Saving St. Paul's

Kevin O'Neil doesn't do much personal financial planning these days. The 50-year-old West End resident works as a porter/ward aid at St. Paul's Hospital. In January 2003, the B.C. Liberals passed Bill 29, the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act. At the stroke of a pen, O'Neil's take-home pay was cut by more than $300 a month, his hourly wage being downgraded to $18.36 from $21.05. With that, O'Neil says, both his workload and stress load increased.

"That's how the government creates its 'efficiencies'," O'Neil told the Georgia Straight on October 21, while on a coffee break in a Burrard Street coffee shop. "Efficiencies means you stress out the frontline worker with an ever-greater workload and more things to do. I don't see the administration taking those kinds of cuts." Things could still get a whole lot worse yet for O'Neil, who is also a shop steward with the Hospital Employees' Union.

Providence Health Care, a Catholic nonprofit organization, is in what spokesperson Shaf Hussain calls "a business-case development phase". This could result in the hospital-built in 1894-being moved to a four-hectare chunk of land on the False Creek Flats that Providence could acquire. (The BC Health Coalition revealed on October 20 that the Vancouver Esperanza Society, a nonprofit formed in March 2004, bought the land for the purpose of constructing a public health-care facility. According to the coalition, Providence has signed a "right of first refusal to purchase" agreement with the society.) The land, called the Trillium site, is part of a 67-hectare parcel of land that was slated for conversion into a high-tech zone in 2000, shortly before the dot-com bubble burst.

"First they ghettoize our wages, then they move the hospital to a ghetto," O'Neil said, only partly in jest.

Providence is considering developing the St. Paul's project as a public-private partnership, along with Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and Partnerships BC, a provincial Crown corporation. No time frame has been revealed on the eventual outcome of the decision: to stay and redevelop the St. Paul's site or to move and amalgamate services in a new facility on Station Street in the False Creek Flats, located right beside Pacific Central Station on Main Street.

However, the land still requires rezoning. Whoever sits on Vancouver city council after the November 19 election will ultimately determine whether or not the project goes ahead. If council refuses to rezone the land, though, the B.C. government could still ram through the deal by invoking the Significant Projects Streamlining Act, which gives the province power to override muncipal zoning decisions.

Providence has met with individual stakeholder groups regarding its proposal, but so far it is not holding public meetings. O'Neil is not satisfied with Providence's refusal to do this. He claimed that union members will suffer if the hospital moves because the Campbell government's Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act won't protect their jobs if the hospital moves.

"We project our finances, earnings, mortgage payments into the future," O'Neil said. "Now that's all kiboshed. I'm living basically day-to-day."

Also of great concern to O'Neil is the effect the move will have on his neighbourhood. "You can't put a price tag on that," he said. "There are the hotels, restaurants, fast-food takeout joints, the coffee shops. I live, work, and eat right here in the West End."

In an attempt to create awareness about what is happening, O'Neil joined the Save St. Paul's Coalition. The recently formed group includes organizations such as the Davie Village and Yaletown business-improvement associations, the Mole Hill Housing Society, the West End Residents Association, and individuals like ex-NPA city councillor Alan Herbert (see additional story) and West End resident and COPE volunteer Aaron Jasper.

"While there may be money to be made through the selling of the Burrard site, the coalition's concern is about the provision of good health care," Jasper told those gathered at a July 13 news conference outside the hospital. "We believe that moving the hospital would be contrary to the interests of the 90,000 downtown residents as well as the thousands in the employment base and visitors who come into the downtown every day."

The coalition has myriad concerns, and Herbert told the Straight that he raised some of them in a meeting with Providence two weeks ago. However, the feeling among those in the group trying to find information is that the public will not find out what is happening until it is too late.

In response to this accusation, Providence's Hussain confirmed on October 24 that his organization would have its business case in to government for approval sometime this fall and hopes to hear from the province by year's end.

Rob Wynen, president of the West End Residents Association, has been monitoring the rumblings from St. Paul's, a five-minute walk from where he lives, for a number of years. He said he supports what the coalition is doing and for a long time has seen the hospital's possible relocation as an issue waiting to ignite.

"We met with [the] St. Paul's [board] what must have been three years ago," Wynen told the Straight in a phone interview. "That was the first inkling where we knew something major was going on. Back then, it involved staying on the current site, putting a tower in the middle and removing the Comox Tower and all that. But that plan, to keep St. Paul's in the community, fizzled out. Then we found out, through the grapevine, that they were planning to move to the Trillium site."

Wynen is worried about the impact on the West End. In his apartment block alone, he said, there are at least three nurses. He rents his vacant parking space on a monthly basis to a doctor at the hospital.

"I think people underestimated what an anchor tenant [Hastings Street's] Woodward's was," Wynen said. "Well, St. Paul's is Woodward's five times over. The West End is very diverse. What about all the medical clinics? What about the Dr. Peter Centre [for HIV/AIDS]? How Davie Street looks without St. Paul's is anybody's guess."

Wynen said he also believes that Providence secured the Trillium site with "zero" public process.

"All at once, the city ends up with all that land, after the high-tech boom busted and biotech fell through," Wynen said. "So now what? St. Paul's scoops up the property. Providence has a building and a super-cheap chunk of property."

In response, Hussain reiterated that nothing is a done deal. "Initially, we only had the one option [to renew on the Burrard Street site]," he said. "The principle of renewal is how best to meet patients' needs and also how best to meet taxpayer needs. When we just had the one site, it was looking like a fairly lengthy process, at least 10 to 15 years. Internally, we thought we'd be better off with options that could be developed from scratch."

Hussain denied the suggestion that Providence chose Trillium to sell Burrard Street's prime downtown real estate. "This has nothing to do with real-estate deals," he said. "To say we're doing this for that purpose is highly dubious."

Agitated and close to the end of his coffee break, O'Neil disputed Hussain's statement. "Providence is not into real estate? Baloney. How much land do they already own? How much have they sold to get finances for the move?

"St. Paul's is at the highest peak in downtown Vancouver," he adds, heading back to the hospital's emergency department. "It has optimum access from across the region. Trillium is nowhere. They say it's only four to five minutes further for an ambulance to get to the new [Trillium] site? Are they using rocket ships?"

Alan Herbert has run unsuccessfully for council, both as an independent and as part of vcaTEAM, in 1999 and 2002, respectively. Now heading toward the election on November 19, he's on the outside looking in, trying to get St. Paul's Hospital on the election radar as part of the Save St. Paul's Coalition.

"The silence is deafening," Herbert told the Straight by phone last week.

At an October 22 mayoral all-candidates meeting at the West End Community Centre, that silence was momentarily broken. Of the two major mayoral candidates, NPA Coun. Sam Sullivan and Vision Vancouver's Coun. Jim Green, Sullivan came closest to outlining a clear position on the 111-year-old hospital when pressed by Herbert.

"We are the highest density anywhere in North America here in the West End, and it is very valuable having a hospital serving all these people," Sullivan said. "I feel this personally because I live not too far away in the downtown area-six blocks from St. Paul's-so it is of great concern to me. It is hard to say, because I haven't seen the proposal yet, but I can say on first blush I am not impressed."

After the meeting, Sullivan confirmed his concerns to the Straight. "The Vancouver Port Authority and our industrial lands are of great importance," he said. "If you check my record, I don't think I've ever voted for deindustrialization. I don't give my vote in advance, but I can say I've never yet voted for deindustrialization in 12 years, and I don't intend to start now. And I like the idea of having a hospital six blocks away."

When pressed by West End resident Brad Teeter, who supports keeping the hospital at Burrard Street, Vision Vancouver's Green said St. Paul's could be the "biggest and most interesting thing we'll face in years". But Green cautioned that no city money is involved in the project and that nothing could be done until the final proposal is in for the rezoning process.

"I'm not in favour of either [retaining St. Paul's or moving it] until I see the formal proposal," Green told the Straight. "I have already moved motions with Coun. Tim Stevenson to make sure there's an absolute open and thorough consultation process or we'll never hear the application. If that's not done, we'll not hear the application."

Green said he had already met with the Save St. Paul's Coalition and heard their concerns.

"I wouldn't support the hospital leaving and not leaving the supports that are needed for the community. One of the problems of bringing it all together in one place is services may be taken away that are absolutely necessary for this community. I will never support that."

On Wednesday (November 2), the West End Residents Association and the Davie Business Improvement Association are cosponsoring a city council all-candidates meeting at the Coast Plaza Hotel. Given the intensity of feelings about the local hospital, anyone seeking political support would be wise to brush up on this issue before arriving.