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(photo by Brandon Wise)

COLORADO AVENUE — There were voices raised, frustrated expressions and deep sighs.

They were all there during a contentious two-hour meeting on Wednesday between officials with Saint John’s Health Center and neighbors regarding the past, present and future of construction at the Catholic hospital, a more than decade-long campus rebuilding project that has led to strained relations with nearby residents.

The meeting was held to update the community on the demolition of the old hospital — South Tower — and address a long list of grievances by neighbors, including the smell of raw sewage, shortage of parking, and noise and traffic impacts from the construction of the recently completed Howard Keck Center this summer and adjoining Chan Soon Shiong Center for Life Sciences in 2005.

The $500 million construction project came following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which significantly damaged beyond repair more than one-third of the buildings on the hospital campus. The new Howard Keck Center will have 235 beds with the ability to go up to 268.

LaTisha Starbuck, the vice president of mission and ethics, said that the opening of the center will be delayed as the hospital has faced challenges receiving licensing because of complications from the California budget crisis, which has reduced staff at the permitting agency. She estimates the move-in date to be in the middle of October and the center to be operational by the end of that month.

The demolition of the South Tower is scheduled for May 2010 and work will begin on landscape features in June of next year.

The hospital has been criticized for a lack of communication with the community for recently holding a neighborhood meeting during a weekday afternoon. Starbuck said the hospital is making a concerted effort to improve communication.

“We really have been an integral part of this neighborhood and community for 67 years,” she said. “We love Santa Monica and want to be good neighbors.”

One of the biggest issues for residents has been the raw sewage smell that wafts from the hospital when a truck comes to vacuum the tanks where the waste collects. Neighbors have contended that a design flaw in the hospital’s sewage system has led to the problem.

Greg Harrison, the director of marketing and business development, said that there isn’t a design flaw.

“Rather the sewage system that was approved and selected for the construction of the two new buildings uses technology where sewage is collected in tanks then pumped into the city sewage system,” he said on Thursday. “The Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development mandates that a hospital be capable of storing 72 hours of sanitary waste in an event such as an earthquake.”

Hospital officials said they are looking to rectify the problem.

The sewage smell has been the main cause of concern for Steve Sahagun, who has lived in the neighborhood off and on for half a century and for the past several years has put out a sign on his lawn complaining about the odor.

Sahagun said he was told by an employee of the construction company about four years ago that the problem was in the design of the system.

“It reeked horribly,” he said.

Neighbors have also complained that the tanks were being emptied on Sunday evenings when residents are at home and the smell just sits in the air.

Hospital officials also announced that the construction of the parking garage, which was to be located in place of the South Tower, was going to be postponed for 10 years because of cost concerns. That portion of the project was originally budgeted for $30 million.

“We also want to develop a parking solution that best meets the needs of the hospital, the city and our visitors and integrates Saint John’s and the city’s long-term development plans,” Harrison said.

Parking has been a concern among neighbors who allege that construction workers have been leaving their cars on the street. The development agreement includes a construction mitigation plan that requires the contractor and the hospital to provide parking for all construction employees who are prohibited from parking on 21st, 22nd and 23rd streets.

David Cole, who has lived near the hospital for 10 years, said that he was shocked to hear that the parking garage would be delayed for another decade.

“The removal of parking is historic and stunning,” Cole said.

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