St. Luke’s Health System scored a major victory Thursday night when Ada County Highway District commissioners voted 4-1 to allow the closure of a two-block stretch of Jefferson Street — the linchpin of the hospital group’s plan to remake its Downtown Boise campus.
The decision was a bitter loss for dozens of neighbors, transportation experts and other onlookers who spent more than a year arguing that closing Jefferson Street between Avenue B and 1st Street isn’t necessary for St. Luke’s to expand, and that closing the road would cost them a popular car, bike and pedestrian connection to and through Downtown.
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Several told commissioners just that Wednesday and Thursday during a public hearing that stretched over two nights.
St. Luke’s leaders, doctors and supporters argued that, to advance the level of St. Luke’s care, the hospital needs to offer a variety of related services, such as imaging, emergency treatment and others, on the same floor, so that patients can move from one to another without changing floors or buildings.
They said the only practical way to do that is to expand the Downtown hospital northward and on top of what is now Jefferson Street. Expanding in any other direction would be too expensive, take too long to build or make the hospital a less efficient space, St. Luke’s representatives said.
Opponents of the Jefferson closure didn’t buy that. They said any suggestion that the St. Luke’s application was an either-or decision between the street and the hospital was a false choice.
“This is Boise. We can have both. We’re used to getting both,” Jane Suggs, a member of the East End Neighborhood Association’s board, told commissioners Thursday night.
Jim Hansen, the only ACHD commissioner to vote against the closure, agreed with her. He said St. Luke’s didn’t make a compelling enough case that permanently closing part of Jefferson is in the public’s interest. If a new connection, such as re-opening the same stretch of Bannock Street, which closed in the 1990s, were part of the deal, Hansen said, he could accept closing Jefferson.
Commissioner Sara Baker disagreed with people who predicted that closing part of Jefferson will ruin all of it as a bike corridor for neighbors, especially those who live in the East End. She thinks the closure will actually make Jefferson a safer and more enjoyable — if less direct — bike route. Once cyclists go around the hospital on a two-way cycle track St. Luke’s plans to build, Baker said, they’ll find Jefferson is less busy because car traffic will decrease.
St. Luke’s says it will roll out its $400 million expansion in phases over the next decade. Its timeline for breaking ground is unclear.