Cancer center is approved

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At a meeting in City Hall Wednesday night, the City Plan Commission approved certain preliminary measures in preparation for the construction of a new $350 million cancer center at the Yale School of Medicine.

The Commission approved the relocation of utilities from the Grace building — including main electrical service, oxygen and fuel tanks, and back-up data — to other parts of the medical school campus. The Commission also approved the demolition of the existing Grace Building on Park Street, a 60-year-old former nursing residence hall, contingent on the final approval of the new design for the cancer center by the Board of Aldermen, planned for spring 2005.

Currently, cancer care at Yale-New Haven is scattered among six sites, whereas the new building would focus all care into a new, multi-level complex, located where the Grace Building currently stands. This will be the hospital’s largest addition in 10 years, following the construction of the Children’s Hospital in 1993.

The hospital board of trustees is expected to approve the center this fall, and construction should begin summer 2005. The center’s doors are slated to open in 2008. But hospital spokesman Vin Petrini expressed some concern about the demolition of the old building hinging on the center’s approval.

“We have some concerns — because of the potential adverse impact it could have on our timeline,” Petrini said. “We would hope any delays would not impact our ability to offer care to the most acutely ill patients.”

City Planner Joy Ford said the decisions are only the beginning of a process of larger decisions, including a major zoning amendment to be decided by the New Haven Board of Aldermen, probably in the spring of 2005. Approval of the whole project by the state is also expected at this time.

“This is a special zone that the hospital is in,” Ford said. “In order to build a new building, they’ll need to amend the zone to include that new building in that zoning envelope.”

At the meeting, Norman Roth, a Yale-New Haven senior vice president, stressed the increasing strain on Yale’s facilities due to rising demand. Inpatient numbers are expected to reach 47,000 in 2004, a 16 percent increase over 1999. In addition, Roth said cancer is a pressing health issue for Connecticut and New Haven residents — each day, 12 people in New Haven are diagnosed with cancer, and 20 people in Connecticut succumb to the disease.

While both Ford and Petrini said they had expected the Committee to approve these preliminary measures, the slow process of approvals and amendments is not likely to come easily in the future. There was already a strong community presence at the meeting last night, with people sporting Service Employees International Union T-shirts and stickers for the Community Organized for Responsible Development — a union-supported organization.

“An overwhelming majority of the people here are supporters of the cancer center and I’m not surprised by that at all,” Petrini said last night. “We’ve been met with enormous support. And with respect to the small number of people from the union — I’m not surprised by that, either — The SEIU can’t have it both ways. Either they support the cancer center, or they don’t.”

Some community members have voiced concern about sufficient community involvement in the decision-making process and referred to the continuing conflict over patient bills at the hospital.

However, Petrini said the construction project and final cancer center will be an asset to the community, for both health and employment reasons.

“One might argue that a cancer center in and of itself is a community benefit,” Petrini said. “It would be the most comprehensive cancer center in New England — and we expect the construction project at its peak will create 350 jobs, and we will work with the building and trades unions on these jobs.”

Petrini added that the new center will create between 300 and 500 hospital-affiliated jobs.

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