hospitals and the medical-industrial complex, especially ones led by powerful boards with connections. In case details matter, Children's wants to essentially double in size, from 250 beds to 500 to 600 beds, and increase square footage from 900,000 to 2.2 million. Presently, no building on the Children's campus can go higher than 90 feet, but Children's is seeking city permission to reach 240 feet. By way of comparison, Safeco Tower in the University District is 325 feet tall. By a Seattle Post-Intelligencer estimate, that's about $1 billion worth of growth spread over the next 10 to 15 years.
You might expect that a big tower and $1 billion on the edge of a single-family neighborhood in any part of Seattle might attract some controversy, or at least scrutiny. One of my neighbors said it's time for Children's to disperse some growth because the hospital's plans are just too big for the neighborhood. But this is a very appealing proponent, which puts a warp in the conventional dynamics of neighborhood politics. Quick to the fray, the P-I editorial page not only supported the development but, getting history backward, cautioned about letting the neighborhood have too much influence.
When the helicopter flew over Children's on Saturday, TV crews taped the kids chanting a variant of a 60s protest, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, oversized buildings have got to go." Cute kids may make good footage, but that's playing on the hospital's turf. This isn't really a contest.
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