4 min

St Paul’s closure: broken promises and lack of transparency

Who will benefit from West End hospital’s move to False Creek Flats?

As a Daily Xtra investigative report showed in 2010, the owners of the False Creek Flats land on which the new hospital will be built have ties to the three bodies responsible for moving St Paul’s Hospital.  Credit: Robin Perelle

I’m not sure what worries me most about St Paul’s Hospital closing on Burrard Street: losing emergency health care in the densely populated West End, decimating the gay village’s economic foundation, or the lack of transparency surrounding the decision to move.

How about all of the above?

The health-care concerns are obvious. As the West End’s gay MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert says, it’s poor health policy to close the only emergency room in the downtown core, especially when that core houses more than 100,000 people.

Chandra Herbert’s April 2 Facebook warning alarmed many West End residents.

“Just the idea of moving the emergency services from central downtown to an area already served by a close major hospital is insanity,” Brade Stanton commented. “Just the population density in the downtown/West End should be enough to argue the case. . . . And the downtown West End is mostly connected by bridges, so in an earthquake this could literally cost lives.”

“I am a senior who lives in the West End. I chose to move here over 15 years ago in part because of the proximity to St Paul’s, which is just four minutes away,” Mike Dumler added. “Since the zoning of that [False Creek] property does not allow for a hospital, anyone who chose to live in that area can hardly claim the prospect of a hospital in the area was a factor in moving there.”

I’m not opposed to prioritizing the Downtown Eastside, whose residents may be better served by a hospital in their backyard. I’m not even necessarily opposed to a new development sprouting from St Paul’s West End ashes, provided the community benefits. (As my friend Sylvia Machat quickly noted, this could be the opportunity Qmunity needs for a new community centre in the village.)

But that’s assuming the Davie Village can survive the hospital’s departure. Health concerns aside, the hospital also injects a significant cash stream into Vancouver’s gay village.

“There are literally thousands of people, working, visiting and staying in the hospital everyday, and utilizing all the services of the businesses on Davie,” says Barb Snelgrove, who sits on the City of Vancouver’s LGBTQ advisory committee and in 2013 co-wrote recommendations to revitalize Davie Street.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the economic impact of the loss could be quite damaging.”

Given these valid reasons to keep the hospital in the West End, you have to wonder who stands to benefit most from its move.

Daily Xtra freelance reporter Jeremy Hainsworth investigated this question in 2010. What he found is that the False Creek Flats land on which the new hospital will be built is owned by the Esperanza Society, whose directors in 2010 included key players connected to the BC Liberal Party, Providence Health Care and Vancouver Coastal Health.

As Hainsworth reported, the Esperanza Society purchased the land in March 2004, one year after Providence Health Care — the Catholic organization that runs St Paul’s under the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority — first floated its proposal to relocate the hospital to the area.

“The decision to move St Paul’s to False Creek now lies with three bodies: the BC Liberals, Providence Health Care and Vancouver Coastal Health,” he wrote. “All three bodies have ties to the Esperanza Society and to each other.”

Using Elections BC records, Hainsworth also found several financial contributors to the BC Liberal Party among Esperanza’s directors. “Along with their relatives, associated companies and operators, they have contributed at least $70,650 to BC Liberal Party coffers since they purchased the land,” he wrote.

I highly recommend reading Hainsworth’s full investigative report, especially the parts about the overlapping ties among the Esperanza’s Society’s directors and the three main decision-making bodies responsible for St Paul’s future. Not to mention the part about the BC Liberal government paying millions of dollars in land taxes on the False Creek site owned by a supposedly independent society.

At the very least it suggests to me a need for more transparency in this decision-making process.

It also raises questions about the years of apparently empty promises made to keep St Paul’s on Burrard Street.

We’ve been told since 2005 that Providence was formulating a “business case” to either upgrade St Paul’s at its current site or move it to the False Creek Flats. We were told in 2010 that the decision had finally been made to invest in the existing site.

“Providence Health, which operates St Paul’s, amongst other institutions, approached me with a new plan that would involve investing in the existing facility,” then-health minister Kevin Falcon told reporters in June 2010, coincidentally just two days after Daily Xtra published Hainsworth’s investigation into who owns the False Creek site.

“We’re working on the basis of making significant new investment in the existing facility,” Falcon said, though he didn’t rule out “potential other health investments” on the False Creek Flats site.

“We had a period of uncertainty,” Providence president and CEO Dianne Doyle told a community meeting four months later. “Now, we have a certainty of direction.”

That direction, we were told, focused on revitalizing St Paul’s on Burrard Street. At the time Providence Health Care officials said the process could be complete by 2016 and would include the demolition of several buildings and the addition of a 10- or 11-storey tower at the corner of Comox and Thurlow streets.

We were told again in 2012, this time by Premier Christy Clark who posed for a photo op on the hospital’s rooftop garden, that the BC Liberals would invest $500 million in redeveloping the hospital’s West End site.

“This is one of the most complex healthcare projects this province has ever taken on,” Clark told reporters. “We are going to be building a new hospital on an existing site.”

“We are making today for the first time a final and absolute commitment that this hospital is going to happen,” she said.

“The money has been set aside and it is allocated. It’s in our fiscal plan. That’s better than ‘the cheque is in the mail.’”

What changed in the last three years behind which closed doors, and why?

And how will the gay community and everyone else who lives in the West End and relies on St Paul’s suffer as a result?