In the Middle of a Pandemic, San Francisco NIMBYs Sue To Stop a New Hospital From Being Built

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Neighborhood activists in San Francisco are suing to stop the University of California, San Francisco’s (UCSF) plans for an ambitious expansion of the medical center at its Parnassus Heights campus, which would include a new hospital and housing for students and staff.

These neighborhood groups argue in three separate lawsuits that the University California Board of Regents, the governing body of the UC system, failed to properly consider the serious impacts UCSF’s planned expansion would have on housing demand, traffic, air quality, and aesthetics in the surrounding area when it approved those plans last month.

One of these lawsuits—filed Friday in the California Superior Court of Alameda County by the Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition and Haight-Asbury resident Calvin Welch—argues that a 2,100-page environmental impact report on UCSF’s Parnassus expansion should be thrown out, and another analysis be performed that more closely examines the project’s impacts.

“Although the [UCSF] project will cast shadows on Golden Gate Park and the Grattan Playground, result in more than 6,000 bird deaths a year, increase housing demand, and make traffic worse, the [environmental impact report] improperly dismissed all of these impacts as ‘less than significant,'” fumes the Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition on its website.

Two other groups, San Franciscans for Balanced and Livable Communities and the Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium, have filed similar lawsuits, reports the San Fransisco Chronicle. 

The Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition lawsuit also argues that UCSF’s expansion plans violate a Board of Regents resolution from 1976 that capped development of the Parnassus campus at 3.5 million gross square feet. UCSF’s planned expansion would bring the campus’s building space up to around 6 million square feet by 2050.

That 1976 resolution was passed under remarkably similar circumstances. At the time, UCSF was moving forward with a plan to modernize a hospital building on its campus and construct a new dental school.

Those plans also raised the ire of neighborhood activists, including Welch, who filed lawsuits to stop these projects and lobbied the state legislature to cut off funding to them, according to his complaint.

In an effort to safeguard its funding, the Board of Regents approved a compromise resolution that placed a number of limits on the campus’s growth, including the aforementioned cap building space. In return, activists agreed to drop their lawsuits and lobbying efforts.

According to the Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition’s complaint, that cap was understood at the time to be permanent.

But 50 years on, UCSF says an expansion of its campus is necessary in light of its growing student and faculty population, the outdated nature of its hospital facilities, and the increased demand for hospital beds.

Each year, UCSF turns away about 3,000 patients for lack of bed capacity, the university said in a press release. One of its existing hospital buildings, the 70-year-old Moffitt Hospital, also doesn’t meet state seismic standards and will have to be decommissioned for inpatient use by 2030, it said.

Nearly half of the additional building space UCSF is looking to add would be taken up by a new hospital building, which would bring with it an additional 200 hospital beds. New on-campus housing would add another 673,000 gross square feet of space and about 762 new units, according to the environmental impact report for the project.

Planning for this major expansion was kickstarted in 2018 after UCSF received a $500 million private donation from the Helen Diller Foundation to help construct a new hospital.

In July 2020, UCSF released a final environmental impact report on the planned expansion, which was then approved by the UC Board of Regents on January 20.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires government agencies like the Board of Regents to perform these kinds of environmental reviews when considering approval of a project.

The CEQA is a citizen-enforced statute, meaning that third parties have the power to sue government agencies if they believe they’ve abused their discretion by approving a project without doing a thorough enough analysis of its significant environmental impacts.

The law, passed in 1970, was originally intended to apply to major state infrastructure projects like a new highway or dam. Subsequent amendments and judicial interpretations have vastly expanded the law’s scope to include even largely pro forma government approvals of privately sponsored projects like a new apartment building or a new burger joint.

The Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition’s lawsuit, which is challenging a state agency’s approval of a public university’s expansion plan, is seemingly closer to the original purpose of the law.

Their petition is nonetheless trying to stop a hospital from modernizing and expanding its facilities on its own property over some very typical NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) concerns, including parking and population growth.

Given the twin housing and health crises faced by the city, maybe it’d be better to let this project proceed without litigation.

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