The site of a protracted slugfest between two South Florida healthcare heavyweights is one of the more nondescript patches of land in Miami Beach’s most famous neighborhood.
A small, 45,000-square-foot parking lot east of Alton Road between Seventh and Eighth Streets may become a five-story building housing an urgent care center, medical offices, and outpatient surgery and physical therapy facility operated by the largest healthcare system in the region, Baptist Health.
Or it may not. Mount Sinai Medical Center, the only hospital in Miami Beach and a healthcare provider synonymous with the city for decades, has thrown its body in front of the proposed development at 709 Alton Rd., saying it would bring unwanted traffic snarls to an already-congested South Beach.
Whether because of neighborhood impact or self-interest or both, the biggest player in Beach healthcare appears hell-bent on stopping Baptist from opening its first urgent care center in the city. A host of stakeholders — lobbyists, traffic consultants, politicians, the city’s chamber of commerce and a prominent developer — have been sucked into the conversation over whether this is a good idea.
All this sound and fury has come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, for impact studies, lawyers and an operational plan. But on Tuesday, the city’s planning board holds the power. It can can accept city planners’ recommendation to approve the 63,500 square-foot project with some conditions. Or it can kill the project.
Over the past several decades, South Beach’s population has transitioned from geriatric to jet-setting, and the need for hospitals may not be as great. A symbol of this change stands near the site of the proposed Baptist development — the old South Shore Hospital, which was abandoned almost a decade ago in the aftermath of a bankruptcy and damage from Hurricane Wilma.
With an approval Tuesday, Baptist would make a high-profile move that’s common in the healthcare business these days. Urgent care centers have boomed across the country. And Baptist says it would be moving into a market where it already has clients and employees.
“We see approximately 5,000 patients per year who live in Miami Beach and travel to our various facilities for care,” said Roymi Membiela, corporate vice president and chief marketing officer for Baptist. She added that 122 employees live on the barrier island.
Mount Sinai has repeatedly said its opposition is based on the impact the project could have on the neighborhood. Officials deny there’s a turf war while hiring consultants to review the studies Baptist commissioned.
The Beach-based hospital itself has satellite offices in other Miami-Dade cities near other medical facilities. It has an emergency room, physician office, cancer center and diagnostic center about two miles south of Aventura Hospital. It has primary and specialty care offices in Coral Gables, Hialeah, Key Biscayne and Sunny Isles Beach.
Baptist has a considerably larger footprint in Miami-Dade, although concentrated toward the south of the county. It says profits are not the motivation behind the move.
“We are focused on wellness and prevention, instead of actual income, at that location,” Membiela said. “If favorably approved, the results we obtain will be measured by how well we can contribute to the population’s health management in Miami Beach.”
Steve Sonenreich, Mount Sinai’s CEO, declined to comment for this story.
The only hospital on the Beach and a major employer, Mount Sinai has a strong relationship with the community that extends into the some of the city’s business and planning leadership. Five votes out of seven are need Tuesday to settle the land use matter, and two planning board members have ties to Mount Sinai.
Randolph Gumenick, co-owner of real estate development company Gumenick Properties, lists himself on his résumé as a member of Mount Sinai’s executive committee.
Jonathan Beloff disclosed his relationship on the dais in February when a resident asked about it.
“I’m on the board of Mount Sinai and I’m a ‘founder,’” he said. Founders are financial contributors to the not-for-profit hospital.
When reached by phone while traveling this past week, both men declined to comment for this story.
This saga began in January, when a project that had already been approved came before the planning board after a change in plans.
Well-known developer Russell Galbut walked in with the green light for a five-story building that was supposed to have restaurant and/or retail spaces on the first floor, medical offices on the fourth floor, parking on the second and third levels, and a terrace on the roof.
Galbut’s firm, Crescent Heights, had partnered with Baptist to propose making both the first and fourth floors medical use. It would be Baptist’s first such operation in the Beach, with a diagnostic center, same-day surgery facility and urgent care clinic.
Wayne Brackin, Baptist executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in an interview at the time that the planned building’s architectural style coupled with the location attracted Baptist.
Sonenreich spoke up at that meeting and insisted to the board that his hospital had no opinion on the matter. Then a lobbyist for Mount Sinai raised issues with traffic.
“I have great concerns about the intensity of services that this project describes, the compatibility with the neighboring community and the impact it would have on the community,” Sonenreich told the Miami Herald in February.
Mount Sinai’s concerns became the planning board’s concerns that day as board members asked Baptist and Galbut for a traffic study and detailed plan of how the facility would operate. At first, the board wanted the City Commission to pay for an independent study instead of having the developer foot the bill.
The City Commission scoffed at the request, saying the developer should pay.
Baptist spent the following months developing an operational plan and having a consultant update a traffic study, both of which have been peer-reviewed by a firm selected by the city and paid for by Galbut.
Meanwhile, proponents and opponents of the project kept busy with shenanigans.
In March, Sonenreich spoke before the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce’s board of governors at a meeting where Baptist’s membership was up for a vote. Baptist was not approved that day, and Sonenreich did not publicly share his comments afterward. An email sent from the chamber to Baptist before the meeting referenced Sonenreich’s desire to “speak against your membership.”
The no vote raised eyebrows in the business community and angered a few folks in City Hall, like Mayor Philip Levine, who called it “embarrassing.” Ten days later, the chamber’s full board overwhelmingly accepted Baptist’s application.
In May, a newly formed nonprofit called Healthcare Accessibility Associates sent thousands of letters to Beach residents praising Baptist and criticizing Mount Sinai. Some of the group’s principals have close ties to Galbut, the project’s developer, but Galbut denied involvement in the group’s formation and the mailing.
Baptist also said it was not involved with the group, which called Mount Sinai “anti-competitive.”
Baptist delivered an operational plan to Miami Beach, which put out a solicitation for a firm to peer-review the plan and paid the firm with money given to the city by the developer. The Beach also got a firm to review an updated traffic study, which says the medical facility would actually bring less traffic to the area than if the first floor were restaurants and retail.
In advance of Tuesday’s vote, Mount Sinai had its own medical, traffic and parking consultants lined up to review the work.
The results from Mount Sinai’s experts? Baptist’s studies are flawed and inaccurate.
The planning board received memos from Mount Sinai’s consultants last week to consider. Some of the sticking points: the methodology of traffic studies given construction in the area, the details of how many machines and of what type Baptist will have in the facility, how long certain procedures will take and the number of parking spaces needed.
In an interview Friday, Galbut called the memos “silly.”
“They are written by the competition,” he said “It’s totally biased, and it’s not independent.”
The issue has again crossed into the political arena. The memos angered City Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, who quickly put an item on the agenda for the July 31 commission meeting to discuss whether the city has the legal right to revoke a $15 million grant it gave to Mount Sinai in June 2014 to expand its emergency department. Wolfson voted against that grant.
”They care about profits,” Wolfson said Friday about Mount Sinai. “They put profits over people when they fight against good healthcare in South Beach.”