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June 28, 2001

UPMC, Pitt plan $600 million expansion of medical area

A planned $600 million transformation of Oakland's medical campus would construct three new buildings, connect existing facilities and make the three-block complex more accessible, identifiable and aesthetically pleasing, officials from UPMC, Pitt and Children's Hospital said this week.

The seven-year project calls for:

* Construction of a new, $250 million Children's Hospital on the UPMC Montefiore site and a $120 million renovation of the existing Children's, mainly to house adult services currently at UPMC Presbyterian.

* Construction of a $120 million Pitt biotechnology center on Fifth Avenue on the site of the Lhormer Building (between Lothrop and Darragh streets).

* An $80 million UPMC Montefiore ambulatory care facility.

* New signs, green space and a 1.2-acre parklike gateway to the medical campus on the corner of Fifth and DeSoto streets. These improvements are expected to cost $30 million.

UPMC would fund most of the project, with Pitt paying $120 million to construct its biotech center and Children's contributing as much as $50 million.

At a June 26 news conference, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said the project would enable Pitt to enhance its biomedical research and expand its leadership in the health sciences.

"Our research discoveries will enrich the local biotech industry, thereby promoting regional economic development while providing an example of creative organizational cooperation that can serve as a model for other metropolitan areas," he said.

The 10-12 story Pitt biotech center, to be built with University funds, will provide 300,000 additional square feet of research laboratories.

"Within that structure …some of the world's most talented scientists will focus on such areas as applied neuroscience, bioengineering and drug discovery," Nordenberg said.

Pitt currently employs more than 1,700 full-time Health Sciences faculty members, he noted. "In the past two years alone, we have recruited more than 60 accomplished faculty members who have brought with them established funding programs into Pittsburgh. They're coming from the best universities in the country and from abroad. To recruit even more members to this group, we need to create the space in which they can do their work," the chancellor said.

All of Pitt's current lab space is filled, he pointed out.

UPMC Health System President Jeffrey Romoff agreed that, "There is no way to recruit superb scientists on the cutting edge without providing them laboratory space."

With the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) projected to double in the next five years, the addition of high-quality researchers and lab space should earn Pitt and UPMC a disproportionate share of NIH funds, officials said. Pitt's medical school ranks 10th in the country in NIH funding.

Nordenberg said Pitt's administration has consulted with architects on preliminary design of the biotech center. "We have also been working within our own faculty groups to determine what would make the most sense in use of that space, and clearly we're thinking hard about ways we will fund it."

Ideally, Pitt will break ground on the center "in the next year or so," with construction to be completed two-and-a-half years after that, Nordenberg said.

Groundbreaking for the new Children's Hospital is slated for late fall, with completion of the facility by 2005. Children's Hospital President and CEO Ronald L. Violi said the new facility will be the first "100 percent green" hospital, employing environmentally friendly building materials, efficient energy and lots of natural light.

The new hospital will be about the same size as the current Children's but will provide 20-25 percent more usable space through improved efficiency in design, Violi said. Much of the new space already is spoken for by clinicians who currently are forced to work at sites away from the hospital, he said.

Violi called the current Children's Hospital a century-old "hodgepodge" that has undergone numerous renovations and additions since the 1950s.

By separating its ambulatory and inpatient facilities (which currently are mixed), the new Children's will be easier for patients and clinicians alike to navigate, Violi said.

The inpatient facility, to be built on the Terrace Street side of UPMC Montefiore, will house an emergency department, operating rooms, same-day surgery suites, a rooftop garden and a central atrium. All of its rooms will be private.

The ambulatory care building on Fifth Avenue will maintain distinct floors and entrances for children and adults.

A key element of the UPMC project is enhancing accessibility, with clearly defined entrances, internal walkways and color-coded signs. Green space would be added whenever possible to provide a calming atmosphere as well as quiet spaces for reflection and relaxation, officials said.

UPMC Health System's planned merger with Children's Hospital has been challenged by UPMC's rival, Highmark, Inc. In a June 19 antitrust lawsuit aimed at blocking the merger, Highmark claimed the move will stifle competition and drive up health care costs.

As a counter-offer to UPMC's, Highmark offered to build Children's Hospital a new facility, if the hospital would agree to remain independent.

At Tuesday's news conference, Romoff called the lawsuit groundless. "We are hopeful, and strongly believe, that it will fail and that it will have no effect on this project," he said.

"UPMC remains 100 percent committed to open access to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay, regardless of their insurance company," Romoff added.

The UPMC hospitals' makeover will not "in and of itself" lead to higher patient bills, he said. "I believe that the kinds of savings and efficiencies that we will be able to bring about by virtue of the merger of Children's and UPMC will cover a substantial portion of the [project] costs," Romoff said.

Construction-related "traffic messes" probably can't be avoided, he said. "But one of the positive things is that the whole project will be limited to a three-block area. We can control traffic flows and stage construction better" to minimize congestion, Romoff said.

The initial four-year phase of the project is projected to create 400 construction jobs per year and another 200 off-site jobs for people providing goods and services to support construction, according to UPMC.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey, who attended the news conference (as did Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy) called the project "the single most important economic development we could have."

— Bruce Steele

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