Cancer center plan dogged by community controversy

As the aldermanic approval process for Yale-New Haven Hospital’s proposed cancer center gets underway, there are already signs that the process will be long and contentious.

The hospital is proposing a $430 million, 14-story clinical cancer center that it says will be the most modern and comprehensive facility of its kind in the region. Yale-New Haven submitted a lengthy, complex application for approval of the project to the Board of Aldermen this week, in particular asking for a zoning change that would set up a special medical zone for the hospital. In the coming weeks, the hospital’s proposal will be assigned to committees on the Board.

Over the past months, the cancer center has become an increasingly controversial issue, as the Community Organized for Responsible Development — a group with ties to Service Employees International Union 1199, which represents some of the hospital’s workers — has alleged that the center will have negative impacts on the surrounding community. After meeting with CORD and community groups, the hospital presented a new Community Investment Program — addressing housing improvement, job training, scholarships and environmental concerns. Yet CORD, with the support of the Yale Undergraduate Organizing Committee and multiple aldermen, maintains that the hospital’s efforts to this point have been insufficient.

When the hospital communicated its proposal to the Board of Aldermen on Monday, roughly 300 New Haven residents — a mix of CORD supporters and those expressing support for the new cancer center — appeared at City Hall to demonstrate their respective positions.

The hospital aims to break ground on the new construction in September, a time frame that Rob Smuts ’01, deputy chief of staff for Mayor John DeStefano Jr., called “very optimistic” given the amount of time the Board of Aldermen has spent deliberating on similarly complicated projects, like the mayor’s downtown development plan.

“It is a very, very complicated proposal, and it will take a while to understand and to go through the process,” Smuts said.

DeStefano has not yet reviewed the hospital’s proposal, Smuts said. In the past, DeStefano has said the cancer center is critical to the city but it is equally important that the hospital work with community interests.

Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 said that although all parties involved support the idea of a cancer center, the controversy surrounding the hospital’s relationship with the community is likely to slow down approval by the Board.

“I expect it to be a very complex process that could be short if the hospital was willing to sit down and deal with the issues that are outstanding in terms of the community and its workers, but will only be made more lengthy and contentious by the lack of consensus,” Healey said. “Unless the hospital works out the issues of concern to CORD and those regarding worker-organizing, this process remains contentious and difficult and endangers the hospital’s timeline.”

But Ward 4 Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks said she believes the hospital has already been working productively with community groups, including the Hill Development Corporation, of which she is a member.

“I am not going to be voting against the cancer center,” Jackson-Brooks said. “I think that Yale has and will continue to sit down with community groups. I don’t think that they’re anti-community.”

During Monday’s meeting of the Board of Aldermen, Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah delivered the Black and Hispanic Caucus State of the City address, in which he expressed support for the cancer center project. He said the cancer center is too essential to the community and potential cancer patients for it to be postponed.

Since the address, Shah said he has been “pegged as pro-hospital” and has received extensive negative feedback from people who have concerns about the cancer center’s potential impact on the community. Shah said the point he intended to make in his speech was simply that the project should be evaluated based solely on its merits.

“I think it’s clear that the community, as I said in my speech, can benefit from the cancer center,” he said. “And I also believe that the only way that we can look at this situation in a fair and equitable way is to look at the cancer center project based on the merits of the project only … I thought I was trying to go in the middle of the road by saying that we should base it on its own merits, and I still believe that.”

The ongoing labor dispute at Yale-New Haven, where SEIU organizers have called for a secret ballot vote on unionization, has also been a sticking point of the cancer center debate. The hospital has agreed to such a vote, but only through the National Labor Relations Board framework, which union backers have said does not provide sufficient protections for workers who want to unionize.

DeStefano said in his State of the City address in February that he thinks resolution of the labor dispute at Yale-New Haven is likely to be important in moving forward with the cancer center. Hospital officials, however, have repeatedly said the cancer center and the labor dispute are not linked.

Comments