GONZALES — A key Ascension Parish panel will get a look Monday night at plans for Baton Rouge General's new emergency room and medical office complex planned for La. 73 in the Dutchtown/Prairieville area.
The hospital quietly got a zoning change for its project last summer as a then-unidentified 60,000-square foot medical office complex — about a month and a half before a hospital-controlled company bought the land, parish land records show.
But the $30 million project now needs a major use change from the joint Planning and Zoning Commission to conform with Baton Rouge General's current plan for what BRG officials call a "neighborhood hospital," in addition to using just two-thirds of the originally proposed space for offices, parish planning documents show.
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Baton Rouge General announced Aug. 1 that it plans to build a three-story, 60,000-square foot facility on La. 73 just northeast of the I-10 interchange. It will have 40,000-square feet of office space on the top two floors and a 10-bed hospital with a 14-bed emergency room on the bottom floor.
BRG President and Chief Executive Officer Edgardo Tenreiro said at the time that the hospital had been looking something like this facility for about three years and that a recent market study pinpointed a location in Ascension as an option. The hospital's facilities in Baton Rouge already serve more than 22,000 people from Ascension.
The proposed micro-hospital will also bring more medical options to northern Ascension, a parish now served by one major medical facility on its populous east bank, St. Elizabeth Hospital.
St. Elizabeth Hospital is in Gonzales, south of Prairieville, and is part of the same not-for-profit health system to which BRG competitor Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center belongs.
The Baton Rouge General project will be moving into an area of commercial development closest to I-10. Farther north on La. 73 nearer to Airline Highway and La. 42, smaller medical offices, including an Ochsner primary and urgent care clinic, have already moved in.
But the 8.1-acre site is also in one of Ascension's fastest growing areas. Traffic congestion on three-lane La. 73 has become a major sticking point for new commercial projects along the route also known as Jefferson Highway.
A Crawfish Aquatics swim school proposed on the same stretch of highway, also north of the hospital, sparked considerable opposition earlier this year, though it was ultimately approved in July through a little used section of the land development code that avoided a zoning change.
GONZALES — Parts of the winding, oak-lined stretch of La. 73 in Ascension Parish between Air…
A traffic study for the initial medical office proposal last year suggested the project would not shift the highway's already low level of service to an even lower grade but still would create a two-minute delay for traffic trying to get off I-10 eastbound during the evening rush hour.
An update to the traffic analysis for Baton Rouge General's newest plan has found the addition of the hospital and emergency room to the first floor and removal of 20,000-square feet of office space would reduce the traffic impact by 18 percent to 20 percent of what had been estimated for peak travel hours.
Since the parish commission first reviewed the project in July 2016, the state has also announced plans to widen I-10 between Highland Road and Prairieville.
A $72 million project to widen Interstate 10 from Highland Road in Baton Rouge to La. Hwy. 7…
During the parish's initial review of the project last year, the site was identified only as a medical office complex under the name Industrial Design Inc. The fact that Baton Rouge General was planning to move to the location or that it was planning a small hospital was never disclosed in multiple public meetings before the joint Planning and Zoning Commission and the Parish Council in July, August and September 2016.
The project was apparently so low-key that Ascension's then top economic development official, Mike Eades, told the council on July 21, 2016, that he had only learned about the complex two days beforehand, about a week after the commission vote. He couldn't give more than a general jobs projection because he said he didn't know who the tenants would be.
By Sept. 1, though parish officials took the time to read out loud the highly technical particulars of the ordinance, as required by the home rule charter, Baton Rouge General's name was never mentioned as the final ordinance allowing a zoning change from mixed use to small planned unit development was approved.
A Baton Rouge General spokeswoman wasn't able to provide a comment by deadline Sunday about the hospital and its earlier approval process, but hospital officials had said this month the neighborhood hospital idea emerged only in the last six to 12 months after they initially looked at adding to existing clinics.
George Kurz, the real estate agent for the project, added, when asked on Friday, that the medical complex is not a speculative project but one intended for Baton Rouge General.
He said the hospital didn't want its intentions publicized until the project was further along and more pieces of it were in place, but he said parish officials had been kept informed through the entire process that it would be a medical facility.
The proposed traffic impact of the anonymous medical office complex did prompt considerable discussion before the joint Planning and Zoning Commission in July 2016 as the commissioners, on a divided vote, recommended denial.
Then-Commissioner Douglas Foster noted the number of subdivisions near the hospital and school traffic already coming from the east and west to La. 73.
"That just seems catastrophically unsafe to me and, you know, not something I can support for sure," Foster said.
Not factored into the hospital's traffic analysis — because it wasn't required — was the future effect of a new primary school along that section of La. 73 where the school system bought land in August 2014. The analysis did have standard growth projections, however.
Before the commission, Kurz argued the site, which already has a small commercial building on it, could have 60,000 square feet of space under then-existing zoning but would have had to do it in several smaller buildings.
Other commissioners also suggested that new development should be not punished for the failure of the state and local government to improve infrastructure adequately, in particular the lengthy, $15 million state project finished only a few years ago that widened La. 73 from two to three lanes instead of four or five lanes.
"My preference would be to approve this," Commission Chairman Matt Pryor said then, "and let the government, the elected officials, answer as to why they won't develop this roadway to what it should be so we can have it done."
Neither a majority of the commission nor the Parish Council heeded Pryor as a divided commission recommended rejecting the project and the Parish Council never grappled with the traffic questions during three council meetings required for final approval.
In late July, Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee did generally and briefly mention the traffic findings of the parish's engineering consultant. He was the sole vote against the then-anonymous complex in a key, early test vote.
But, in that 9-1 vote, the rest of the council signaled it would overturn the commission's recommendation and grant final approval when the final vote did happen Sept. 1. Councilman Benny Johnson was absent.
The commission meets again on the complex 6 p.m. Monday at the Parish Courthouse Annex, 828 S. Irma Blvd., Gonzales.