An artist rendering of the proposed 5940 Soquel Avenue Kaiser Permanente medical building project.
An artist’s rendering of Kaiser Permanente’s proposed 5940 Soquel Avenue medical building project highlights the building site.
(Courtesy of Pacific Medical Buildings)
Civic Life

Weighing ‘impact on entire community’: Mixed reviews for Kaiser project as Koenig solicits feedback

While some neighbors vocally worried about traffic concerns at the proposed Live Oak medical site along Highway 1 on Soquel Avenue, others expressed the need for such services in the middle of the county. The next community meeting is Nov. 5, with a final decision on the project set to be made by February.

Kaiser Permanente is expanding its medical offerings in Santa Cruz County, building out facilities in Watsonville and Scotts Valley. And plans for Kaiser’s largest campus yet in the county, a four-story, 160,000-square-foot facility just off Highway 1 in Live Oak, are pushing forward.

But before the new medical office is approved for 5490 Soquel Ave., local officials and developers must agree on plans to address traffic and transportation issues. While some community members see the new Kaiser development as a way to fill gaps in Santa Cruz’s medical offerings with a main hub right in the middle of the county, many neighbors argue the Kaiser office will create more congestion in an already high-traffic area.

In February, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will make the final decision about whether the development can move forward; after reviewing the project’s environmental impact report (EIR) and holding public hearings, the board will vote on rezoning the Highway 1 frontage road property and approving the necessary permits.

On Wednesday, Supervisor Manu Koenig — whose District 1 includes unincorporated Live Oak — held a community meeting to discuss the traffic impacts and potential transportation improvements related to the proposed Kaiser building.

“We want the neighborhood’s ideas for other ways to mitigate the potential traffic impact,” Koenig told Lookout ahead of the meeting.

He explained that the new Kaiser development — which is to be built by San Diego-based Pacific Medical Buildings and occupied by Kaiser — gives the county an opportunity to make much-needed traffic and transportation improvements. The developer would have to pay transportation impact assessment fees of about $3.5 million.

“We as a county can condition approving their project on other improvements,” Koenig explained in the Wednesday meeting as community members expressed concerns over several of the developer’s proposals.

Manu Koenig at a park.
Supervisor Manu Koenig’s First District includes the Live Oak site under development.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Weighing neighborhood impacts

If approved, the Kaiser office would focus on specialty outpatient services. Open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the office would have no emergency room or overnight services. The building would be accompanied by a four-story parking garage with bike lockers, 730 parking spaces and 47 electric-vehicle charging stations.

The developer has suggested traffic-related improvements, including a new traffic light on Soquel Avenue at the primary entrance for the facility, and an extended left-turn lane on Soquel Avenue between Paul Minnie Avenue and South Rodeo Gulch Road. The proposal also suggests expanding bike lanes and sidewalks around the project.

In the two-month EIR public comment period, the county received 60 comments, with several letters in support and many in opposition centering on local traffic congestion. Much of the pushback stems from a general concern about the size of the project and its potential impact, while some boils down to the nitty-gritty: For example, neighbors came out in opposition to a proposed diverter along Soquel Avenue that could block off access to Gross Road.

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“The county is in no way obligated to make that change,” Koenig said. “I won’t support (the diverter) if it’s something that the neighborhood doesn’t want.”

One community member, Jolie Downs, said during the meeting that she was “deeply concerned” about the impact the new development could have on the neighborhood. She compared it to putting a “Band-Aid on a bullet wound” and expressed interest in starting a petition against the proposed development.

“I have not heard a viable payoff for adding this level of traffic congestion and stress on these neighborhoods, especially when there are many other locations that could be considered,” Downs said.

I have not heard a viable payoff for adding this level of traffic congestion and stress on these neighborhoods, especially when there are many other locations that could be considered.

Koenig responded, saying, “Ultimately, we do have to weigh the impact on the entire community.”

Neighbors also brought up concerns about the county’s other upcoming transportation projects, which include a new bicycle and pedestrian overcrossing over Highway 1 at Chanticleer Avenue and new Highway 1 auxiliary lanes between 41st Avenue and Soquel Avenue/Drive, intended to reduce traffic in the area.

“The challenges we see in this project are emblematic of ones we face throughout our entire county, throughout the entire world as far as auto-based transit,” Koenig said.

Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Meeting health needs

In addition to formalizing plans around traffic and transportation, according to Koenig, Kaiser must reach an agreement with the area’s other hospital systems — Dominican and Watsonville — about how to equitably serve the community. He explained that many community members rely on Medicare/Medicaid, and hospitals that serve a lot of these patients can lose money due to low federal reimbursement rates.

If Kaiser were to take all of their insured patients, it could leave hospitals such as Dominican with a larger share of low-income patients. In a worst-case scenario, Koenig said this could result in Dominican cutting down on services — a scenario the county and providers are aiming to avoid.

“We’re going to have to make sure there’s an agreement between all the health care providers in the county that ensures that we can continue to meet everyone’s needs,” Koenig said.

We’re going to have to make sure there’s an agreement between all the health care providers in the county that ensures that we can continue to meet everyone’s needs.

At the Wednesday meeting, Koenig emphasized that while many of the Live Oak neighbors voiced concerns about the development, many people throughout the county are in need of accessible health care.

One Live Oak neighbor, Dean Sutton, said that except for the “traffic chokepoint,” he’s in support of the medical building, as he’s a Kaiser patient himself.

“I think it’s important,” he said. “There’s a lot of people I’m sure that would sign up for Kaiser if they had the medical office building built.”

What happens next?

On Nov. 3, the developer — Pacific Medical Buildings — will hold another virtual community meeting at 6:30 PM via Zoom (https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84094964199 or dial 669-900-9128 and entering 84094964199)

At the beginning of December, the EIR will be finalized, and that month, the county planning commission will hold a public hearing and make a recommendation to the board of supervisors on whether to approve the development and provide necessary permits.

In February , Koenig said he expects the board to hold at least one more public hearing and make a decision on whether to approve the necessary permits and rezone the parcel.

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According to Koenig, the board is likely to vote in favor of the development as long as transportation issues can be mitigated and the county can ensure a stable health care system moving forward.

If approved, construction of the new Kaiser facility won’t begin till late summer 2022, at the earliest.