Officials at a San Fernando Valley hospital urged the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday to allow construction to resume on a $180-million expansion, saying the project is caught in a legal and political quagmire that is putting emergency care and jobs at risk.
Critics of the project, which include the Service Employees International Union and a handful of neighborhood groups in Mission Hills, contended that the hospital had failed to fully address traffic, parking, safety and environmental concerns.
A judge last month ordered Providence Holy Cross Medical Center to halt work on a four-story patient care wing until the council reexamines the expansion and decides whether more environmental review is needed.
At a news conference Tuesday, hospital officials said the closure of 11 emergency rooms throughout Los Angeles County since 2002 -- including the loss of more than 400 hospital beds in the Valley -- was straining their ability to respond in a crisis.
The number of patients passing through Providence Holy Cross' emergency room each year has increased from about 29,000 to about 65,000, ER Director Kelly Kurcz said.
The hospital treated 17 passengers in the Sept. 12 Metrolink crash, which killed 25 people. Seventeen more patients were treated for injuries and illnesses from last month's wildfires. But on Tuesday, Kurcz said 23 of the hospital's 31 emergency room beds were already occupied.
"God forbid, if today was the Metrolink day, we wouldn't be able to do that," she said.
Already, the hospital is regularly turning away ambulances, she said. Although there are other hospitals that can receive the patients, she said the time it takes to reach an emergency room can be critical.
"It's really about saving people's lives, because time is life," Kurcz said.
The new wing would add 101 beds to the 250-inpatient facility, roughly half of them for emergency patients. At a time of deepening unemployment, the project would also create 250 permanent jobs and put back to work the 150 construction workers sent home since the court order was issued, said Kerry Carmody, the hospital's chief executive.
He said the building was about 20% complete and put the cost of the construction delay at about $250,000 a month.
Attorney Ted Franklin, who represents the project's opponents, accused planners of failing to provide sufficient parking for the new wing, failing to address the likely increase in traffic and failing to complete a full analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the expansion -- contentions disputed by Carmody.
Franklin said: "No one has said this isn't a good project and that it shouldn't go forward, but you can't do it without some solution to the problems."
He accused the hospital of continuing to add to the structure's steel frame in violation of the Oct. 2 court order, saying residents had seen construction workers at the site as recently as Monday.
Carmody said the only construction that had taken place since the judge's ruling was what city officials agreed was needed to stabilize the structure during the delay.
Franklin countered that the hospital had made no mention during the approval process of a potential danger to patients or passersby during the construction phase, which he said should also have been analyzed. But Carmody said it was the suspension of construction that was causing the potential hazard.
"All we are doing is what is called buttoning down the building, so that should a seismic incident happen in the next month that we don't have construction, the steel structure that has been built won't collapse," he said.
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's appointees on the city Planning Commission voted last year to approve the hospital expansion. But Franklin urged the City Council to demand an extra environmental review, a process that typically takes at least a year.
Eight of the council's 15 members voted for the review, two votes shy of the 10 votes that, under city law, are needed to overturn the commission's decision.
But a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge concluded that, under state law, the project could not proceed without the approval of a majority on the council.
Judge Thomas I. McKnew Jr. ruled Oct. 2 that the hospital must stop work until the council either approves the project with at least eight votes or orders an environmental impact report.
The council has not set a date to revisit the issue. Officials at the mayor's office were not immediately available to comment Tuesday.