NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Feeding the food insecure, sheltering the homeless and empowering the unemployed - creating social programs to help communities around the state is part of the stated mission of RWJBarnabas Health.

So, when some opponents of the plan to raze the Lincoln Annex School on Somerset Street and build a world-class cancer hospital in its place said residents’ concerns were being reduced to rubble just like school soon will, Barry Ostrowsky bristled.

In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with TAPinto New Brunswick, the president and CEO of the vast network of independent health care providers across New Jersey responded to critics who over the past 12 months protested at meetings, brandished signs in the streets and wrote the project off as corporate greed run amok.

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“We are clearly sensitive to the feelings of people who live in the communities in which we are providing health care,” Ostrowsky said. “So, when this came up as an opportunity, namely to build the new Cancer Institute, we did not in any way, shape or form ignore or dismiss the concerns about another big building that of course was going to be clinical in nature.

“We considered what the impact would have on the community,” he added. “And, obviously, in our view, the optimal location was the location of this school. So, we said we would build a new school because it would not be consistent with our mission to simply evict school children and leave it to the Board of Education to sort that out and build a Cancer Institute.”

Under the sweeping $750 million plan, RWJBarnabas – whose flagship facility, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, has been caring for the residents of New Brunswick for 136 years – is working with The Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), the New Brunswick Board of Education and the city and county governments.

The Planning Board voted 7-0 in January to allow Cancer Pavilion Redevelopment Associates LLC, an affiliate of DEVCO, to proceed with its plan to construct the 11-story, 519,000-square-foot Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey Cancer Pavilion that will house inpatient and outpatient care, research facilities and administrative space.

The other major part of the plan – building a $55 million elementary school to replace Lincoln Annex - was approved by the Planning Board last month.

Jersey Avenue School Redevelopment Associates LLC, also an affiliate of DEVCO, received preliminary and final site plan approval to move forward with the three-story, 127,400-square-foot school that will serve 1,100 students in grades K-8.

A third component of the plan, a nine-story parking garage with a six-megawatt power plant and loading docks, was also approved by the city.

It will take an estimated three years for the replacement school to be build on more than four acres of land at 50 Jersey Avenue. In the meantime, Lincoln Annex students will attend the Pathways Campus on Van Dyke Avenue.

Ostrowsky admits he considered the optics of a major corporation teaming with a major university to build another expensive and expansive structure in the ever-growing health care corridor that also includes the Bristol-Myers Squibb Children's Hospital.

The perception of these big institutions wielding their influence to appropriate more New Brunswick terra firma was one of the oft-repeated refrains from opponents who attended City Council, Board of Education and Planning Board meetings, in-person and virtually, since the plan to build the cancer pavilion at 165 Somerset Street was unveiled Feb. 4, 2020 at news conference at DEVCO offices.

“I appreciate the fact that people have varying perspectives on new, big construction or maybe more specifically, two big organizations, Rutgers and RWJ. Do they care about the people on the ground? Do they care about the people in the community?” Ostrowsky said. “I have to tell you I’m biased. We absolutely do. And so we’ve tried to do everything we can to address the concerns and of course ultimately what will happen in this building will benefit everybody. So, I don’t overreact to this.”

Just as it seeks to be at the vanguard of cancer treatment and research, RWJBarnabas has tried to be a leader in being a good neighbor, Ostrowsky said. It hasn’t always been like that. He remembers a time when they viewed themselves simply as buildings where sick people came to be treated.

So, it wasn’t long ago when something such as the weekly pregnancy support group that meets Thursdays at RWJUH would not have existed. And using its considerable resources to address equality and systemic racism – like last month when it created the Ending Racism, Together initiative – would have been unthinkable in the past.

Ostrowsky said this all demonstrates that RWJBarnabas Health feels an obligation to its communities - whether creating a community-based resources for individuals and families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic (RWJBarnabas Health Institute for Prevention and Recovery’s Hope and Healing Program) or building a elementary school for displaced students.

“We feel almost a custodial responsibility for the folks who live in our communities, particularly, by the way, those who are in underserved and vulnerable demographics in the community,” he said. “You can’t ignore those daily pressures that people face. It’s what makes them unhealthy.”