When Laura Kiker rented a new apartment in September a few blocks from the US Capitol in Washington, she knew she was moving into a historical neighbourhood.
She had no idea, though, that her new home at 700 Constitution Ave Northeast was a former hospital dating back nearly a century.
Today, she loves living in what used to be a patient room, in a four-storey building with wide hallways, high ceilings and restored post-World War II-style architecture. A spacious rooftop deck, yoga studio and indoor dog-wash are added bonuses for Kiker, and her dog, Stella. “There is so much history in this town, it’s nice to live in a place that has its own,” said Kiker, 30, a management consultant.
Across the United States, hospitals that have shut their doors are coming back to life in various ways: as affordable senior housing, as historical hotels and as condos, including some costing tens of millions in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village.
The trend of converting hospitals to new uses has accelerated as real estate values have soared in many US cities. At the same time, the demand for inpatient beds has declined, with the rise of outpatient surgery centres and a move towards shorter hospital stays.
As health systems consolidate for financial reasons, they might prefer that patients visit their flagship hospital while buildings related to smaller hospitals in their orbit get sold off – especially if the latter have a disproportionate share of destitute patients.
David Friend, chief transformation officer at the consulting firm BDO in Boston, noted that real estate is one of urban hospitals’ most valuable assets. “A hospital could be worth more dead than alive,” he said.
The number of hospitals in the United States has declined by 21% over the past four decades, from 7,156 in 1975 to 5,627 in 2014, according to the latest federal data.
Even when the conversions make medical sense, they pull at the heartstrings of communities whose residents have an emotional attachment to hospitals where family members were born, cured or died. But they sometimes create health deserts in their wake.
St Vincent’s Hospital in New York – which treated survivors of the Titanic’s sinking in 1912, the first AIDS patients in the 1980s and victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 – went bankrupt and closed seven years ago. Developer Rudin Management bought it for US$260mil (RM1.06bil) and transformed it into a high-end condo complex, which opened in 2014. Last year, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz reportedly bought one of the condos for US$40mil (RM163.5mil).
Jen van de Meer, an assistant professor at the Parsons School for Design in New York, who lives in the neighbourhood, said residents’ protests about the conversion were not just about the optics of a hospital that had long served the poor being repurposed. “Now, if you are in cardiac arrest, the nearest hospital could be an hour’s drive in a taxi or 20 minutes in an ambulance across the city,” van de Meer said.
St Vincent’s is one of at least 10 former hospitals in New York City that have been turned into residential housing over the past 20 years.
Closing a hospital and converting it to another use is not exactly like renovating an old Howard Johnson’s hotel, said Jeff Goldsmith, a health industry consultant in Charlottesville, Virginia. “A hospital in a lot of places defines a community – that’s why it’s so hard to close them,” said Goldsmith, who noted that after Martha Jefferson Hospital closed its downtown facility in 2009 to move closer to the interstate highway, an apartment building took its place.
But many older hospitals are too outmoded to be renovated for today’s medical needs and patient expectations. For example, early 20th-century layouts cannot accommodate large operating room suites and private rooms, said Friend.
Real estate investors say the location of many older hospitals – often in city centres near rail and bus lines – makes them attractive for redevelopment. The buildings, with their wide hallways and high ceilings, are often easy to remake as luxury apartments.
In some circumstances, a conversion provides a much-needed lift for the community. New York Cancer Hospital, which opened on Central Park West in 1887 and closed in 1976, was an abandoned and partially burned-out hulk by the time it was restored as a condo complex in 2005. Developer MCL Companies paid US$24mil (RM98mil) for the property, branded 455 Central Park West.
“The building itself is fantastic and a landmark in every sense of the word,” said Alex Herrera, director of technical services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy. He noted that it retained some of its original 19th-century architecture.
Nicky Cymrot, president of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation in Washington, DC, a neighbourhood group, said that when Specialty Hospital Capitol Hill sold off a little-used 100,000 sq ft wing of its facility that became 700 Constitution, neighbours weighed in with concerns about aesthetics and traffic. The building was first known as Eastern Dispensary Casualty Hospital, which opened in 1905.
But by the time the condominium opened early this year after a five-year, US$40mil (RM163.5mil) renovation, the response was positive.
Sophie White, 28, who moved into 700 Constitution this summer, watched the building’s transformation and renovation from a rental property a few blocks away. “It used to be a blight on the neighbourhood with unsavoury people milling around it,” she said. “Now, it’s a bright spot and with its dog park out front, it’s really a cool place to live.”
Nearly half of the 139-unit building, where one-bedroom apartments rent for nearly US$2,600 (RM10,620) per month, is already leased.
Asked why former hospitals are being bought and redeveloped as housing: “It’s all about location, location, location,” said Terry Busby, CEO of Arlington-based Urban Structures. – Tribune News Service/Kaiser Health News/Phil Galewitz and Anna Gorman