Affordable Housing Could Replace Brooklyn Hospital

SUNY Downstate Medical Center building

By Amanda D’Ambrosio

A massive affordable-housing project could replace a Brooklyn hospital as part of a “transformation” of the SUNY Downstate campus that Gov. Kathy Hochul called for earlier this month.

Hochul has not publicly mentioned housing as a likely outcome of the plan, which is expected to include a major restructuring of hospital services, the relocation of inpatient care services to surrounding hospitals, and some layoffs. But housing has come up frequently in private discussions among key players, and SUNY Chancellor John King today confirmed in an interview with Crain’s New York that affordable housing units will likely be built on the state-owned land if the main hospital is shuttered.

“It’s clear that there’s tremendous need in the community for housing,” King said. “We think it’d be particularly valuable to have additional housing options for employees.”

The proposed transformation involves moving inpatient hospital services from the East Flatbush academic medical center to surrounding hospitals, as well as building a new, $300 million on-campus facility for outpatient care. The most controversial part of the plan is the possibility of closing a hospital that serves a population of primarily low-income patients.

King said that the health system is considering building residences at the main hospital site at 450 Clarkson Ave. for both community members and hospital employees who struggle to afford housing close to work. The space could also be used as a public recreation or wellness facility, King said, noting that the property is large enough to accommodate multiple uses.

The main hospital building sits on about eight acres, according to CoStar, in an area where developers already are building new housing. In December, CAMBA Housing Ventures broke ground on the 328-unit Clarkson Estates, a $238 million affordable housing development built on a former SUNY-owned parking lot. The project is a part of New York’s Vital Brooklyn initiative, a community development program that aims to address chronic housing, economic and social disparities in Central Brooklyn, pairing housing with a health screening center and other supportive services.

The state is trying to sustain the financially struggling hospital, which has experienced an annual $100 million operating deficit for several years, King said. Of the 340 available beds at Downstate, approximately 150 have been in regular use in recent years, he added.

The health system has also expressed concerns about the structural sustainability of its main building — a facility that experiences relatively frequent flooding and is in danger of having its HVAC system fail, King said.

Initial details of the transformation plan include relocating the majority of inpatient services to a new wing at New York City Health + Hospitals/Kings County, as well as laying off up to 20% of health care workers represented by the union United University Professions.

SUNY Downstate has proposed building a new facility on a parking lot for outpatient care, which would include ambulatory surgeries, primary care and urgent care. The outpatient facility, funded by $300 million from the state, will also house a health care disparities institute, King said. Hochul has agreed to absorb SUNY Downstate’s annual operating deficit over the next two years — which totals $200 million — while the medical center shifts its services.

While local lawmakers support efforts to revitalize SUNY Downstate, some are skeptical that the proposed changes will further deteriorate health care services in Central Brooklyn – a region that has seen several hospital closures. Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who represents East Flatbush, has pushed the state to release details on access to care and health care usage in the region via a legislature-mandated study that is set to be released this month.

“Our community needs quality health care AND affordable housing,” Myrie said in a statement to Crain’s. “We can’t expect to solve the housing crisis with a plan that reduces access to care.”

King said that the medical center intends to preserve access to all health care services that are currently available at Downstate, including maternal health care and the kidney transplant program — the only program at a public hospital in Brooklyn.

Assemblyman Brian Cunningham, who also represents the East Flatbush neighborhood, said that housing and health care in the neighborhood are “two important things that both need to happen,” noting that he is open to a conversation about housing on the campus.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has floated the possibility of converting SUNY campuses into housing sites but has not specifically mentioned SUNY Downstate. In her State of the State address, Hochul proposed to build housing units on state-owned property including SUNY campuses — some believed that proposal was referring to the system’s upstate campuses.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the potential for housing on SUNY Downstate’s campus.

The SUNY Downstate campus has long been eyed as a potential site for affordable housing. David Schwartz, co-founder of Slate Property Group, said that there have been discussions about developing on the campus for at least a decade.