People from the St. Johns Hospital Board and City Officials cut the ribbon on the new Howard Keck Center at the media event in the main lobby on Wednesday morning. (photo by Brandon Wise)

MID-CITY — More than a dozen years of fundraising, planning and construction culminated in jubilation on Wednesday when Saint John’s Health Center unveiled what its officials deemed as the capstone of the new hospital.

The completion of the Howard Keck Center is considered a landmark milestone in the medical center’s efforts to rebuild its campus after reportedly more than one-third of its buildings were significantly damaged beyond repair in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, triggering what has been a major reconstruction project going 15 years and counting.

“It is truly the last phase of the rebirth of Saint John’s Health Center,” Lou Lazatin, the CEO, said during a ribbon cutting ceremony.

The 285,000-square-foot, four-story wing abuts the Chan Soon Shiong Center for Life Science, which opened in 2005, together sitting behind the old 1950s hospital that will be demolished within 30 days of the scheduled move-in date of the Howard Keck Center in September. In its place will be a parking structure and open green space.

The price tag for both centers was estimated to cost approximately $500 million, about 80 percent of which came from private donors, the biggest chunks coming from the Howard Keck Foundation and the Soon Shiong Family.

The latest addition was celebrated with an opening ceremony in the Tarble Atrium of the Howard Keck Center where 10 speakers, including Lazatin and Sister Marie Madeleine Shonka, who co-chaired the Legacy Endowment, addressed how the new hospital will further the vision of Saint John’s founders — the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth — of serving the community and its most needy population. Much of the program involved tributes to Howard Keck, who reportedly contacted Shonka immediately after the earthquake to ask how he can financially get the ball rolling on reconstruction.

“That day in January 1994 was literally the birth of what we see here today,” Rae Archibald, who chairs Saint John’s Board of Directors, said.

The new center will have 235 beds with the ability to go up to 268. Officials originally estimated that the hospital would only need around 100 beds, believing at the time that outpatient demands would be higher. When their assumptions weren’t confirmed, they later added another 100 beds, which delayed the project by another year, Greg Harrison, spokesman for Saint John’s, said.

The hospital was designed with the patients in mind, creating a tranquil environment that fosters healing and peace, utilizing natural light whenever possible and increasing efficiency by locating testing rooms closer together, he added.

Spread out over the four floors is a surgery center, critical care unit, cath lab, healing garden and an entire floor for maternity complete with large birthing suites and the Maria Shriver Nursery.

Also included in the Howard Keck Center is a chapel on the fourth floor, which has the original stained glass from the old chapel.

“We tried to maintain a bit of heritage in it,” Harrison said.

While there was much celebration over the completion of the Howard Keck Center, there was discontent across the street during the ceremony where the hospital’s nurses were protesting over a labor dispute.

The nurses have been trying to unionize over the past several years and have filed numerous grievances against Saint John’s for what they say are intimidation tactics against employees. A delegation of nurses went to the hospital to try and deliver a few hundred postcards signed by various community members in support of their efforts to form a union but were reportedly turned away by security.

The rally, which commenced with a “ribbon-tying” ceremony at the corner of Arizona Avenue and 22nd Street and later moved to Santa Monica Boulevard, was timed to be held with the ribbon-cutting.

“Saint John’s is a community hospital that has what we think lost sight of what a community hospital should be,” Elizabeth Baker-Wade, a registered nurse who has worked in the hospital’s labor and delivery unit for 10 years, said. “It has become more corporate, much less of the small community Catholic hospital that the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth came out to do.”

There’s also been growing discontent with neighbors who say they’re fighting construction fatigue, some alleging that the hospital is in violation of its development agreement with City Hall.

The neighbors recently met with city officials on Tuesday to voice their concerns over the construction impacts.

David Cole, a 10-year resident and former president of the defunct Mid-City Neighbors, said that he has always been 100 percent behind the need to rebuild the hospital, calling it a vital community resource, but believes the past dozen years of construction has been “hell on wheels.”

“Whenever you have a building project that is estimated to go on for 20-plus years — and most malls don’t take 20 years to build — you know you’re going to have impacts,” Cole said.

Bruce Leach, the special projects administrator for City Hall’s Planning and Community Development Department, said that the alleged development agreement violations pertain to the construction workers use of street parking.

Included in the development agreement is a construction mitigation plan wherein the contractor and the hospital are required to provide parking for all construction employees, he said.

“But there’s always some who don’t want to use that or show up early, finds an empty spot and parks there,” Leach said. “It’s not right, but it’s just a matter of policing it.”

The construction workers are prohibited from parking on 21st, 22nd and 23rd streets.

Harrison said that the construction company has not violated any terms of the agreement with City Hall.

Neighbors said there has been quality of life impacts in general aside from the loss of parking spaces, such as dust and emissions that they say have come their way at times.

There has also been complaints of raw sewage smell coming from the hospital, which is independent of the construction, Leach said.

He said that the state requires that the hospital maintains generators, water tanks and a sewer capacity that can function for 72 hours if the city’s system fails. Every so often, a truck comes by to vacuum the tanks, which results in the odors.

“They have done this a couple of times in the evening instead of period of time when it would have less impact on the neighborhood,” Leach said. “The hospital has taken steps to minimize that.”

The hospital is also reportedly working on a long-term fix to a problem that would cost an estimated $5 million. Harrison said that officials are looking at new technologies to improve the process.

One neighbor on Arizona Avenue has put out a sign on his lawn asking when the hospital will fix its “raw sewage problem.”

Bridgette Terry, who has lived on 22nd Street for more than 20 years, said that the construction impact has varied from bearable to bad.

She said that there hasn’t been much community outreach by the hospital.

“Overall with this 15-year process, I feel the hospital has not been really sensitive to making the neighborhood aware of what is going on,” she said.

Harrison said that Saint John’s Health Center and its contractor made an effort, holding several community meetings.

“While the meetings did not have much attendance, we have made our team available to our community,” he said. “We also provide routine updates through neighborhood bulletins, community newspapers and our Web site.”

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