Built strong and with a purpose, health facilities can be difficult to transform to new uses after they are abandoned
April 8, 2010 4:00 AM
Dennis Holmes, 58, of McKeesport, who lost his vision two years ago, cooks spaghetti in the kitchen of the Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh with direction from Ann Nicholson, a rehabilitation instructor. The Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services is in the former Homestead Hospital.
Open house at Aliquippa Hospital on May 5, 1957.
Eileen Bender, left, a rehabilitation instructor, gives directions to Diane Machen, 32, of Plum as she works on a balance beam at the Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh in the former Homestead Hospital. Ms. Machen lost her vision in a car accident in 2008.
An undated view of Homestead Hospital.
Dixmont State Hospital in April, 1984.
Mayview State Hospital in February, 1962.
The Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services is in the former Homestead Hospital.
Monsour Medical Center on Feb. 23, 1979.
By Len Barcousky Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hospitals, like churches, are built to last.
They have sturdy floors, engineered to support heavy equipment but difficult to drill through for new wiring and plumbing. To reduce the risk of fire -- always a greater danger anywhere oxygen is being used -- many older buildings were fireproofed with asbestos.
Like churches, they were well designed for their original purpose, but their unique features often make them difficult to adapt for new uses.
That has meant problems in places, such as Aliquippa and Jeannette, where closed hospitals have sat empty for several years. As Pennsylvania has shut down its sprawling state hospitals, including Dixmont, in Kilbuck, and Mayview, mostly in South Fayette, creative reuses for their buildings and land have been hard to identify.
Those issues have been raised again in Braddock, where UPMC closed its affiliated hospital on Jan. 31. The health conglomerate and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato have proposed demolishing the existing structure and replacing it with a privately developed office complex and senior citizens housing. That plan has divided the community, with opponents arguing that UPMC, at the least, should maintain emergency services in the borough.
The former Homestead Hospital, however, offers one success story.
Its campus is on West Street, near the Homestead and Munhall boundary. When it closed in 2000, it had been affiliated with what is now Jefferson Regional Medical Center.
The property has had several different health-related uses under different owners since that time. In recent years, the campus has served two social service agencies, Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services and Turtle Creek Valley's Homestead House. Homestead House provides services to people with mental health and mental retardation problems.
"We've been lucky that the buildings have not been vacant," said Cindy Alexander, Homestead's borough manager. "West Street is a heavily traveled road, and you don't want to see a blighted structure in the middle of town."
Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services operates in the original Homestead Hospital building. It occupies about 50,000 square feet on several floors. Much of the building's interior had to be gutted, according to James Baumgartner, the agency's interim executive director.
Little remains that reveals the structure's previous use, he said. What had been the hospital's main kitchen and cafeteria has been converted into offices and classrooms where clients with serious vision problems are taught new skills. They include learning how to cook safely as they follow recorded, rather than written, recipe directions, Mr. Baumgartner said.
The agency had operations in Bridgeville and Oakland. Among other advantages, the West Street location offers more room to drop off and pick up clients safely, he said.
The former Aliquippa Community Hospital was known as Aliquippa Commonwealth Medical Center when it shut down in December 2008. At the time of its closing, it had served the city for 51 years. Local officials hope that the site may find new life as a nursing home or free-standing emergency room.
C.J. Betters Enterprises, a Beaver County developer, has acquired the property, Mayor Anthony Battalini said. Elected officials have met in recent months with the developer to discuss possible new uses but no decisions have been announced.
Company officials couldn't be reached for comment.
Hospital properties can stay vacant for years. The Monsour Medical Center, a landmark along Route 30 in Jeannette, didn't close until 2006, but it had been cutting back its services since the late 1990s.
Since it ceased operations, various parties have been fighting over its debts, stalling efforts to sell the property.
"It's a great location -- anyone traveling on Route 30 can't miss seeing it," said Diana Reitz, Jeannette's community development director.
The multistory building could be converted for health- or geriatric-related uses, such as senior health care or housing for seniors. "I personally would like to see something for Alzheimer's patients," Ms. Reitz said.
That Westmoreland County community has been hit by a double hospital whammy with plans under way to reduce services at Mercy Jeannette Hospital, now a part of Excela Health Westmoreland Regional Hospital in Greensburg.
"Having a hospital is important to a community," Ms. Reitz said. "It provides employment, it helps to support other businesses and it is a selling point in attracting new companies."
Jeannette officials, including Mayor Robert Carter, will meet soon with representatives of Excela to discuss the future of the hospital.
Former state hospital properties, such as Mayview and Dixmont, often represent the largest tracts of land available for redevelopment in a community. But efforts to find new uses for them can end badly.
The Dixmont property, which fronts on busy Route 65, also known as Ohio River Boulevard, sat vacant for many years after it closed in 1984. It finally was slated for redevelopment into a hilltop shopping plaza to be called River Pointe Plaza that would include a Wal-Mart Super Center.
In 2006, while the steeply sloped site was being prepared for construction, the hillside collapsed, blocking Route 65 for several weeks. Wal-Mart took over the multimillion-dollar cleanup and stabilization efforts. A company spokesman said Wal-Mart was awaiting a court ruling on responsibility for the landslide and cleanup before deciding on plans for the site.
The state has received "multiple bids" for 150 of 330 acres that are part of the Mayview state hospital site, according to Department of General Services spokesman Ed Myslewicz. Mayview closed in 2008.
Mr. Myslewicz said his agency was reviewing those proposals.
One acre of the Mayview property is in Upper St. Clair, and the remainder is in South Fayette. South Fayette hopes to acquire a portion of the land to expand its Fairview Park.
South Fayette Manager Michael Hoy serves on the Mayview Land Reuse Task Force that has advised the state on how to best dispose of the tract. State Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Robinson, and state Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, both of whom represent the area, also have been part of that effort.
Debate over the future of the recently closed Braddock Hospital has divided that community.
UPMC's decision to shut down the community landmark has been followed by multiple protests, two lawsuits, a candlelight vigil and a outdoor re-creation of the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, the Ides of March. In that short play performed outside UPMC's Downtown headquarters, an actor portraying UPMC's President Jeffrey Romoff killed off several of the region's community hospitals.
Braddock officials have split over the proposal for redeveloping the hospital site, with council President Jesse Brown opposed and Mayor John Fetterman in favor.
The support of Braddock Council, which has primary control over land use and planning in the borough, is necessary to undertake any redevelopment plan. Council has discussed but not moved on the proposal.
If council approves the county plan, it could set a record for quick reuse of a hospital site.
The UPMC-county timetable could see demolition of Braddock Hospital start this summer.
UPMC has agreed to pay all costs for tearing down the building, which are estimated to be about $5 million. The health-care provider also would allocate another $3 million, which could be matched by $3 million in state funding, according to a UPMC spokesman. The total value of the redevelopment package is between $25 million and $26 million.
Elements in the proposed mixed-use complex include senior citizen housing, doctors' offices and job-training classrooms for Community College of Allegheny County.