Dartmouth-Hitchcock Frustrated By Lebanon Planning Process

— A Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center official expressed frustration yesterday over a one-month delay until the Planning Board will revisit a research facility proposed for the busy Route 120 corridor between Interstate 89 and Hanover.

In delaying its decision on final approval for the DHMC project Monday night, Planning Board members stated their desire to start a dialogue about Route 120 traffic with the Upper Valley’s public planners and major employers. It’s unclear, however, what such a discussion would mean for the DHMC project, which will next come before the board on Jan. 14.

Yesterday, DHMC Vice President of Facilities Management Gail Dahlstrom voiced some aggravation, albeit diplomatically, that approval of the health care provider’s project has been tied to the effort to organize those traffic discussions.

“We have contributed both financially to modifications to Route 120 as well as being, I hope, good citizens and a good responsible institution in the city,” said Dahlstrom. “I will only say that I think the board is in a very difficult position right now and I hope they ... do the right thing, by us.”

Dahlstrom described the plan submitted to the board as meeting all regulations and requirements she is aware of.

“It’s hard to understand how this next project could be deemed the one that takes (traffic) to an unacceptable level, so I think the board needs to struggle with that question,” Dahlstrom said.

Planning Board members on Monday said that, other than the broad concerns about traffic, there were no other issues to be resolved with the research facility proposal.

DHMC’s proposed 158,000-square-foot research facility would cost around $115 million and house research labs, as well as an auditorium, with the hope of directly applying that research to the care provided at the medical center.

The building is projected to add about 150 daily trips during the morning and afternoon peak commuting hours. A separate application, though tied to the project, requests an additional 287 parking spaces to accommodate the facility.

Lebanon’s Planning Director, Andrew Gast-Bray, said that his department doesn’t view the DHMC project as the tipping point for the corridor.

“We kind of missed our opportunity with that,” Gast-Bray said.

Instead, Gast-Bray said the delay in taking up a vote on the project reflects a “paradigm shift” in the city’s Planning Department, and that the facility proposed by DHMC entered the planning review process “before we were able to get our arms around what needed to happen.”

“I’m hoping it won’t affect (the approval process) at all versus what would have happened,” said Gast-Bray. “But when are we going to do it? Who is going to work with us to help come up with a plan, and hopefully lead others in the corridor to come together?”

Citing too many missed opportunities in the past to control traffic on the already-stressed roadway, Gast-Bray said city planners have realized that there is no better time than the present to address a complicated question: “How do we fix it?”

The answer, Gast-Bray said, depends heavily on what other stakeholders in the corridor — especially the medical center — can bring to the table.

“At this point, we’ve kind of lost the ability to be that antagonistic line in the sand,” said Gast-Bray. “We’re saying that DHMC is a leader. They have a vision. They know more about what they’re going to be doing in 20 years than probably anybody else, and that’s saying a lot.”

Dahlstrom said that she has “a lot of respect for the Lebanon staff,” but declined to comment on whether the city has done its due diligence in the last decade as far as planning for the corridor.

“One of our challenges and frustrations is that we are the state’s academic medical center, and I sometimes feel that people are not viewing us in a positive light, even though I think we do provide a significant benefit to the region,” she said.

On Monday, the Planning Board also discussed a number of way to get a handle on the traffic issue, including a potential one-year moratorium on future development in the corridor, but Senior Planner David Brooks said yesterday that “the hurdles for enacting a moratorium are pretty high.”

Brooks said to be granted a moratorium, state law would require the city to identify a distinct period of time to be covered, as well as distinct issues to address and a plan to resolve those issues.

“I don’t think it’s something you can just throw out there,” he said.

Also Monday, Planning Board members Nicole Cormen, Sue Painter, and Earl Jette raised the possibility of DHMC charging for parking, which they said could help fund future traffic studies as well as reduce the amount of single-occupancy vehicles commuting to the medical campus.

But Dahlstrom said that the medical center reviews that possibility “on a regular basis,” and cited three main reasons as to why it would not be feasible.

She said that free parking is an employee benefit, and that the living patterns of DHMC employees — along with the lack of a “true, robust alternative transportation system” — makes utilizing mass transportation difficult. In addition, Dahlstrom said, the medical center employs many low-wage workers who would struggle with the financial burden of paid parking.

“All these things put together, I remain unconvinced that pay-for-parking is a strong and beneficial program to institute for the sake of reducing parking needs and single-occupancy vehicles,” Dahlstrom said.

In addition to a $114,000 improvement project that would see the installation of advanced video-based traffic signal timing at the Exit 18 interchange on Route 120, members of the Planning Board requested that the medical center consider improvements to the intersection of Route 120 and LaHaye Drive.

The improvements to the LaHaye Drive intersection would involve a re-striping to add an additional right-hand turn lane for vehicles looking to head south on Route 120 toward Interstate-89.

Dahlstrom said that she supports the improvement in theory, but still has to look into its fiscal impact on the project.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213