New second tower on the way up at Scripps La Jolla hospital

A rendering depicts the new second medical tower now under construction at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.
A rendering depicts the new second medical tower now under construction at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.

New structure will replace patient towers built in the 1960s.


For months, workers have been pouring a new foundation on a triangular piece of ground on the northern edge of the Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla campus.

Cement trucks are delivering the beginnings of a $664 million, seven-story medical tower that will mirror an adjacent and nearly identical V-shaped structure that opened in 2015 and houses the Prebys Cardiovascular Institute on Genesee Avenue just east of Interstate 5.

An official groundbreaking ceremony was set for Thursday, April 22. “We started construction during the height of COVID and we couldn’t do a ceremony then, so it’s a little after the fact, but it’s still exciting,” said Chris Van Gorder, Scripps’ chief executive officer.

The 433,000-square-foot structure, scheduled to open in 2024, will house nine operating rooms and 108 private rooms for medical and surgical patients. An additional 61 beds will serve patients awaiting or just exiting surgery. A new women’s center with 13 labor and delivery rooms, five pre-delivery rooms and 38 more for mothers and their just-born babies will occupy three floors. Plans also call for a 24-bed neonatal intensive care unit designed in consultation with Rady Children’s Hospital.

The hospital’s tiniest patients, their parents and caregivers will have a relaxing view that overlooks the rooftop garden at Prebys, which will connect to its sister tower via sky bridges on five floors.

Prebys houses the campus’s emergency department on its ground floor, in addition to 108 private rooms for cardiovascular patients and 59 more for those who need intensive care.

The idea is to replace Scripps La Jolla’s two original towers, the first of which was built in 1964.

State seismic safety law requires significant upgrades if the brick structures are to continue housing patients past 2029, and, like most California health systems, Scripps has decided to build anew rather than renovate. Major renovations, Van Gorder said, subject patients and staff to years of noise and other inconvenience and yield results that aren’t as satisfying as new construction.

“We build them to last 50 years or longer if necessary, but it’s time,” Van Gorder said. “Boy, have they taken care of a lot of people over the decades.”

As with Prebys, the new design will include floor-to-ceiling windows in patient rooms and more efficient surroundings for medical professionals, providing built-in access to technology infrastructure.

La Jolla’s current total bed capacity, including Prebys, stands at 426 but will drop to 373 when the new tower opens and the two old towers close.

The project is part of a $2.6 billion building plan that Scripps announced in 2017. The largest part of the initiative is replacement of the main medical tower at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest for an estimated cost of $1.3 billion.

When Scripps first shared its long-term plans for the La Jolla medical campus in 2010, a third tower was envisioned for the ground that the two oldest buildings now occupy. But Van Gorder said no demolition deadline draws near. The third tower, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain on the drawing board.

Trends toward greater numbers of outpatient procedures have diminished the need for inpatient beds over the past decade and are expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

“We don’t think a third tower is going to be necessary anytime soon,” Van Gorder said. “As we look at our projections today, we’re not going to need more inpatient beds due to the outpatient trends we’re seeing in the industry.”

When the second tower opens, Scripps intends to close both of La Jolla’s old towers. But the circular drive that is the campus’s main entrance is built to deliver patients under the large awning directly in front of the old buildings. Because the new buildings are on the campus’s northern edge, they are off to the side of what has been the main focal point for drop-offs and pickups for decades.

Currently, the entrance for Prebys, itself an investment of nearly $500 million, shares an entrance with the Schaetzel Center, a conference venue often used for medical education.

Eventually, Van Gorder said, there are plans to build a new entrance for the two new towers, but that will not be possible until the northernmost of the two old towers comes down. In the meantime, the Schaetzel Center entrance will serve both towers and Scripps will work up signage to redirect those who turn up at the old entrance.

One item that will remain despite duplication is La Jolla’s ground-level helipad on the property’s northwestern edge. Though the new tower will include a rooftop helipad of its own, Van Gorder said the ground-level landing circle is the last of its kind at a civilian hospital in the region, providing a spot for heavy military choppers. ◆