Originally published in The Mercury News.

By Rebecca Parr

January 29, 2016

OAKLAND — The jewel of a $668 million Highland Hospital campus renovation, a nine-story acute tower, was dedicated Friday.

The tower is the second phase of a three-part upgrading of the county’s public health system’s main campus. The building will provide inpatient care, including hospital patient rooms, intensive care, a birthing center, a neonatal intensive care unit, a lab, and occupational, physical and respiratory therapy facilities.

“I’m proud of the taxpayers in Alameda County,” said Scott Haggerty, Alameda County Board of Supervisors president. “This is a significant moment in Alameda County.”

The tower’s Diagnostic and Interventional Services Center includes radiology and imaging services. With the new equipment, a head scan will take 1 ½ minutes, compared with the current 60 minutes.

The tower is 250,000 square feet; the old one, 235,000 square feet. The new building has 169 beds, with most in single rooms offering spectacular views of Oakland. The old tower, built in the 1950s, has 206 beds, with most of those in shared rooms.

Each new patient room includes a recliner chair where a family member can sleep. Many of the new rooms are equipped with lift systems to help nurses move patients as needed.

The new tower is filled with natural light and is much quieter than the old one, even with group after group walking through Friday on guided tours.

“The finishes, the floor, the materials were selected to reduce noise, designed to contribute to healing,” said Jerri Applegate Randrup, Alameda Health System representative.

Even the paint on the walls was chosen to be soothing; art is displayed throughout the building’s halls and meeting rooms.

Highland Hospital is part of Alameda Health System, the county’s public health group, which also runs San Leandro and Alameda hospitals, the John George Psychiatric Hospital, Fairmont Hospital rehabilitation and skilled nursing center, and four wellness clinics.

After patients are moved into the new tower in early April, work will begin on the third phase of the renovation: demolition of the nearby old tower and building of a new entrance. The project is expected to be finished in 2017.

The upgrade was prompted in large part by the state tightening hospital seismic safety requirements after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The revised seismic requirements have resulted in a hospital construction boom throughout the state.

In Alameda County, those include Sutter Health’s Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley and Alta Bates Summit in Oakland, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, and Kaiser’s Oakland hospital. Kaiser also moved its hospital from Hayward to a new building in San Leandro. Washington Township Health Care System in Fremont also is upgrading its facilities with a new patient tower planned.

The Highland tower is the last of several new buildings on the 14-acre campus, including the three-story, 80,000-square-foot Highland Care Pavilion, which opened in 2013.

Highland workers were all smiles Friday and eager to show off features of the new tower.

“I take great pride in the opening of our new building,” said nurse Lori Foidl, an intensive care unit manager.

Local dignitaries also were upbeat Friday, with Haggerty noting that the project faced challenges from the beginning. The project was formally approved in 2008.

“We were in the middle of a recession,” he said. “We bit the bullet; we followed through.”

The tower is being completed on time, on schedule and under budget, said county Supervisor Wilma Chan. The project hired 4,000 construction workers and 180 small, minority-owned and female-owned businesses.

“I was truly excited today to see the completion of a state-of-the-art facility to match the state-of-the-art health care that the county and AHS provide all citizens, regardless of their ability to pay,” Chan said.

The adult intensive care unit’s 24 patient rooms are soundproof and the curtains can be drawn, allowing a family more privacy. The intensive care beds can quietly play preprogrammed jazz, classical or nature music. “It’s very calming,” Foidl said.

The floor has two family waiting rooms, with a consultation room off the larger one.

Work is almost complete, but not quite. Staff already has started training, learning how to operate new equipment and getting accustomed to the building’s layout.

“The hardest thing for the nurses to get used to is all this space,” Foidl said.

Unlike the old neonatal intensive care, with a centralized nursery, the new unit has eight individual rooms, with room for mothers to stay.

Highland is the only Level II adult trauma center in Oakland and northern Alameda County; it treated more than 2,200 trauma patients in 2015. Its emergency room is the busiest in Alameda County, with more than 80,000 visits annually.