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04.09.08

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Silicon Valley News Notes

Heal or No Deal

The crusty old buildings of the former downtown San Jose Medical Center are doomed to be an eyesore on Santa Clara Street until local politicians stop punishing the health-care giant that owns it for being a bad corporate citizen. Hospital operator HCA abruptly closed the center in 2004, leaving the downtown community without an emergency room. The closest hospital, HCA-owned Regional Medical Center, is two miles away and recently stopped accepting Medi-Cal for most services, making it less than ideal for senior citizens and other residents. That put extra strain on the county's Valley Medical Center. Meanwhile, San Jose leaders formed a Stakeholders Advisory Committee to figure out how to fill the sudden health-care gap. HCA spokeswoman Victoria Emmons said there's no way the old S.J. Medical Center will be the site of another hospital. Her company hopes to sell the property to a developer to make a residential or commercial complex. But that's not going to happen anytime soon. Last month, San Jose City Council members went with the advice of the committee and said the bulldozers (and demolition and rezoning permits) will have to wait until they lock in plans for a new downtown clinic. Councilmember Sam Liccardo, whose predecessor, Cindy Chavez, was in office when the hospital was shuttered, said the city is considering a few joint ventures to open a facility that offers primary and urgent care—not a full-scale emergency room, but at least downtown residents would have closer access to doctors during off-hours. Financial agreements for the facility must be signed and a new full-scale hospital site has to be identified before HCA can do anything with its land. Why the conditions? Emmons of HCA pointed out: "Should the city hold a private property owner hostage over finding another piece of property for a hospital?" The buildings of the old hospital are empty, surrounded by a chain-link fence and wasting valuable real estate. Community activist Roz Dean said the idea is to keep HCA accountable, so maybe the company will contribute more money to speed up the process (Emmons wasn't aware of any such quid pro quo). Councilmember Liccardo wouldn't say anything about financial expectations. But hinted: "Nobody benefited when [HCA] closed the hospital. We need to make land-use decisions based upon the critical needs of our community."


Fundy Games

Having been booted off the mayor's Gang Prevention Task force this year isn't keeping Councilmember Nora Campos from posturing as the city's leading cheerleader on the issue. Campos last week held a community meeting where she called on the mayor's task force to pull $200,00 from the emergency reserve funds to help target hot-spot areas in the city where there has been an increase in gang activity. She had fired off a media advisory at the end of March saying she would announce the release of the $200,000 at the meeting. Campos might be anxious to be the hero of gang violence in San Jose, but she got a reality check. For starters, councilmembers don't have the authority to tap city funds as they please, city officials said. "The charter doesn't allow councilmembers to deploy staff or budget resources other than those at the discretion of their own council office," said Michelle McGurk, press information office for Mayor Chuck Reed. Even more importantly, that $200,000 is not from reserves; it is money that has already been set aside to spend on gang prevention this summer when school is out, such as keeping the community centers open on evenings and weekends, McGurk said. But Campos, who was removed from the task force in part because the mayor said she didn't show up to enough meetings, says the mayor should spend that money now at a time when San Jose has seen a spike in homicides, said Ryan Ford, her chief of staff. "We say this is an emergency now," Ford said. "They have not done one special act to sit down with everyone and figure how to address this emergency."


Wrecked Trust

Portrait of a VTA train wreck: "People started screaming as the lights went out and the front section of the car I was in swung off the track, grinding and screeching to the left before loudly banging into one of the light rail electricity poles. The floor and the accordionlike connector on the midsection of the light rail car ripped apart, exposing sky above and the train's gears below. Everybody on the train was in shock, with many crying and a few hurt. After a short while it became apparent that nobody from the VTA was coming to help us. The doors weren't working, so all the passengers had to climb through the rip in the side of the train to get out. In a daze, we meandered on the rocks at the side of the train for about 15 minutes, freeway cars rushing by." That was how Metro intern Jessica Fromm described the March 21 light rail incident on San Jose Inside last week. She was one of 29 passengers aboard a light rail train that derailed near the Virginia station, injuring four people and blocking trains for nearly 12 hours. Fromm related how the lack of response from VTA employees and officials bordered on the ludicrous: "Desperate for some leadership, I spotted the operator walking around in front of the train. I went over to her and asked what she recommended we do. To my astonishment, she just mumbled, 'I don't know," and continued to walk away. Seeing a VTA traffic director in the distance, I jogged over to him and asked what we should do. He just continued to talk on his walkie-talkie, motioning in the direction of a light rail car sitting on the tracks about a quarter-mile away." She wondered how the scene could have been handled so incompetently, and called on the VTA to take some responsibility and make sure such a disorganized and dangerous incident doesn't happen again. Now the VTA says it suspects driver error in the accident (the train's operator and traffic director at the time of the accident were put on paid leave March 24). Since the accident, rail security measures have been noticeably stepped up, but Margaret Okuzumi, executive director of the public-transit-advocacy group BayRail Alliance, says riders like Fromm shouldn't expect much more from the transportation agency in the way of accountability. "The general culture of the VTA is not caring about riders," she says. "The VTA just seems sloppy compared to other providers."


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