Renovation is out. Construction is in.
After searching all over Lexington for months for a building to renovate, HealthFirst Bluegrass announced Wednesday the planned demolition of a 29,000-square-foot building at 496 Southland Drive and a neighboring 11,000-square-foot building. An $11.7 million federal grant that initially was pegged for renovation will be used for construction.
HealthFirst Executive Director William North said Wednesday that in the end, the floor-to-ceiling space of the decades-old buildings proved problematic. Sara Tuttle of Strand Associates, which is working on the site plan, said the ceilings are about 10 feet high. That isn't high enough to accommodate the wiring and equipment needed in a modern medical clinic. North said adjusting the ceiling height in the current building was too expensive, and the quality of the new construction will be better. Construction also will allow for energy-saving technologies that will help the long-term bottom line, he said.
HealthFirst, a non-profit primary care clinic supported mostly through tax dollars, serves about 17,000 patients a year, many of them poor, at a clinic at 650 Newtown Pike. That clinic will continue to operate. Health officials say they hope the Southland location will attract more patients from the south side of Lexington. They expect the overall number of patients to increase because of changes in national health care. HealthFirst officials have said they also hope to attract patients who have health insurance.
There were no renderings of the new construction Wednesday. Rick Ekhoff of EOP Architects will design the building and interior space. It's a work in progress, he said, as health officials map out exactly what work will be done where inside the building.
"What is happening on the inside and what is happening on the outside very much go hand in hand," he said.
He said as a medical building, especially one that will serve a good number of children, "the building will have to feel inviting, not threatening."
Neighbors can offer their input at a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Rosemont Baptist Church. The current plan is the latest incarnation of a public health clinic originally proposed for Fayette County in 2010.
The Southland location was approved by the HealthFirst board in May after an extensive search for a property to renovate. Health officials said at the time that new construction was out of the question because of a September 2012 federal deadline for spending the grant. North said the federal government has since approved a one-year extension on the deadline.
Neighbors in the Southland area expressed concerns about the location in August. HealthFirst then created an advisory board that met four times in six weeks as plans for the site were created. Many of the neighbors' concerns, such as a fence to screen the development from nearby homes and directing traffic flow away from neighborhood streets, have been addressed.
Tuttle said preliminary plans call for a 6-foot fence on the northern end of the property where the HealthFirst lot comes into contact with residential zoning and on the western boundary along Rosemill Drive. A shorter fence is being recommended along Mitchell Avenue to the south, Tuttle said.
Ken Cooke, secretary of Friends of Wolf Run Inc., who has attended advisory committee meetings, said there remains work to do on dealing with storm-water runoff. He said he hopes HealthFirst will not adopt draft plans that call for clearing all the existing trees and vegetation on the parcels.
Such vegetation — a recent survey showed at least 70 trees on the property — helps minimize storm-water runoff that can contribute to polluting groundwater sources, he said.
Helen Morrison, an advisory board member representing the Mitchell Street Neighborhood Association, said HealthFirst has listened to and addressed many neighborhood concerns. But, she said, there are general misgivings about increased traffic, asbestos removal and the overall impact on the Southland area.
Tom Burich, chairman of the HealthFirst building committee, said the advisory committee, originally created for a short term, will continue to meet during construction. He said he hopes the neighbors at Thursday's meeting will be pleased. "I'm excited," he said. "This should be a party. I think Southland is being blessed by having it (the clinic) there. I think we are being blessed by being able to go to Southland."