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Downtown Utica hospital project faces lawsuit

Mohawk Valley Health System
The proposed hospital in Utica and adjacent parking garage would take up about 25 acres in the city's downtown, requiring the removal of dozens of properties.

The Mohawk Valley Health System (MVHS) has started closing on privately owned properties in downtown Utica to make way for its new hospital. Officials hope to break ground on the $480 million facility by the end of the year. But MVHS will first have to deal with a lawsuit filed by a group that's opposed to the project.

No Hospital Downtown's lawsuit takes issue with the state-mandated environmental review process, called SEQR, that wrapped up this spring. The group's co-founder Jim Brock says it did not properly take into account the historic nature of the neighborhood that is being torn down and gave only a cursory review of the potential alternative location for the hospital, which is located at the site of MVHS' current campus.

"With the SEQR process being so fatally flawed on so many different levels, we were forced at that point to bring litigation and to address those issues and more importantly to have the court address those issues," Brock said.

The defendants in the lawsuit include MVHS; the Planning Board of Utica, which led the SEQR review; the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historical preservation; and the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York. It was filed in Albany County, which Brock says is necessary for the lawsuit to receive a fair shake.

"We certainly want a new process to take place by a new agency - an unbiased new agency - if they want to keep going forward with this because we believe that if someone actually does peel it back, there is no way someone can come up with less of an environmental impact to go downtown and level a historic neighborhood than it would be to go on your own greenspace that you acquired the property for with a cogeneration plant already in existence without the need to build a parking garages," Brock said.

But MVHS COO Bob Scholefield says this lawsuit will not slow them down. MVHS plans to continue closing on businesses and making way for the hospital as the lawsuit makes it way through the judicial system.

"We have to continue to provide enough confidence to those who are concerned about these things to recognize that we are moving forward," Scholefield said. "Although there are a number of hurdles to get us there, the end result of a state-of-the-art medical center in downtown Utica that allows us to create jobs during the construction, create additional jobs after its open, recruiting of physicians and higher level of care - those benefits will all be realized about four years from now. We just have to make sure we don't lose sight of that."

But even if MVHS is successful at defeating the SEQR lawsuit, there are likely more legal challenges ahead. MVHS has closed on only 7 of the 35 properties located in the downtown footprint, and at least four of those remaining have cut off negotiations in an attempt to fight the eminent domain process.