ANC seeks compromise on GWU Hospital helipad plan

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George Washington University Hospital is proposing to install a helipad at the building's southwest corner, near the corner of 24th and I streets NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

Amid mixed reaction from neighbors over the idea of changing an existing ban on helipads in residential areas, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End) opted to delay consideration of George Washington University Hospital’s proposal to build a helipad atop its Foggy Bottom building.

At ANC 2A’s July 19 meeting, chair Patrick Kennedy announced that the commissioners had not reached a final agreement with the hospital and would back the vote by a month. Kennedy predicts it will take place at a special meeting sometime in late August or early September.

The hospital’s helipad proposal is currently blocked by a 1987 law, which the D.C. Council passed in response to requests by ANC 2A at the time — classifying helicopter landing areas as “public nuisances” inappropriate for residential neighborhoods like Foggy Bottom. Now, the hospital is trying to change that law with the help of ANC 2A. The helipad would be located near the southwest corner of the 900 23rd St. NW hospital.

But the neighborhood response has been far from unified, which is why commissioners are taking their time to finalize an agreement that would provide conditions for their support.

“There are people who certainly view it through a moral prism, the community’s obligation to play a crucial role in the emergency medical practices of the region,” Kennedy said. “And there are other people who first and foremost have concerns about their residences.”

Marina Streznewski, president of the Foggy Bottom Association, holds the former view. Speaking as one of the closest residential neighbors to the site of the proposed helipad, she gave an impassioned speech in favor of the idea at the ANC 2A meeting.

“The Washington Hospital Center’s trauma capacity is six patients,” she said. “If you’re the seventh, there’s no other helicopter-accessible level 1 trauma center in the city. What happens then?”

ANC 2A members also consider the helipad an important benefit to the health and safety of the city. “We want to make sure that for mass-casualty events and other critical functions that patients who need level 1 trauma services have the ability to access the hospital in an expeditious manner,” Kennedy said.

However, the hospital is located in a residential community and Kennedy acknowledges that effects on quality of life are legitimate concerns. This is why the commission opted to continue a dialogue with George Washington rather than rush to a premature agreement, he said.

ANC 2A wants the hospital to use the helipad only for absolutely critical flights. While the hospital has agreed to this in concept, enforcement of this provision a key factor in the negotiation.

“We need assurance that the community has some means to evaluate [the helipad] in the future, in a manner that gives us some teeth,” Kennedy said. “In other words, what we don’t want to do is give our blessing to the helipad and have absolutely no recourse to address concerns in the future.”

George Washington University Hospital is located at 900 23rd St. NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

Concerning the specifics of the plan, though, Kennedy said, “We just haven’t quite agreed on what that would look like.”

While there are many neighbors with very strong opinions on both sides of the issue, Kennedy believes there are many others who may not be as vocal but who are open to the helipad under the right conditions.

“We would eventually like to get to yes with the hospital,” Kennedy said. “I think we’ve evolved as a city and as a region in the last 30 years, and the need for this service is greater than it used to be.”

Kennedy added, however, that he did not foresee a unanimous vote among his ANC 2A colleagues when they act on the matter.

George Washington University Hospital declined an interview with The Current, but Christine Searight, its director of marketing and business development, released a statement about the ongoing discussions: “The George Washington University Hospital continues to discuss plans with the Foggy Bottom and West End community as we work diligently to ensure vital healthcare services are available to anyone who should need them. GW Hospital remains steadfastly committed to providing increased access to lifesaving, critical care for the entire Washington, DC region.”