‘Enlightened’ Enloe shifts to open planning process, but neighbors aren’t buying it
It was “don’t tell, ask,” as Enloe Medical Center took part this week in a charrette—an open planning exercise intending to give residents a say in the $85 million expansion planned for their neighborhood.
Almost everything is on the table, said Enloe Chief Operating Officer Dan Neumeister, even though the hospital spent two years developing a Master Plan that it then presented as essentially a done deal pending city approval.
“We obviously want to design a facility that fits into our community,” Neumeister said in an interview. “I think we’ve been on a journey, to be honest with you. … The way we were doing things was obviously not getting us to where we needed to be as a neighborhood.”
Some neighbors were skeptical that Enloe really meant it when it came to using citizens’ input. Even as design team leader Seth Harry laid out “ground rules” of respect and good listening, a couple of participants interrupted with sharp words and accusing tones.
“I thought a charrette was an open dialogue about a project, and this is not an open dialogue,” said Melinda Vasquez, after Harry revealed that the location of the project, including the tower overlapping Magnolia Avenue, is not up for debate.
“It’s two years too late,” Vasquez elaborated later. “They’re only doing this [charrette] because they had 50 angry people who stopped it. They thought they could push their way through this.”
But neighbors gritted their teeth and gathered around tables at the Masonic Family Center on June 20, where aerial maps of the existing neighborhood had been covered with tracing paper as part of the event co-sponsored by the Chico Avenues Neighborhood Association. CANA member Kasey Merrill, a frequent critic of the expansion, leaned over a map with Sharpie pen in hand, explaining how Enloe employees could be shuttled to work from an off-site parking area. Across the table, Enloe CEO Phil Wolfe stroked his chin thoughtfully.
The following day, Merrill was still skeptical but reluctant to undermine the new, more-open approach to planning. “I’m encouraged that the process is going on,” she said.
Developer Tom DiGiovanni, of New Urban Builders, is hopeful the charrette will bring Enloe and its neighbors together and elicit a design that honors the area. “I’m here simply to observe,” he said. “When I proposed the idea to Enloe they were open to it, and I asked [2nd District Supervisor] Jane Dolan to propose the idea to the neighborhood.”
DiGiovanni, who had served on the hospital’s planning committee, was disappointed with some elements of Enloe’s Master Plan and proposed the charrette at his expense. “I felt it would be a shame if the best alternatives weren’t on the table for the eventual discussion,” said DiGiovanni, who coincidentally purchased the Bruce Road property that Enloe had originally set aside for a new hospital before deeming it too expensive.
Harry, a Washington, D.C.-based traditional-neighborhood developer, opened the weeklong charrette by sharing the benefits of walkable, compact neighborhoods that predate the post-World War II trend toward cul-de-sacs, shopping center pods and urban sprawl.
“Our principal strategy and approach is to [come up with a design that] respects the integrity of the neighborhoods around it,” Harry said. The challenges, he said, include finding a way to push most of the activity toward The Esplanade to “minimize its intrusion into the neighborhood as much as possible.”
Harry showed pictures of a commercial project in which townhouses were built to surround a large parking garage and buffer it from an existing neighborhood. Enloe could do that, Harry suggested, and use the townhouses for office space much as it is now using the residences it has bought up around the neighborhood. The townhouses, he said, “would approximate the scale and look of the existing homes.”
Enloe leaders say the only things off-limits are choosing a different site altogether or moving the tower from its planned location adjacent to the existing hospital.
“The location of the midrise level is important to the hospital from a design standpoint,” Neumeister said, both because it keeps the most imposing parts of the structure together and because it will allow the hospital to remain open during construction. Since most of the design costs have been in the tower, Enloe is not as invested against tweaking other parts of the Master Plan.
Neighbors hope that, if the hospital must expand at its current location, it could be kept from fronting Arcadian Avenue.
Brenden Vieg, the senior city planner in charge of the Enloe project, said that there are few changes that would reset the entire environmental-review process. It’s possible, he said, that the addition or deletion of elements of the already-proposed Master Plan could require the environmental-impact report to be recirculated, if, under the California Environmental Quality Act “new impacts are identified.”
However, he said, “the overall belief in this [charrette] is that we are reducing impacts.”
The Master Plan design, intended to serve Chico’s health care needs through 2025, would take the hospital, which was first erected in 1913, to a 346-bed facility, nearly doubling its current size to 436,201 square feet. Two large parking garages and a helicopter area would be among the additions.
As neighbors, along with city and county leaders who also attended, sketched on the maps, several issues made their way to the top, including: traffic circulation, the two imposing parking garages and the closure of Magnolia. Neighborhood character is key, most agreed, and that includes green space, on-street parking and pleasing architecture.
Ed McLaughlin jotted some notes but said, “I’m really cynical. I didn’t want to participate. My neighbors peer-pressured me.” He pointed to the words “Trust = Ø” penned on the map. “I don’t trust Enloe.”
Neumeister said if neighbors are still skeptical after the charrette, the proof will be in the results.
“We’re excited. The hospital is really here to listen and see what kinds of ideas we can come up with and bring four or five to the top,” Neumeister said. “I’m fairly optimistic about artistic solutions.
“I value people’s time too much to waste it.”
If Enloe is just going though the motions, the neighbors have a Plan B. “We can participate,” said Jeanne Ertle, who lives on Citrus Avenue, and “if we don’t like what comes out at the end of this, we can take it to the City Council.”