A project too valuable to hold up

The Yale-New Haven Hospital Cancer Center is not only the biggest development project in New Haven history — it is hands-down the most important. Aside from treating 7,000 cancer patients every year, the $430 million project will generate over $1 billion in economic activity and 1,200 new jobs in a city with roughly 5,000 people unemployed. In the first year alone, the center will generate over $7 million dollars in city revenue, many times what is needed to reinstate important youth and homeless initiatives.

Once a vibrant manufacturing hub, New Haven has struggled for 50 years as businesses have sought greener pastures south, west and overseas. The cancer center represents the single best opportunity to reverse this trend and make meaningful progress in knowledge-based industries and in the critical health services sector.

Needless to say, I was shocked to realize the extent of the opposition to cancer center development. Rebecca Livengood’s position is twofold: She wants the center “done right,” which seems a painfully obvious sentiment, and she believes development should be conditional on the unionization of hospital workers. Throughout the campaign, Rebecca has stood by her position that unionization is non-negotiable. While it is encouraging that she has moderated her stance on secret-ballot elections in response to recent criticism, to still believe the interests of the Service Employees International Union should be tied to cancer center development is wholly unreasonable.

Many spurious and downright ridiculous claims have been made about the cancer center. Going door to door and arguing that the project is not socially responsible may make good politics, but it ignores fact. Not only is the center being built entirely on hospital-owned property, meaning that not a single individual or family will be displaced, but the hospital has proposed dramatic community investments — everything from affordable housing and education to local job placement and employee parking. Commitments include $50,000 for youth programs, $50,000 to the Courtland Seymour Wilson Library and $200,000 to the Gateway Community College nursing program.

Comparing the hospital’s community investment program to the Community Benefits Agreement proposed by CORD, a front group of the SEIU, reveals that the hospital meets or exceeds CORD’s demands in almost every respect, except with regard to unionization. Development will follow sustainable environmental practices, deconstructing the Grace Church Building brick-by-brick, and the hospital will seek “Green Building” status for the new facility. In a world of outsourcing and downsizing, we would be remiss to overlook the good fortune of such generosity.

A second misrepresentation is that the hospital wants a parking lot in the middle of residential neighborhoods. In fact, the hospital’s preference is to build on Lot E, a plot of land that does not border any residential areas.

Lastly, some argue that Rebecca’s position is correct because the mayor and other aldermen share it. Why this imprecise view should be compelling to anyone who expects independent and objective representation is unclear. It fails to admit that individual political agendas influence public posturing. The mayor, for one, is running for governor and can scarcely afford to upset the SEIU, with its 22,000 in-state members, in advance of a Democratic primary. Yale students care about the cancer center and we care about worker’s rights, but we don’t have to sacrifice either for someone’s political calculations.

Behind the rhetoric of “doing the cancer center right,” the debate unfortunately still revolves around the unionization question. Rebecca is right that we should not have to choose between unions and the cancer center, yet her position would force us to do just that. This absolutism even implies that supporting the center makes one anti-union. In truth, many folks who want the cancer center built immediately, including myself, support unionization through a fair and democratic process, so long as both the unions and the hospital refrain from intimidation tactics.

Some say that the cancer center will “inevitably” be built, so what’s the rush? As the project is delayed it risks becoming economically unfeasible. Yale’s designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center under the National Cancer Institute is up for renewal next year. This status is extraordinarily competitive and critical to attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in National Institutes of Health funding annually, and to performing groundbreaking research with Phase 1 and 2 trials. The risks of delay are staggering, from the financial costs of over $1.5 million every month to the health and economic costs as cancer patients wait for care and unemployed citizens wait for jobs.

As someone who truly believes in progressive values, I know we must do the cancer center right. But it is also possible at times to get so caught up in our ideological passions and the neatness of our own ideas that we fail to see the simple truth. In a city with complicated socioeconomic issues and political interests, we can still all agree that some concerns should trump all others — namely, putting food on people’s tables and protecting their health. It’s time to end the jeopardy our representatives’ politics have placed on the most important development project in New Haven history.



Nick Shalek ’05 is a candidate for Ward 1 alderman.

Comments