Out of character. Disruptive. A vanity project. Just few of the terms launched at a team of five from Lenox Hill Hospital — likely representing for several million dollars in salary from an organization that doesn’t pay a penny in taxes — as they refused to budge on their plans to add a monstrous new 43-story tower to the Upper East Side hospital that would only increase its patient capacity by 25 beds, despite 11 painful years of construction. On the other side of last night’s zoom meeting: actual Upper East Side residents.
“Look it’s very obvious… The big issue here is your Lexington Avenue building is too big.” said Michele Birnbaum, a member of Community Board 8, during Tuesday night’s ’s Zoning and Development Committee meeting.
“Nobody wants it that big. It’s too much bulk. It’s too much area. It’s too high. It’s too everything. Nobody wants it. That’s what this comes down to,” Birnbaum explained to Lenox Hill Hospital’s team, which spent more than four hours insisting that they couldn’t alter the unwelcome project and needed neighbors on board with plans to give the LHH a special permit to build a monstrosity that isn’t permitted under current law.
“We are ensconced in this neighborhood and we’re not coming before you asking to make some massive expansion in terms of our patient beds,” explained Northwell Health’s Senior Vice President for Government Affairs John Flanagan, getting defensive more than an hour into Tuesday night’s meeting.
“We’re asking for a nominal increase that relates to need,” he added, ignoring the fact that their project will more than double the physical size of the hospital located on East 77th Street, between Lexington and Park Avenues, to a staggering 1.4 million square feet of space, despite marginally increasing the number of beds, as Upper East Site first revealed last month.
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Lenox Hill Hospital’s team, including Mr. Flanagan, Executive Director Dr. Daniel Baker, Melanie Meyers, an attorney and partner at high-powered law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, Tomas Rossant, a design partner from Ennead Architects, and a fifth person representing Northwell’s construction partner who did not identify himself, continued their stubborn stance throughout the meeting, despite outrage by neighbors.
“On Lexington Avenue the maximum height is 175 feet and they are proposing 436,” explained Community Board 8 member Marco Tamayo, who himself is an architect.
“[The tower] could form a brutal, brutal vertical wall, creating a gorge in the middle of a residential district, whose residents who live in a semi-darkness environment at the base of this oppressive walled gorge forever.”
This massive physical expansion comes mainly through the elimination of double-occupancy patient rooms and the creation of sprawling single-occupancy suites, with 15 foot ceilings and which, at 345 square feet each, are larger than most studio apartments on the Upper East Side.
“I actually want to thank the Northwell staff who are here, who have basically just explained what one of the reasons why the cost of health care in this country continues to increase substantially without actually changing outcomes,” said Community Board 8 member Elizabeth Rose.
“There is a difference between we need this space because it will make people have a better experience in the hospital and we need this space because it will change the outcome of the medical care,” explained Rose, “The increase in the scale of this building is disproportionate to the improvement in medical outcomes that will result.”
Somehow, the Lenox Hill reps say these massive patient rooms will result in a higher cost to the patient, insurance companies, Medicare or Medicaid.
“This is not an opportunity to somehow increase the overall cost of care to our patients or to try and drive a bigger profit based on single patient rooms,” said Dr. Baker, defending the gigantic patient rooms needed upgrades.
“This is all value to the patient. It says about better clinical care, better experience and better quickness to bed,” Dr. Baker added.
However, when Upper East Site inquired about the current cost differences between single and double-occupancy rooms at LHH, a spokesperson said they could not comment.
Missing from Tuesday night’s presentation was any proposal for how to mitigate the noise from more than a decade of construction at the hospital, which is surrounded by residential buildings, as well as a plan for how the construction of the 43-story tower could be completed over Lexington Avenue’s narrow roadway, which already includes a bus lane, and is typically blocked by double-parked trucks on a normal day.
“This building is just out of character with the neighborhood,” said Upper East Sider Mike Byowitz, “It’s way too tall.
“I think that I would really implore the the Lenox Hill Hospital group to put yourself in our shoes who have to live through 11 years of pounding and drilling and not once have I heard on this call, what the mitigation strategy is for the thousands of families and young children that live here that need to travel the roads,” said Shirley Roaming, speaking during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting.
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Because the project requires a change in Hospital lot’s zoning, as well as a change to zoning law — and even the creation of a special permit unlike anything else within City regulations — Lenox Hill Hospital will have to go through the City’s Universal Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, a lengthy process by which the hospital will be required to seek input from stakeholders and gain the approval of the City Council and Mayor Eric Adams.
“There isn’t a way to shoehorn a  foot structure into a dense residential community,” said Stacy, a longtime Upper East Side resident, “It’s not a mere request for a variance, it would be destructive rezoning of our neighborhood because of the scale and density of the proposed tower.”
“For the past 20 years, I’ve lived here and Northwell has let some of their hospital buildings crumble and sit idle. Where have you been for the past 20 years?” Stacey asked pointedly, “I have never seen anyone cleaning the sidewalks. It is rife with debris from your hospital. Just because you’ve been here doesn’t mean you need to stay here.”
Plans presented Wednesday night are quite similar to those submitted four years ago, however, a controversial residential tower planned to go up along Park Avenue has been scrapped and the height of the hospital tower has been reduced by 80 feet. The changes were not nearly enough for Upper East Side residents and former Community Board 8 members who vividly remember the last proposal — and why it was a non-starter.
“The real question on Lexington Avenue is zoning and it’s 175 feet on Lexington Avenue,” said Elaine Walsh, a former Community Board 8 member who served when Lenox Hill Hospital previously proposed a gigantic hospital tower, “They know that, but they think [they] are pulling whatever they can to get what they want.”
“Whatever your answers have been, haven’t been satisfactory to me as to this issue of balancing the tension that comes with space,” explained CB8 member Ed Hertzog.
Despite Tuesday’s meeting being packed with more than two hundred people — including a large number of Northwell Health physicians — only two members of the public spoke in favor of Lenox Hill Hospital’s massive tower.
One read a letter on behalf of a union construction worker from East Harlem who is in favor of the jobs the project would bring and another who defend the expansion using incorrect information.
Lenox Hill Hospital’s first meeting with the NYC Department of Planning is scheduled for this Thursday, March 2nd at 2:00.
The City did not make it easy to find instructions on how to join the meeting, so what you can do is click here, then filter events by date (March 2nd) to find the ‘City Planning Scoping Meeting for Lenox Hill Hospital.’ Feedback can be emailed by clicking here.
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