Emergency vehicle sirens blaring 24/7. A 450-bed hospital plus more than 1 million square feet of medical office space, enough to fill six-and-a-half “super centers.” And 26,687 daily car trips coming to “our neighborhood.”
“THIS AFFECTS YOU!” screams the website SaveAlton.com, which is attacking UHS’ plans for a hospital on 32 acres in Alton near Donald Ross Road and Interstate 95. “WHAT THEY’RE PLANNING WILL RUIN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD!”
SaveAlton.com, featuring a polished one-minute video, is professionally done, indicating a well-financed backer. The closest it comes to identifying itself is an “About Us” reference saying “Protect Our Neighborhoods is a group of concerned residents worried about the ramifications of a giant development in one of our neighborhoods.”
But neighbors fighting the proposal say through their attorney, Gary Brandenburg, it’s not them.
Kolter, the company building million-dollar homes on the south border of the hospital site, did not reply to a request for comment but it is unlikely to be supporting a campaign to kill a project that it started with the $32.6 million sale to hospital giant Universal Health Services a year ago.
Another potential backer of the website is one of the several existing hospitals that would compete with a new north county hospital for patients.
Medical centers have done battle in north county before. In fact, the state’s June 2013 final order rejecting a proposed 80-bed Tenet acute-care hospital in Alton is posted on the SaveAlton website.
Challenges filed then by Jupiter Medical Center, an independent not-for-profit hospital that is rapidly expanding, and Columbia Hospital (now JFK North), owned by HCA Healthcare, blocked Tenet’s 80-bed proposal in 2012.
Tenet, which owns Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center, was denied a certificate of need to build on the 70-acre tract that belonged to Scripps Florida but now is being transferred to the University of Florida.
But hospitals no longer have to go through the state’s “certificate of need” review, designed to assure they don’t overbuild and duplicate services, because the Florida Legislature scrapped it.
That means UHS just has to get Palm Beach Gardens City Council to approve. The company says the claims on the website are not accurate.
“We have worked very closely with the neighbors of this project and have received many favorable comments,” Kevin DiLallo, UHS group vice president for Florida, said in response to questions. “The neighbors have been instrumental in the site plan and design of the hospital, and we very much appreciate their input on this project. ”
Neither Tenet, HCA nor Jupiter Medical Center responded to requests for comment.
However, Jupiter Medical Center told The Palm Beach Post in March 2021, that it is confident the city “will carefully evaluate the impact a project of this magnitude, 450 hospital beds plus an additional 478,260 square feet of office space, will have on our community, its citizens, and our quality of life.”
City initially posed 234 objections
SaveAlton.com urges followers to email council members to “let them know you’re opposed to the Alton Mega Medical Development.”
Gardens Mayor Rachelle Litt said she’s received about 20 to 30 emails, all opposed to the hospital. But it could be some time before the proposal makes its way through city staff review for a public hearing before the city’s Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board, which makes recommendations to the council.
In fact, the city’s initial response to the hospital’s proposal in March listed 234 objections. Among the changes offered by UHS in a June response: It reduced the overall square footage and agreed to build just 240 hospital beds initially, down from 270.
It also provided an economic impact report saying the site would generate 3,712 local jobs with wages of $265.2 million and total annual economic output of $606.8 million a year.
Neighbors continued to object to the height of the hospital, seven stories, and its placement on the south end of the property, nearest their homes.
“It is not lost on the residents … that when it’s convenient for the developer to say ‘oh we will do that when the development expands’ … it’s an entirely different story when it comes to building a seven-story building that will initially have 190 beds, and then later 240 beds, and then later 450 beds,” Brandenburg wrote in a July 23 letter to the city.
“Perhaps if they built what’s needed, even over the next five or 10 years, they could build the building they told us they would build — three or four stories tall. Even better, they could then place that hospital, with its noise, waste and light pollution, at the north end of the parcel and build the medical office building on the southern end, near the residential community, as the city has suggested.”
Large-scale development welcomed in 2010
The huge development potential cited by SaveAlton.com stems from Alton’s original zoning, which passed the Gardens council in April 2010. It invited dense commercial development in that portion of Alton, a still-rising community of 2,700 homes and apartments.
By holding on to the rights for the huge amount of office space and the hotel, even if it does not have immediate plans to use those rights, UHS leaves itself vulnerable to the criticism raised by SaveAlton.com.
Kolter, under the name Pasteur Commercial Investments LLC, submitted initial plans for a 270-bed (expanding to 450 beds), seven-story hospital, a heliport (now termed a helistop because it would have no fueling or maintenance operations) and an 80,000-square-foot medical office building to city planners in January 2021.
A month later, Pasteur Commercial sold the property to a company controlled by UHS, which owns Wellington Regional Medical Center and two hospitals in Manatee County.
The application called for converting the massive entitlements already approved for the property to match the needs of a 450-bed hospital and up to 160,000 square feet of medical offices.
The initial zoning approval in 2010 allowed 1.03 million square feet of industrial or biotech uses, 1.2 million square feet of office uses, 300 hotel rooms and a 256-bed assisted living facility, said the application by land planners Urban Design Studio.
They would convert the biotech square footage to the hospital and 160,000 square feet of medical office space, while keeping the rights to 1.2 million square feet of office, 300 hotel rooms and 256 assisted living facility beds.
Scaled-down proposal promised
In response to questions, DiLallo said UHS would submit an updated proposal this week calling for 150 beds initially, and a maximum of 300.
The medical wing would account for just two stories. Overall, he said, the hospital would remain below the permitted height for the property, which he did not specify. UHS’ original application proposes a seven-story building and a cap of 118 feet even though it said a 150-foot building is allowed.
The company’s request for medical offices would remain at 160,000 square feet, starting with an 80,000-square-foot building. The hospital would be 880 feet from the southern property line.
DiLallo’s figures and the website differed significantly on the number of vehicle trips drawn to the development. The number would not be 26,600 but rather 5,600, he wrote, all of which were approved under the 2010 zoning.
In other words, they already have zoning for a massive project but need city approval to tailor that zoning to their needs. The proposal is not to rezone the property but to convert the original uses to the specifics of UHS’ plan.
The zoning for the parcel lists hospitals and medical offices as permitted uses and anticipates conversions, the UHS application says. It cites a 2010 city staff report that said “it is important to provide flexibility” as specific proposals come forward.
Million-dollar homes on Machiavelli Way
The homes most affected by the proposal lie along Machiavelli Way on the hospital site’s southern border.
The owner of the most homes along that stretch is KH Alton, one of the Kolter Group entities that paid $127.5 million for the 682-acre community when it was still vacant in 2013.
Of the 22 lots that back up immediately to the hospital along Machiavelli Way, 13 are listed as owned by KH Alton on the Palm Beach County property appraiser’s website.
The remaining nine homes sold there starting in 2019 for an average of $1.2 million each, property records show.
The road turns south with lots facing Interstate 95, where another 16 lots are available, of which 14 belong to Kolter, records show, and two have sold for an average of $1.4 million each.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.