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Residents contest Geisinger expansion in Scranton zoning ordinance

Haley O'Brien
View of GCMC from Colfax Avenue in Scranton.

A new zoning ordinance that includes expansion plans for Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton has residents speaking up.

Scranton City Council plans to vote on a new ordinance on Tuesday, April 25th, for the first time since 1993. The proposed ordinance is for the whole city, but what has people talking is the changes to properties on Colfax Avenue near GCMC, where the health system hopes to build another hospital building and parking garage.

Geisinger representatives hosted a public presentation before a public hearing at City Hall on Tuesday, April 18. Healthcare professionals stressed the dire need for expansion, and people who live near the hospital asked the City Council not to pass the ordinance.

“People speed on their way to work,” one resident said, after showing council members an image from a recent car accident.

Residents who spoke during public comment also brought up concerns about lights, property value, and the disturbances of construction. Neighbors worry they will lose sunlight and it will affect their quality of life.

An online petition against the development has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

Geisinger says the project is necessary to expand ER services. On April 1st, Moses Taylor closed its emergency department.

According todata from the Department of Health, Moses Taylor reported 32,695 ER visits and 4,143 inpatient admissions from the ER in 2021. GCMC anticipates a 30% increase in daily admissions if one half of Moses Taylor’s annual emergency services patients are absorbed.

Dr. Steve Brunetti is an emergency medicine physician and an owner of the staffing group that has been recruiting and hiring employees at Geisinger Community Medical Center since 1998.

“The most valuable resource in an emergency department is not a board certified emergency physician, it is not an emergency medicine specialty RN, it is not the specialty staff that assist us in the care of our emergency patients,” he said. “The most valuable resource in emergency medicine is the bed.”

He says patients wait hours for a bed in the emergency department, sometimes on an ambulance stretcher.

"We have makeshift areas we've made up. We've put up areas in closets. We've done exams in bathrooms," he said. "We've been struggling for years with a small geographic footprint... We see 53,000 people a year in our emergency department."

Over the last few years, Geisinger bought land on 400 Colfax Avenue where Audubon School used to stand, and property on the other side of GCMC, on the 200 block of Colfax. The plan includes demolishing the parking garages and a medical office building on the 300 block of Colfax Avenue to expand the existing hospital.

Don King is Scranton’s City Planner.

“The ordinance doesn’t give them approvals, but it sets forth the envelopes in which they’re allowed to build in,” he said. “I think that probably the most contentious thing now is the height of the buildings.”

Tim Schwartz, President of the Hill Neighborhood Association, has been attending weekly meetings with other residents for about a year.

“It’s that significant to the residents,” he said. “The people who live in that neighborhood have been living there for 40, 50, 60 years.”

He says the group wants the zones to remain residential, but they proposed a compromise, asking that the new structures will not exceed 45 ft., the height of a 3-story home.

“What they’re asking is that the structures that are going to be built there would mirror the height of the houses in that area, instead of towering over them,” Schwartz said.

The height on 400 Colfax Ave. has been restricted to 45 ft., while the property on 200 Colfax Ave. is zoned for 100 ft. structures; similar to the height of the existing hospital and parking garage on the 300 block.

If and when the ordinance is passed, studies will be done to determine the specifics of the project. For that reason, many questions asked by Scranton City Council members and the public couldn't be answered.

"If you're going to build a parking garage in the 400 block, is that the best place to build a parking garage?" said Doug Heller, who lives two blocks from GCMC. "Can you look into digging down versus build up? Probably gonna be an issue, because you've got mines under these areas... so then I think you have to build it to a certain level, and you truly have to honor all your promises with respect to, you know, not casting shade on someone permanently, having curb appeal, et cetera."

“What they’ve told us is that they can’t develop their final plans until they know what the zoning is,” King said.

Geisinger officials predict that the planning process will take 12 to 18 months. They could not answer how many beds will be in the new hospital or how many parking spots will be created. Representatives say the goal is to free up the parking spots at Nay Aug Park that hospital employees currently use.

“Assuming the zoning ordinance is approved, they would submit a development package to us, a land development plan that would have to go before the planning commission,” King said. “That’s when the stormwater management, traffic, those types of things are reviewed. It’s more of an engineering review.”

Schwartz from the Hill Neighborhood Association says concerned residents will not back down if the height for the 200 block of Colfax isn’t amended.

“If the zoning passes as is, I think there’s gonna be a fight,” he said.

State Representative Bridget Kosierowski urged City Council to put healthcare first.

"It is going to change the makeup of neighborhood, and I understand that," she said. "But the risk of losing accessibility to good, quality, healthcare I believe is much larger."

City Council plans to vote on the 2023 Proposed Zoning Ordinance on April 25.

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