Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has publicly weighed in on the proposed location of the new Veterans Affairs hospital.
In his letter, submitted to the VA as part of the agency’s public comment process, Fischer raises concerns about the project’s land use, impact on traffic and accessibility via public transportation. Fischer mentions other potential “worthy” locations for the project but stops short of saying what those locations might be.
“This has transpired over years, so there’s not going to be any kind of snap decision,” he said at a news conference Friday. “What our role as the city is, is to give them all the information we have, we were invited to do that — just like the public was — as a response to this [Environmental Impact Statement] they put out, and we wanted to put forth what we knew so this project could move forward as quickly as possible. If they want to look at new locations, we are happy to assist them with that.”
The public comment period on the VA’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project has been extended until Jan. 11. But the entire project has been in the planning stages for years.
This is the first time Fischer has shared an opinion on the new VA Hospital in writing. So why now? And where else might the hospital go?
Former Mayor Involved
Louisville Metro government weighed in on the site of the future VA hospital back in 2010.
Then-Mayor Jerry Abramson and former University of Louisville President James Ramsey wanted the new hospital downtown, next to University Hospital. They cited its proximity to transportation, hotels and restaurants, as well as three nearby helipads for emergencies.
But by 2012, the federal government switched course and began eyeing the site off of Brownsboro Road. The VA purchased the site in 2012 for nearly $13 million (though the Office of Inspector General concluded the agency may have overpaid by more than $3 million for the property). And, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), it issued a draft environmental assessment of the site in 2014.
More than a year later, the VA decided to conduct a more thorough environmental review.
The Brownsboro Road site is favored by Louisville’s congressional representatives; Sen. Mitch McConnell has been a proponent, and Congressman John Yarmuth has said that changing the location could delay the project another decade.
But attorney Randy Strobo — who is representing the small cities of Crossgate and Northfield — said there were multiple problems with the way the federal government went about evaluating the site, starting with buying the site as early as it did in the first place.
“In our opinion the NEPA process has to be completed first, before they purchase the property,” Strobo said.
Under federal law, the VA also had to conduct an EIS for several different scenarios: the “preferred alternative” (on Brownsboro Road), the St. Joseph site east of I-265, and the “no action alternative,” which provides a baseline.
“The St. Joseph site’s already been purchased. It’s being developed right now, so that site is already kind of off the table,” Strobo said. “So in reality, they really didn’t evaluate any alternatives. They evaluated the no alternative, which means if they do nothing, what’s it going to look like, and the preferred alternative. Nothing else.”
While Fischer declined to name other sites in the city that might be optimal for the VA Hospital, other groups have named locations in the West End — in particular, the sites where two high-profile projects were canceled recently: the now-defunct Foodport at 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, or the canceled Walmart at 18th Street and Broadway.
The VA only considered “greenfield” — or previously undeveloped — sites in its analysis. And Strobo said that means some otherwise viable sites weren’t even considered.
“Because most of those sites are brownfields sites, or sites where there’s going to be a little bit more work to clean up and develop the property,” he said. “So you’re already eliminating everything basically west of Ninth Street.”
The VA is accepting comments until Jan. 11. At that point, the agency will finalize the EIS and decide whether to move forward with the project as planned, or study additional sites.