HCMC clinic on the move

City’s busiest clinic relocating three blocks north

WHITTIER — Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) plans to hopscotch over the Lake Street Kmart and the Midtown Greenway, moving its busy West Lake Street clinic three blocks north to Eat Street.

In late April, HCMC was still negotiating the purchase of nearly three and a half acres in Whittier, but HCMC Vice President Mike Harristhal said he was confident the sale of the former GFI America, Inc. meatpacking plant site would go through.

Harristhal said construction of a new primary care clinic would begin by fall, with the opening tentatively scheduled for fall 2009. The $30 million project would more than double the size of the current Family Medical Center, to 60,000 square feet from about 23,000 square feet, he said.

About 50,000 patients pass through the Family Medical Center each year, making it the busiest of four primary care clinics operated by HCMC in Minneapolis and suburban Hennepin County. The current location at 5 W. Lake St. was designed for only about 20,000 visits per year, Harristhal said.

“We have an incredible need to provide physical facilities that are comparable to the high-quality care we provide,” he said.

Minneapolis-based Swervo Development Corp purchased the GFI site in 2005 for $3.3 million, according to Hennepin County records. It was last appraised at about $2.6 million.

HCMC spent several years looking for a new clinic location and had, at one time, considered the Kmart site. City and county officials considered HCMC a likely partner in the eventual redevelopment of that site, which would include the reopening of Nicollet Avenue, said City Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward).

“The resources (and) the dollars that (HCMC) would bring to that development have long been considered part of the kitty at the Kmart site,” Lilligren said.

With their clinic bursting at the seams, HCMC officials apparently decided they couldn’t wait any longer to develop a deal for the Kmart site. Still, Lilligren and Whittier neighborhood leaders remained hopeful HCMC would still play a role in reconnecting the severed transportation artery.

“Done well, redevelopment on that site can add momentum to the reopening of Nicollet,” Lilligren said. “Done poorly, it could mess it up.”

Planning for growth

HCMC continued to hammer out the details of the new Family Medical Center as it worked to close a deal for the site.

“We will, at the minimum, offer the current scope of services,” Harristhal said.

As planning for the clinic progresses, though, HCMC could add specialty services and programs, he said.

The design of the new clinic was also vague early in the process, but HCMC had tentative plans to attempt LEED certification for the new clinic. The standards of LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, set the national benchmark for environmentally friendly design.

Harristhal said a planned two-story clinic would take up only a portion of the large GFI site, which consists of the entire block bounded by Nicollet and Blaisdell avenues and 28th and 29th streets.

“What we intend to do is develop our clinic building toward the northern side of the block to permit flexibility longer term,” he said.

That flexibility will allow for a possible second phase of development. At the current rate of growth, the new Family Medical Center could require expansion within five to seven years of construction,
Harristhal said.

In discussions with neighborhood leaders, he left open the possibility for other types of development on the site, as well.

Whittier Alliance Board President Erica Christ, whose family owns The Black Forest Inn at the corner of Nicollet Avenue and East 26th Street, said retail or office development could bring a welcome boost in daytime traffic. Nicollet Avenue is busiest on nights and weekends, when people head to restaurants on Eat Street, Christ said.

Still, she allowed, a busy new clinic would boost daytime traffic on its own.

“There will be hungry people there,” she said.

Hoping for a ‘catalyst’

More people walking and driving on Nicollet Avenue is just what the neighborhood needs, said Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn.

Biehn said an attractive, pedestrian friendly development could be the “catalyst” required to reconnect Nicollet Avenue between Lake Street and West 29th Street, where it is interrupted by the Kmart building. On the other hand, Biehn added, an unwelcoming, institutional building could deaden traffic on that section of Nicollet Avenue.

“I’ve mentioned to HCMC that it really puts a burden on them to showcase that corner,” she said.

A joint task force formed by HCMC and the Whittier Alliance met for the first time in March, and could continue to meet throughout planning and construction of the clinic.

“We’re trying to work with them and identify some of the neighborhood preferences and goals,” she said.

Lilligren said HCMC’s decision not to wait for the Kmart site was, in one sense, “a loss to the reopening of Nicollet.”

Looking at it another way, he said, growing density north of the Kmart could be an even greater force to reconnect Nicollet Avenue.

“If anything,” he said, “it would accelerate it.”