CINCINNATI -- A divided City Council approved a zoning change to allow Cincinnati Children's Hospital to build a $550 million expansion Wednesday despite opposition from two council members and the Avondale Community Council.
City Council first rejected a motion by Yvette Simpson and Wendell Young to force the hospital to invest another $14 million in Avondale in exchange for the zoning change.
The hospital had rejected their demands, calling the motion "deeply disappointing" and "not acceptable" in a letter to city leaders Tuesday night. President and CEO Michael Fisher said the motion "came as a complete surprise." Fisher reiterated the hospital's stated commitment to the Avondale community and added that the hospital had tried to meet individually with each member of City Council about the project.
In a brief interview with WCPO following the meeting, Fisher said, "Our institution's hopes and my hopes for Avondale and especially for the children of Avondale would be the hopes I have for every child -- that they have opportunities for good health and opportunities to have success in life and that the neighborhood is safe and vital and supportive of their growth and development. We work hard at that every day, and not just inside the walls of the hospital and with a range of partners and citizens."
The hospital has already committed $11 million for housing and neighborhood improvements in Avondale over the next five years.
READ Fisher's entire letter below.
Simpson defended her motion in a statement before Wednesday's vote and again during the special council meeting.
"We have significant needs in Avondale and our capital dollars are committed in the near future. So I made a request of Children’s to help, thinking they would, as we and Avondale did, say no problem. I have not and will not apologize for fighting for more for our community," Simpson said. "I have done this in neighborhoods across our city."
Here are my comments that I gave on the floor of City Council prior to the vote on Cincinnati Children's Hospital... https://t.co/V3ULG04Ptv
Simpson said Children's should do more for Avondale residents - especially the children.
"They sit in a neighborhood that has an average income of $22,000. People ask who is responsible for that. We all are responsible for that," Simpson said. "As a caring community, we should be asking more - what can we do do eliminate that inequity - which I believe is one off the biggest issues facing our city."
"Around the hospital that is world renowned for the care it gives to children, you hear other people say are children's health conditions that mirror some Third World countries. I don't find that acceptable. Neither do the children of Avondale," Young said.
The zoning change passed 6-3 with Simpson, Young and Charlie Winburn against. The motion for another $14 million for housing, health and anti-poverty measures was defeated 5-4 with Chris Seelbach joining Simpson, Young and Winburn in a failed effort to pass it.
Council Members Kevin Flynn and David Mann questioned the legality of Simpson's motion, arguing that a zoning change had to be judged on its merits, not whether the people or institution seeking the change would be willing to pay more money for it.
"This attempted extraction - and I won't use the word extortion here - of money in exchange for rezoning is illegal, immoral and unconscionable," Flynn said.
Avondale residents spoke in opposition
The expansion, which includes a new emergency room and 10-story patient tower, would reroute Erkenbrecker Street and mean the demolition of a dozen or so houses.
Sandra Lynch, 69, said she's a homeowner in Avondale and has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. She fears that the expansion will raise her property taxes.
"I want to be able to afford the taxes on my house in the future," she said.
Edith Thrower, speaking on behalf of the Cincinnati chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said tearing down homes where black residents live in a black-majority neighborhood continues a pattern of gentrification that is "corrosive" to the neighborhood.
"By taking away homes, you displace families and by displacing families, you have a corrosive effect on one black community after another," she said.
"It seems only the budget of this Goliath project matters to council members, not the further destruction of our black neighborhood," said Patricia Milton, president of the Avondale Community Council.
Mayor John Cranley, a supporter of the project, pointed out that Children's has been talking with community members about the project for two years and through multiple public meetings.
"To suggest that Children's hasn’t reached out is not true. It’s easy to say for people who haven’t been at the meetings," he said. "It plays into an old narrative. It doesn’t make it right.
"Children's is literally providing primary health care for the poorest residents of our city free of charge — including 2,200 residents of Avondale. Are hospitals who have left the city doing that?"
Cranley said he has watched two hospitals -- Bethesda and Jewish -- move their main campuses out of the city limits, and he decried criticism of Children's, which he said is part of the solution to poor health in low-income neighborhoods, not a problem.
"We’ve provided financial assistance to Mercy to locate (a facility) in Bond Hill, provided TriHealth assistance to locate in Walnut Hills," he said. "This is a case where Children's has not asked for any money from the city but wants to invest half a billion dollars in the city. This is a good thing in my opinion.
The expansion will fill much of the block bordered by Erkenbrecher, Burnet, Hearne and Wilson avenues, north of its two existing patient towers. The plan also includes a 1,100-car parking garage expansion.
It is projected to create up to 600 new jobs and accommodate a 26 percent increase since 2009 in the number of children spending the night at the hospital.
Work on the expansion is scheduled begin this fall and take five years to complete.