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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

An Echo Park hospital is turning to a sick real estate market to survive

Barlow Respiratory Hospital, tucked into a ravine between Dodger Stadium and Elysian Park, opened more than a century ago to treat patients suffering from tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. But last week it was some of Barlow’s neighbors who were left gasping for breath.

During a meeting with a small group of residents, Barlow administrators and consultants unveiled their early ideas and drawings for building between 400 to 1,800 units of housing. That would transform Barlow’s summer camp-like property, a city historic landmark studded with nearly century old bungalows and Spanish-Colonial style buildings, into a suburban-style condo compound of three and four story buildings. There might also be room for a boutique hotel and, on a small corner lot, a new Barlow Hospital. Only a handful of the existing buildings, including Williams Hall and the Barlow Library, would be saved. The rest would be scraped. One resident who went to the meeting reacted this way: “It’s just insane.”

Why is tiny Barlow, which currently has only about 40 beds, getting into real estate development? The non profit hospital like others across the state have been under pressure to meet stringent new seismic standards that Barlow’s quaint but ancient facilities can’t meet. Barlow must raise at least $130 million to build a new, relatively modest 60-bed hospital in about five years. With a minuscule endowment, Barlow plans to raise most of the construction funds from selling nearly all of its approximately 25 acres, acquired back in 1902 by founder Dr. W. Jarvis Barlow for about $7,300.

While small, Barlow officials say their specialized institution fills an important role in Los Angeles’ health care system. Here, they help wean patients off ventilators and treat other respiratory illnesses at much lower costs than at full-service hospitals. If they can’t build the new hospital, Barlow will close it doors. But many neighbors are left to wonder if there are other ways Barlow can survive without having to sacrifice the open space and historic grounds on Stadium Way, a few minutes walk from the main gate at Dodger Stadium.

Barlow doctors and staff may be experts in treating respiratory diseases but it’s not clear how they are going to heal a very sick real estate market in time to raise the cash needed to open a new hospital. Since Barlow first broached the idea of needing to sell its land to raise money, the estimated cost of building a new medical center has more than doubled. But, as anyone who has been trying to sell a house knows, real estate prices have been in a free-fall and there is little relief in sight.

The prospect of scraping most of Barlow to the ground and replacing it with a high-density project seems at odds with what founder Dr. Barlow and his wife, Marion, had in mind when they came across “untouched meadowland set amidst rolling hills” on what was then called Chavez Ravine Road. According to “The Barlow Story,” a hospital authorized history, the property’s location next to city owned Elysian Park offered a “protective barrier that seemed to insure against encroachment by any future development.”

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