New hospital project on track for Albermale County, Va.

Oct. 5--After more than a year-and-a-half, Martha Jefferson Hospital's planned five-story, 452,109-square-foot new hospital is nearing its final approval.

The final site plan of the new hospital -- which will be built into a hillside on an 88-acre campus on Pantops -- was approved by Albemarle County on Sept. 25.

The hospital's foundation has submitted at least five building permits for review by the county. The permits would authorize construction of the main hospital, 10 elevators at the main facility, a three-story medical office building, two elevators for the office building and a mobile office trailer.

In all, the permits would green light a total of more than $200 million worth of construction work. Hospital administrators said they anticipate that the building permits will be finalized in the coming days. As part of the permit approval process, Martha Jefferson must pay at least $41,244.41 in fees.

"It's been a long, lengthy process working with the county, but a lot of their comments have made the project better," said James E. Haden, president of the not-for-profit Martha Jefferson Hospital. "Sometimes you grumble a bit, but at the end of the day, we have a stronger project."

Lee Catlin, spokeswoman for Albemarle County, said the county and the hospital are hammering out the final details in the building permits. One building permit has already been approved, she said.

"It's now in the building permit review stage," she said. "At this point, our staff is not anticipating that they would need to return to the Planning Commission."

In recent weeks, construction crews have toiled to prepare the site of the main hospital. Foundation work is set to begin in November and construction is expected to last somewhere between 30 and 36 months. Hospital administrators hope to have all departments moved in and operating by some point in 2012.

"We're on schedule," Haden said. "In fact, we're slightly ahead of schedule."

One hiccup along the way, however, could be the project's financing. Roughly $160 million of the new hospital's price tag will be funded via the sale of tax-exempt bonds. Haden said the turmoil on Wall Street could lead to "any number of problems" for the sale of those bonds.

"It's a wrinkle, to say the least," he said. "There's obviously a lot of turmoil in the markets right now."

Specifically how the chaos in the financial sector would affect the sale of such bonds remains to be seen, Haden said.

"We just don't know what it'll mean for us at this point," he said.

Existing property

Another major part of Martha Jefferson's relocation project also is up in the air. It is not yet known what will replace the existing hospital on Locust Avenue.

Several months ago, Martha Jefferson put out a "request for qualifications" for any firms that might want to purchase the old hospital and redevelop it. The hospital received 10 responses, four of which have been selected as finalists. This week, hospital administrators expect to contact the finalists and request a detailed proposal of their plans for the old hospital's 9-acre site.

In late February, Martha Jefferson Hospital revealed the contents of a consultant's study that sought to determine the potential uses of the property. The market study found that its prospective buyer would likely remake it as a mixed-use development with retail, residential and office space. The study also found that it would be a prime spot for a grocery store and housing geared toward seniors.

Haden said he expects proposals from the finalists by late November or early December. No decision will be made, he said, until early 2009. Haden added that any decision would come about after working with city and county officials, as well as the local neighborhood association.

Health care demand

The Charlottesville region's growing population and steady influx of retirees is increasing the demand for high-quality health care. Martha Jefferson's upgrades will help accommodate that demand, as well as ongoing expansion efforts at Charlottesville's other hospital.

The University of Virginia Medical Center is adding a Long-Term Care Hospital on Ivy Road, building a tower of more rooms onto the main hospital and constructing the Emily Couric Cancer Center and a new children's hospital facility on West Main Street.

"All this activity means that in the very near future UVa Medical Center will become a $1 billion a year health care facility -- we think that's a significant investment for our region," UVa Medical Center Vice President and CEO Ed Howell wrote in an e-mail.

"However, the bottom line is that buildings are not the key to great health care, people are. We believe our physicians, nurses, technicians and staff, who are caring for more patients than ever and are training more physicians and nurses than ever, provide the highest quality health care in Central Virginia and that will not change in 2010."

Martha Jefferson's new hospital, Haden said, will be both bigger and better.

"We're not just trying to build a new Martha Jefferson Hospital, but slightly larger," he said. "It's going to be much more flexible and poised to meet the health care needs of the 21st century."

Copyright (c) 2008, The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.