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St Paul’s not moving, de Jong insists

Despite concerns about minister's on-air statements

St Paul’s Hospital will be redeveloped on its current site, Health Minister Mike de Jong told Xtra on June 29.

Concern about the hospital’s possible relocation resurfaced on June 21 in the wake of comments de Jong made on CKNW’s Bill Good Show regarding draft plans and a possible move.

Some listeners believed the minister’s comments meant the possibility of moving St Paul’s to a new facility on the False Creek Flats was back on the table.

“What I said and what people say I said seem to be two different things,” he tells Xtra.

Asked by Good about retaining emergency facilities on Burrard St and moving the rest of the hospital elsewhere, de Jong said, “That’s precisely what the concept plan that’s being finalized is looking at. I think all of that is potentially feasible.”

That’s not what West Enders were told in October 2010, when a preliminary plan for an onsite revitalization was presented at a community meeting led by Dianne Doyle, CEO of Providence Health Care, which runs St Paul’s.

De Jong’s reply to Good also seems to contradict former health minister Kevin Falcon, who last June told reporters that St Paul’s operator, Providence Health Care, had approached him with a plan that “would involve investing in the existing facility.”

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

De Jong says now he was merely reiterating Falcon’s position on the Bill Good Show.

The issue of possibly relocating St Paul’s arose in 2003, prompting gay people, seniors and their neighbours to form a coalition to save the hospital. Members expressed concern about the gay village losing vital healthcare services, as well as a major economic engine.

Falcon’s announcement last June brought relief to many area residents. But that relief reverted to concern after hearing de Jong’s comments on the Bill Good Show.

“The work is ongoing,” de Jong said on-air. “I’m hopeful we can move forward with this and, working with Providence Health and all the players, come to some agreement on how this is going to proceed.”

Asked to clarify those comments, de Jong says his sole goal is to find ways to maximize the existing site’s usage to defray taxpayer costs on a project that could cost half a billion to a billion dollars.

Vancouver West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert says he was “floored” by de Jong’s comments. He suggests the health minister does not know what’s happening on the St Paul’s file.

“I’ve had to correct him more than once now,” Chandra Herbert says.

As for the concept plan de Jong spoke of, Chandra Herbert says, “I’ve checked with Vancouver Coastal and I’ve checked with Providence and there is no concept plan that says that in any form.”

Providence spokesperson Shaf Hussain tells Xtra the plan presented in October is “what we’ve been working on for a few months.”

Hussain says the plan has been presented to the minister for review and Providence is waiting for government direction.

Brent Granby of the Save St Paul’s Coalition suspects de Jong either didn’t read his briefing notes or is putting the False Creek plans back on the table.

“The comments just seem so off-the-wall,” Granby says. “He wants to look for imaginative solutions for the site. That’s just another way of saying, ‘We’re going to do nothing.’

“There is a general consensus that renewal onsite is the best solution. All the players want it to be there,” Granby continues. “I don’t think they see this as a priority.”

De Jong talked on-air about maximizing the current site’s use by not confining buildings to 10 storeys, noting that nearby buildings are significantly higher. He also raised the idea of incorporating rented space for medical professionals, as well as a residential component.

“We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “I think there are some compelling reasons to look at the existing site, but I am also hopeful we can be imaginative and innovative about how we maximize the value of that site. That airspace has value. Maybe we can use it to offset some of these significant costs.”

“I thought he was talking in general terms about meeting the cost,” Hussain says. “We have to maximize and leverage the land we have.”

De Jong confirms that’s what he was talking about on the radio. “Nothing more simple than that,” he says.

Chandra Herbert again questions where the minister is getting his information, saying such a proposal runs contrary to current zoning laws in Vancouver. “I question whether he’s playing with the current debate [about towers] in the West End — playing neighbour against neighbour.”

De Jong questions whether Chandra Herbert would be in favour of public-private partnerships on the site.

Attendees at the October meeting on the hospital’s onsite revitalization were told the process could include the demolition of several buildings and the addition of a 10- or 11-storey tower at the corner of Comox and Thurlow streets.

“The facility is being designed to reflect and support the kind of care we want to provide,” Doyle said at the time. “What we’re trying to create is a new vision, a new organization that will keep us going for a long time.”