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Hospital May Be Forced to Move

South Coast Medical Center, Laguna Beach's only hospital, must do a costly quake retrofit but lacks space. Mayor fears the city will be isolated.

August 10, 2003|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

South Coast Medical Center may move out of Laguna Beach because of the high cost of a state-mandated earthquake retrofit and a lack of space to expand.

Gary Irish, president and chief executive officer, said no decision has been made, but that hospital officials have looked at property near Pacific Coast Highway and Interstate 5 at the Dana Point-San Juan Capistrano border.

The potential move is being spurred by the requirement that hospitals across the state meet stricter earthquake safety standards by Jan. 1, 2008.

To comply, South Coast would have to spend $52 million to replace the six-story tower where overnight patients stay, Irish said this week.

The hospital would also incur costs to upgrade seven other buildings, most of them two stories.

A new hospital, Irish said, would cost at least $100 million, including the land -- money the hospital would have to raise through the sale of bonds and donations.

Irish said he did not know when a decision would be made.

"We'll be working through the process in the next year," he said.

The hospital has applied for a five-year extension of the deadline to meet the earthquake standards.

The thought of Laguna Beach's only hospital leaving town is anathema to Mayor Toni Iseman.

"The community has to do everything it can to keep the hospital in Laguna," Iseman said. "We could be very isolated if you look around and see how far away we are from the next place to receive emergency medical care."

The nearest alternatives are Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo and San Clemente Hospital and Medical Center.

Building a new hospital tower at the current location, on Coast Highway three miles south of central Laguna Beach, presents other problems, Irish said. Laguna Beach limits buildings to three stories.

The city annexed the hospital after it was built.

Because a replacement for the 208-bed tower can't rise as high, it would have to be spread out, forcing the demolition of other buildings.

Which leads to another problem Irish foresees: lack of space at the 11-acre site. "All the available space on our campus is pretty much occupied with buildings or parking, so we have limited growth potential," he said.

A new medical center would need at least 20 acres, he said.

Since South Coast opened in 1959, the population it serves has grown dramatically. The medical center was intended to serve Laguna Beach, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente, Irish said. In those days, Dana Point and Laguna Niguel didn't exist.

Irish said that doctors whose offices are inland can't afford to lose the time driving to South Coast to see patients. Other hospitals, he said, are closer to Interstate 5, making it easier for doctors to get there.

The nonprofit hospital is owned by Adventist Health in Roseville, which is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Adventist also owns White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles and Glendale Adventist.

Hospitals throughout the state are facing similar problems meeting the state retrofit deadline.

UC Irvine, for example, decided it would be less expensive to build a new hospital than to retrofit the one in Orange.

The new buildings will cost about $365 million. UCI must raise $50 million, with the rest coming from reserves and state bonds.

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