Ottawa hospital parking battle shows not all giant lots are evil

David Reevely: A battle over how much parking Ottawa’s new Civic hospital campus should have highlights how hard it is for patients and medical staff to ditch their cars
By David Reevely - Published on Oct 26, 2016
The current Civic hospital campus in Ottawa is nearly 100 years old. (Francis Vachon/CP)

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Ontario's future, at least in the urban south, is supposedly in compact developments where people rely as much as possible on transit, biking and walking to get around. The car is a necessary evil at best. 

But our multibillion-dollar publicly funded health centres seem to be bucking that thinking, and the same provincial government that’s sinking money into transit lines and cycling strategies also ordered hospitals to freeze their parking rates last January, because they’d become a barrier to medical treatment.

Also on the side of the car: the executives planning a new campus for Ottawa’s elite health centre, who maintain no modern hospital can be built without thousands of parking spaces.

The Ottawa hospital planners are looking for about 25 hectares (60 acres) of land to build a new home for century-old Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital, on the southwestern edge of downtown. A third of that is for parking lots and the internal roads to serve them — enough to accommodate 3,400 parking spaces, and take up nearly as much room as the preliminary plans allot for the futuristic hospital building itself.

They aren't the only ones.

In Windsor, a new regional hospital is planned for an open field south of the city airport, where a building will be completely surrounded by parking. In Collingwood, the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital board has tentatively picked a spot for a new building on Poplar Sideroad, well outside town — making it car dependent.

Most of the time, the only way to discourage driving is to make it expensive or inconvenient. Pay through the nose for parking or accept that it’s going to take a long time to get where you’re going. Don’t like it? Tough.

But many health care providers don’t want to say that to sick people or their loved ones.

"Many patients who drive to the hospital for follow-up care are recuperating from serious illness or have a chronic illness,” the Ottawa Hospital’s line goes. "Many visitors are rushing to the Civic campus to see a loved one who has suffered a critical injury … The hospital can’t be put in a position where there isn’t enough parking and creates a stressful experience for patients and visitors.”

The hospital currently leases 1,200 parking spaces for employees down the road from the campus, so they don’t clog up the limited parking close to the building, and runs staff shuttle buses. Even so, there’s a parking shortage, so much so that the hospital has hired car jockeys to pack more vehicles into its existing lots and keep patients from missing appointments because they can’t find anywhere to park.

The Ottawa Hospital also has a 30-year lease on a piece of city land it uses for a surface parking lot for patients and visitors next to the existing Civic building, holding 270 cars. Three years ago it asked for permission to build a multilevel garage there, with room for nearly 750. Neighbours were angry, not just about a new building going up near their houses, or the additional traffic, but because the building would dim their hopes of putting a park on that parcel of land when the hospital's lease is up.

Couldn't people take transit? Not really. That parking lot is mainly for the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, part of the Civic campus and also affiliated with the Ottawa Hospital. Its patients come from across Eastern Ontario and West Quebec, and beyond. By definition most of the Heart Institute’s patients aren't up to walking long distances.

The city approved the garage. 
Besides the Heart Institute, Ottawa’s Civic is home to the region's only adult Level 1 trauma centre — that’s what brings those people rushing to see injured loved ones. A collection of facilities like these, with health care professionals who are among the best in the world at what they do, is the model for the redevelopment: The new Civic will hold the sickest of the sick, many of whom will stay there a long time, while more routine cases will be pushed out to other community hospitals.

As it is, the Civic serves more people from Ottawa’s far-flung suburbs than from its core. Those suburbs have so-so transit service at best, and that’s not expected to improve for more than a decade, as the new rail system is built from the downtown core out.

The planners can point to other examples of hospitals that are hanging onto parking as part of their plans for the future. Seattle Children’s Hospital has a renowned “transportation demand management plan” with very aggressive targets for reducing staff driving. Free transit passes and shuttles to major stations, reductions in staff parking — even free bikes for employees who promise to use them to get to work. It’s been a huge success, cutting the proportion of staff who drive to work in half, to 38 per cent, over 20 years.

But that doesn’t, in their view, eliminate the need for parking — lots of it. The hospital is currently working on an expansion to take it up to 600 beds, the same number as the Ottawa Hospital expects the new Civic to have. The plan includes 3,100 parking spaces.

Even hiding the 3,400 spaces at the Civic hospital, or making the parking more compact, won’t be easy. Consultants estimate that surface parking for the 3,400 cars would cost $16 million. Multilevel parking garages would cost $100 million. Putting it all underground would cost $291 million.

That’s money the provincial government won’t supply. The health ministry pays for hospital buildings themselves and the equipment to fill them, but not even all of that: the hospital expects to raise about $400 million for the project, in its biggest donation campaign ever. The planners aren't eager to add tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to that for more compact parking, especially when the same fundraising could bring in money for MRI machines.

So the hospital is stuck. Unless it wants to take a giant risk with a $2-billion health care redevelopment, it needs the parking spaces. Unless it wants to pay money it doesn’t have to hide them, they’ll be spread out on the surface. The only real question is where they’ll go.

David Reevely is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.

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