The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday gave South Nassau Communities Hospital the OK to move forward with plans to build a $40 million medical arts pavilion on the former Long Beach Medical Center property.
Officials from South Nassau had appeared before the zoning board earlier this month in an attempt to rezone the former property on East Bay Drive, along Reynolds Channel, which has remained vacant since it sustained extensive damage in Hurricane Sandy. The land it occupies was zoned for hospital use, but the southern portion of the property, the proposed site of the new 15,000-square-foot facility, is zoned residential.
The city’s Building Department denied South Nassau’s request for a building permit on June 13, saying that its application proposed a pavilion on property that formerly housed medical offices for outpatient services.
South Nassau appealed that decision and at a special meeting on July 9, hospital officials told ZBA members that the project did not require a use variance and that the zoning should be merged “as of right.” Officials said that the southeast portion of the property, at 440 E. Bay Drive, near Franklin Boulevard, once housed medical offices — since razed — that were associated with the hospital, and that the entire 5.1-acre property had been granted “identical” tax exemptions for medical use. The zoning board voted unanimously on Thursday to approve South Nassau's request.
South Nassau is looking to build an elevated one-story medical pavilion using a portion of the $154 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funding the hospital received after it acquired the LBMC property in a bankruptcy sale in 2014. SNCH is using the bulk of the funding to expand its Oceanside campus, a plan that includes hardening its utility plant — to keep the hospital powered in the case of a natural disaster — and building a five-story expansion on the hospital’s southwest corner for additional critical- and emergency-care services.
Hospital officials said that South Nassau remains committed to moving forward with the medical pavilion, near a freestanding emergency department built in 2015 that would continue to operate 24 hours a day and accept ambulances through the 911 system.
“South Nassau is proposing to continue this historic use of the lots in conjunction with one another by providing important complementary services to the emergency department that is presently standing, as well as the existing family medicine center to the east of the map,” said Tom Garry, an attorney for Harris Beach, the law firm representing South Nassau.
Initial plans for the property called for the construction of a medical facility with an emergency room, with the existing emergency department serving as a temporary facility. The medical arts pavilion was first proposed in 2015 — FEMA approved an alternative-use plan in 2016 — and was slated to be housed in what remains of the medical center’s main and west wings following a major reconstruction of the buildings.
But last year, hospital officials said that the costs associated with that plan would far exceed the $40 million in FEMA funds, mainly because it would have to be elevated to meet FEMA height requirements — to 23 feet above sea level, above the 500-year flood plain — and meet the requirements of state public health law governing hospital operations.
By keeping the medical pavilion separate from the emergency department, officials said, South Nassau would not be bound by public health law requirement and could elevate it only as high as the 100-year flood plain.
Hospital officials said that the medical pavilion would have 18 exam rooms and two procedure rooms that would “bring new ambulatory services to Long Beach, including internal medicine, imaging services, OB/GYN, podiatry, oncology, podiatry, gastrointestinal, pediatrics, geriatrics and cardiology services.” The emergency department — where, officials said, more than 38,000 patients have been treated since 2015 — would continue to operate. Most patients, they said, are treated and released without having to be transferred to Oceanside.
“We have worked very closely with the New York State Department of Health in developing a plan for the medical arts pavilion,” said Dr. Joshua Kugler, South Nassau’s chairman of emergency medicine and director of emergency services. “I know folks are concerned that the emergency room was not built to handle high-acuity patients. But we have seen everything from birth to death; we’ve seen traumatic accidents. We’ve seen heart attacks, strokes, and every patient sub-type one can imagine.
“I want to reassure this community and this board,” Kugler added, “that at no time has anyone experienced an emergency situation that was worsened by any of the issues that were brought up in prior discussions, including a bridge up … and a patient incapable of receiving care.”
“It’s a starting point,” South Nassau President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Murphy said of the medical pavilion. “This is not the end of the story — there is much to be developed in the future. As we organically grow this facility, there is much we can do that goes beyond what you see on the screen here. We’ve tried to design this in a way that’s prudent, that delivers high quality and can be a real source of pride to the community.”
Though South Nassau officials said that the project would not have a negative impact on the area, would improve the property and that the design of the building is in character with the neighborhood, a number of residents, including many who live near the site on East State Street, criticized the project.
Many said that the medical pavilion would be too close to residential homes, and cited traffic, parking, quality-of-life and other concerns. They called on the zoning board to reject the variance, and said that South Nassau did not follow through in its pledge to renovate the former LBMC building, which could now remain vacant for five to 10 years. Residents also criticized South Nassau’s proposal to bring in a private company to turn the building into an assisted-living facility in the future.
“I live across the street, and there has never been a hospital use there,” East State Street resident Todd Cohen said of the now-vacant property that once housed the medical offices. “And they have a viable lot zoned for what they’re asking for in their possession that they can develop.”
Many residents said that the vacant LBMC building would continue to blight the community. “They can easily find $5 million to knock down the hospital,” resident Eileen Hession said when told what it would cost to tear the building down, describing it as an “eyesore.”
Denis Kelly, an attorney representing nearly 20 nearby homeowners, said that because the proposed project is in an area zoned for one- and two-family homes, a new-use variance would be required for a medical building. Kelly argued that because LBMC is no longer there, the medical pavilion would not be supporting a hospital, unlike the previous medical offices on the site.
“For a use variance, they would have to show they are suffering unnecessary [economic] hardship … and show where all the money went,” Kelly said. “There is no hospital there, there’s not going to be a hospital there, and there’s no longer going to be an emergency room on that parcel directly north. What’s being proposed here is not a substantial medical facility or a hospital.”
When zoning board member Daniel Creighton asked why South Nassau could not build the facility where the former LBMC now sits, on the north side of the property, Murphy said that the cost of tearing down the building and constructing a new one — even to the 100-year floodplain — was not financially feasible, and the hospital would have “walked away” from the project.
“When we looked at the alternative options of where we might put the medical arts pavilion,” Murphy said, “it was just so far [and] away more cost-effective that it was really the only option we could come up with.”
South Nassau said it would now move forward with an environmental review, which is expected to take six- to eight-months before construction could begin. South Nassau also said that FEMA has been “fully briefed” about the new plan for the proposed medical arts pavilion, but has not yet formally approved it.
“We are eager to begin construction once we have all the environmental reviews completed,” a spokesman for South Nassau said Friday. “We’re working very closely with both the New York State Department of Health and FEMA and keeping them briefed. We’re eager to provide additional services to the barrier island — this project will bring sub-specialists back to the barrier island, many of whom left after Sandy.”
On Friday, Kelly said his clients intend to appeal the zoning board’s decision in Nassau County State Supreme Court.
“What happened last night was an arbitrary and capricious decision that resulted in the rezoning of an entire residential block, without any authority or basis in law,” Kelly said.