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How will St Paul’s closure impact Vancouver’s gay village?

Hospital closure threatens economic stability of West End

After more than a decade of promises to redevelop St Paul's Hospital at its current location in the West End, provincial and hospital officials announced its closure and move to a new site on April 13, 2015. Credit: Robin Perelle

More than a decade of BC Liberal government promises to redevelop St Paul’s Hospital in the heart of Vancouver’s West End were swept from the table April 13 as Providence Health Care announced plans for a new St Paul’s Hospital on False Creek Flats.

The prospect of closing the hospital’s West End site is a disappointment to some members of the neighbourhood’s gay and business communities, while others say the community’s dispersal in recent years may lessen some of the impact.

The new $1-billion critical-care hospital on False Creek Flats is slated to provide chronic disease management services, mental health and addictions services, residential care ambulatory services and an outpatient clinic, end-of-life care and other services.

A June 2012 pledge from Premier Christy Clark of $500 million to redevelop the hospital at its current West End site was cast into doubt in early April as rumours began to circulate of the sale of the Burrard Street land and development instead of the new facility on Station Street north of the train station. On April 13, those fears proved to be founded.

Providence Health Care president Dianne Doyle tells Daily Xtra the hospital operator gave it their best shot in trying to find a solution to keep the century-old hospital at its current site. “We couldn’t deliver an adequate and safe solution,” she says.

Providence lead planner Neil MacConnell tells Daily Xtra the move in health care is to provide single rooms for 100 percent of patients to avoid the spread of infectious diseases. “The best in St Paul’s was 48 percent,” he says.

He says with the province providing $500 million, Providence can leverage the Burrard site’s value as well as unused land on Station Street to fund the new facility.

Doyle says the next step is to get approval from the provincial treasury board.

Vancouver West End NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert tells Daily Xtra the West End needs emergency health services. “Had the premier fulfilled her promise, we would be opening a 12-storey, state-of-the-art facility right now,” he says.

“It’s a huge loss to business stability downtown,” he adds. “I’m hearing a lot of anger that we were sold a bill of goods.”

Gay health activists say the impact of the hospital’s closure likely won’t be too great on the gay HIV-positive community that has long relied on St Paul’s for care.

Past Positive Living BC chair John Bishop tells Daily Xtra that the hospital’s move will make accessing health care harder for HIV-positive gay men still living in the West End. But, he says, so many positive men have already left the West End that having to travel to get their medications and other assistance is nothing new.

And, he notes, the HIV epidemic has shifted to the Downtown Eastside, where patients will be better served by the new facility. “This facility will be just that bit closer to them,” he says.

Current Positive Living chair Wayne Campbell says the organization and its members are aware of arguments in favour of both sites, and support can be found for both options. “However, we have always very strongly argued that, regardless of where they are offered, the various HIV services and programs offered at the current site (including the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, the John Ruedy Immunodeficiency Clinic, the St Paul’s Pharmacy, and so on) must be kept all together at one location,” he says.

The last time the possibility of moving St Paul’s came up, Campbell says, Positive Living was told the hospital’s HIV services would be kept together, likely at the Burrard site while most of the hospital’s other functions moved to the new site. “At the time, we thought this an entirely satisfactory solution,” he says, “especially given all the other community-based HIV services surrounding the hospital.”

He says he plans to “press this option” of keeping HIV services together at any public consultations. “We still consider it to be the best possible outcome for people living with HIV.” 

Olivier Ferlatte of the Community-Based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health echoes Bishop. The population of the West End has changed in recent years and many gay men now live away from St Paul’s, he says.

“Where’s the evidence for the gay community that it is in the best place?” he asks. He says with poor transit access, the current Burrard Street facility isn’t the most accessible of hospitals.

Both Bishop and Ferlatte say for those needing HIV/AIDS care, other facilities such as Spectrum, AIDS Vancouver, the Dr Peter Centre and Positive Living and other services remain in the area. Others, such as A Loving Spoonful, have already relocated, Bishop notes.

Ferlatte also agrees with Bishop that the demand for HIV/AIDS services from a hospital might be better placed in the Downtown Eastside.

On the economic front, however, with a major employer leaving the West End, the impact on business could be significant.

In June 2013, the City of Vancouver’s LGBTQ advisory committee made recommendations to revitalize Davie Street to make the gay village safer, more accessible and more vibrant. Barb Snelgrove, one of the report’s authors, tells Daily Xtra it’s hard to say exactly what the economic spin-off will be to the Davie Village if St Paul’s closes.

“There are literally thousands of people, working, visiting and staying in the hospital everyday, and utilizing all the services of the businesses on Davie,” Snelgrove says. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the economic impact of the loss could be quite damaging."

Stephen Regan, executive director of the West End Business Improvement Association, tells Daily Xtra that business planning for the area was proceeding based on promises that St Paul’s was staying put.

“We’re disappointed,” Regan says. “It’s the largest employer [in the West End] and one of the major employers in the downtown core. A lot of businesses and services have grown up around it.”

He says the move may be the right one for health care, but questions if other considerations have been thoroughly thought through.

But, he says, the province has already backtracked once on the issue of the hospital’s future. Perhaps that might happen again, he suggests.

“Lots of decisions get changed and reversed,” he says. “We were hoping it would be a good decision to redevelop on that site.

Fears that the hospital would leave the West End were seemingly put to rest in June 2012 when Premier Christy Clark stood on the hospital’s rooftop garden and said the BC government was finalizing a concept plan and business case for its redevelopment on Burrard Street. 

She said there was half a billion dollars in the 2012 budget and a business plan before the provincial Treasury Board. None of it happened.

Clark’s promise came after a June 2010 promise from then-health minister Kevin Falcon to keep St Paul’s in the West End. However, Falcon did not rule out building another facility on Station Street.

“We’re working on the basis of making significant new investment in the existing facility while at the same time preserving Station Street for some potential other health investments that we could make as a government,” Falcon said at the time.

By October 2010, Providence Health Care officials were saying the revitalization of St Paul’s on Burrard Street could be complete by 2016, including demolition of several buildings and the addition of a 10- or 11-storey tower at the corner of Comox and Thurlow streets. 

Provincial officials repeatedly said a business case was in the works.

According to Ministry of Health Service Plans for 2013/14–2015/16 released by Finance Minister Mike de Jong, a final concept plan and detailed business plan for redevelopment was expected to be completed by 2014.

“The renewal of the hospital will ensure accessible and efficient health care services that can meet the growing demand,” the service plan said.

But on April 13 Minister of Health Terry Lake said Providence Health Care approached the ministry last fall about how best to provide health care options in Vancouver.

“After a serious review of the idea, we were convinced that the Station Street site would best meet the needs of the local, Lower Mainland and provincial population the hospital serves now and in the long term,” Lake said. “We began working closely with them on this vision.”

There was no mention of St Paul’s in the latest ministry service plan.

A 2010 Daily Xtra investigation into the False Creek Flats proposal when it first surfaced found the land is owned by The Esperanza Society, which has ties to Liberal Party contributors, Providence Health Care and Vancouver Coastal Health.

The non-profit society purchased the land in March 2004, one year after Providence floated its proposal to relocate the hospital to the area.