PARK SLOPE — Opponents of New York Methodist Hospital's controversial expansion scored a small victory Thursday night when the Community Board 6 land use committee voted down the hospital's variance application.
But the "no" vote doesn't pack a lot of punch — it's just a recommendation for the full Community Board 6, which will vote on the issue next month. And even that decision is only advisory. The Board of Standards and Appeals has the final say as to whether New York Methodist can build its new Center for Community Health in the shape and size it wants.
Residents slammed the proposed expansion at Thursday night's public hearing, but for the first time since the controversial development was revealed in June, a few people spoke in favor of it.
Several hospital employees, including doctors and a member of Methodist's public relations team, lined up to praise the expansion, saying it would create a "world-class" healthcare facility in the heart of Park Slope. Also voicing their approval were some locals, especially older people, who said the hospital is an asset for the aging.
But the bulk of the crowd of roughly 300 people was against project, showering applause on opponents and silence on those who spoke in favor.
Some of the biggest cheers of the night went to Bennett Kleinberg, a Fifth Street resident and leading opponent of the project. Kleinberg explained that his life was saved by Methodist doctors 10 years ago, when he spent 42 days at the hospital and three weeks in a coma battling septic shock and multiple organ failure.
The story of Kleinberg's miraculous recovery was featured in the hospital's 2004 annual report, and he dedicated a plaque in the lobby to his physicians. But even with that strong personal connection, Kleinberg, like many Park Slope residents, says the proposed facility is out of character with the neighborhood and would flood already congested streets with more traffic and people.
Kleinberg argued Thursday that Methodist's expansion wouldn't improve healthcare overall in Brooklyn, as the hospital has said. He also questioned the hospital's repeated claims that the expansion was crucial to its longterm survival.
Methodist has said the massive new facility — which would span the entire western block of Eighth Avenue from Fifth to Sixth Street, and take up half of Sixth Street — will help streamline and consolidate services and deliver more efficient care.
"This project is not about need, it's about greed," Kleinberg said. "If this project were so truly essential to the future of the hospital, why is it that not one single member of the hospital’s board or senior leadership team is siting here with us tonight?"
Other speakers contended that the new facility was simply too big for the narrow streets around the hospital. "It’s a simple mathematic equation, the bigger the building, the more people that will come, the more autos that will come," said local resident Valerie Silbersher. "It will be adding a tremendous amount of volume to an infrastructure that is overwhelmed at present."
The hospital has made changes to the proposed development based on feedback from community members, and announced on Thursday night that it had altered plans for an entrance that would be on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Sixth Street. The entrance wouldn't be open to patients during the day; only employees would have access.
Among those who voiced support for the project on Thursday were representatives for State Assemblywoman Joan Millman, State Assemblyman Jim Brennan, and City Councilman Brad Lander, who showed up to explain his position to the unhappy crowd.
Lander said his support of Methodist's expansion was shaped in part by his fight to save Long Island College Hospital in Carroll Gardens.
"LICH is failing in part because they didn't have good longterm stratetic planning," Lander said. "If we want Methodist to be able to continue for the next 100 years to function as a neighborhood healthcare institution, then we have to try to figure out how to meet them halfway."