Swedish Cherry Hill campus expansion – the appeal begins

This morning’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee meeting began the process of hearing the appeals of Swedish Health Services’ master plan application. Most importantly, it laid out the formal process that will follow.

As I summarized last night Swedish has spent the last five years writing and pushing through the system a new master plan for its Cherry Hill campus, which sits in the Squire Park neighborhood between First Hill and the Central District. It was reviewed by a hearing examiner, who collected and considered public input along the way – much of which is negative. Of greatest concern to the neighbors:

  • The master plan would allow Swedish to expand their square footage from the existing 1.2 million square feet with another 1.5 million, for a grand total of 2.7 million square feet. Doing so (and filling that extra space with employees and patients) will add significantly to the traffic in the area. Today Swedish is not meeting its traffic-mitigation goals; the master-plan update would lower the goal beyond where it is today, but the neighbors still have grave concerns that it will be able to reach that goal.
  • In the view of the neighbors, Swedish has not given adequate justification for more than doubling the building square footage of the campus.
  • They also argue that the proposed master plan is not consistent with Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan for development. The Cherry Hill campus is in a residential neighborhood that is not part of one of the designated “urban villages” where growth and density are intended to be focused.
  • The plan relaxes height restrictions on the site, including allowing for a 160-foot tall building in the center of the campus and a 150-foot tall building along one edge and across the street from houses.

Last fall the hearing examiner issued a lengthy report recommending approval of the master plan with a long list of conditions – over 100 of them. The neighbors didn’t believe that was good enough, and have filed seven separate appeals (though most of the issues are the same across those appeals).

Appeals of this sort trigger a special “quasi-judicial proceeding” of the City Council which must adjudicate the appeals. Today’s briefing begins that process with a short, factual briefing by city staff on the facts to-date and the procedure and timeline to be followed. On March 1, the committee will hear oral arguments from both the appellants and the respondent (Swedish), and then will begin its deliberations on March 15. If it comes to a quick decision it could vote on the outcome as soon as that meeting, or it could extend its deliberations on to the April 1 committee meeting.

As to its decision, the council has four options available to it:

  1. Adopt the master plan as recommended by the hearing examiner;
  2. Modify or further condition the master plan;
  3. Reject the master plan application outright;
  4. Remand it back to the hearing examiner for further work.

In making its decision, the council must address each appeal and rule on the validity of the points it raises.

The standard of review is “substantial evidence in the record,” meaning that if the council members believe that the hearing examiner did not adequately consider evidence they can remand it back to the hearing examiner to do so (or just do it themselves). Otherwise, if the council members agree with the hearing examiner’s recommendations they should deny the appeals move the application forward by approving it. The record at this point consists of 2300 pages, so determining what is, and isn’t, in the record itself will be quite the undertaking.

The City Council is not the final appeal; whatever it decides can be further appealed to the Superior Court. I think it’s highly likely that will happen no matter how the Council decides the matter.

It has taken five years to get to this point; while the City Council’s part will be relatively quick (it should be over by mid-April), it will hardly be painless.

You can watch today’s briefing here.