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“This is the hole,” says Paulo Diaz. “It’s not that exciting of a slide. Digging this hole will take us until next year.“ He then moves to the next slide – a computer rendering of the building that will one day go into that hole: San Francisco’s new General Hospital.

The group assembled in the cafeteria of San Francisco General Hospital doesn’t look excited. Most of them are wearing scrubs, and the only slide that has generated an intensity of response is one of a hypothetical nurses’ station. “About time,” muttered a woman to her neighbor, when the image of futuristic looking pink kiosk flashed on the screen.

The group – to the casual observer, mostly staff, and neighbors with assorted grievances – had gathered for another update on the progress of the expansion of San Francisco General. The overwhelming idea taken away from the meeting is that the expansion of San Francisco General is a complicated project. Several of the buildings are historic, and can’t be altered. Preparing for the hole has necessitated the removal and relocation of all the sewer, water, steam, telecommunications, and electric infrastructure. The expansion needs to be extremely seismically stable, since the state of California has decided that it is a bad idea to have a hospital that could, in an earthquake, kill a significant percentage of the city’s medical personnel, and smash the city’s only trauma center.

“The new building will be able to float as much as 30 inches in either direction. Like it’s in a bathtub,” says Diaz. “Seven stories above ground, and two below.”

A hand goes up. “Why are the operating rooms and the doctors in the basement if there’s a disaster? They should be upstairs!”

“We and the city are going to significant expense to make it a base isolated building,” says Webcor Project Director Tom Taylor. “According to studies done in Chile the whole hospital should continue to be operational.”

Another hand goes up. “Will we be able to come and look at the seismic retrofitting in our building” I’ve seen the ones at the Hayward Museum. It has lots of shock absorbers and it’s really exciting. “

“Tours will be limited for security reasons,” is the response.

“But it will be great PR!” the voice protests. It is reassured that there will be numerous photographs of the retrofitting on view at some unspecified later date.

First, rumors need to be dispelled: “I just want to settle one thing right now,” says Todd May, Chief of Staff for SFGH. “Will this project include a helipad? There is no plan for a helipad. I’ve heard it mentioned a few times this evening. There was a prior application for a permit. It expired. There is no plan for a helipad. “

Another hand goes up. “Does ‘No helipad’ mean “No applying for a helipad permit in the future?”

“The helipad is not part of project,” says SFGH CEO Susan Currin,

Second only to the complaints about construction workers parking in the neighborhood, are the complaints about rats. “Since Webcor has begun construction,” a man in the audience says, “we have seen a tenfold increase in rats migrating from the hospital and into our community.”

“This is the first we’ve ever heard of this,” says Tom Taylor, project director at WebCor. Terry Saltz, rebuild director for the project, said that he had indeed heard of the rats and promised that the problem would be dealt with.

By the end of the update, the crowd is promised a dust mitigation squad, that the end of construction by 2015, the immediate firing of any construction worker who refuses to use the offsite parking, safety glass in the enormous glassed-in atrium of the new building (the glassiness of which seems to alarm several meeting attendees) and the re-aligning of a wheelchair ramp with a crosswalk.

The meeting ends, and several members of the crowd walk over to the back of the cafeteria, where a display of grim black and white photographs illustrates the early history of the hospital: the tuberculosis wards, the influenza epidemic. The complete and utter lack of private rooms, or windows with any glass in them at all. Probably the presence of rats, though they aren’t pictured. Suddenly, the lack of helipad doesn’t seem so bad.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. SFGH conveniently did not fully answer the question about the helipad. Their responses were in reference to the new building, which does not include plans for a helipad. What they did not fully disclose, and purposely avoided, is that the plans for the helipad are for an existing building. Shame on them.

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  2. Hi Rachael,

    Thank you very much for the corrections. They have been incorporated into the article, and I will make sure to double-check identities at the next meeting.

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  3. This story contains some inaccuracies:
    1. Todd May is the Chief of Staff who made that statement, not Jeff Critchfield.
    2. Tom Taylor of Webcor answered the complaint about rats by saying he had not heard of it before. Terry Saltz, Rebuild Director for the Hospital, followed up by saying he had heard about it, and is working with the hospital’s pest control contractor to address.
    If the reporter had identified herself, we would have been happy to make sure she had all the accurate information she needed.

    Rachael Kagan
    SFGH Director of Communications

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