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Westwood Hills Nature Center would contain a building four or five times as large as the existing structure under a St. Louis Park plan.

The existing building, completed in 1980, is undersized and "is pretty much in disrepair," said St. Louis Park Recreation Superintendent Jason West.

West cited leaks to the 2,700-square-foot structure that sits partway up a hill above the nature center’s lake.

Last May, the St. Louis Park City Council approved a master plan for the nature center, created in consultation with Minneapolis-based Miller Dunwiddie Architecture. The city developed the master plan after conducting focus groups and obtaining resident input.

At a Nov. 21 council work session, council members gave city staff members direction to work with an architect on an early design for a new building. The city’s capital improvement plan includes $300,000 for the preliminary design of a new nature center building.

The proposed size of the new building would be 12,000-15,000 square feet, according to a staff report prepared for the work session. The new structure would be about the same size as the 14,000-square-foot Eastman Nature Center at Elm Creek Park in Dayton.

The St. Louis Park council toured the Eastman Nature Center as part of its consideration for upgrading Westwood Hills Nature Center.

At the existing Westwood Hills building, 50 students on a field trip can monopolize the entire structure, West said. As a result, the general public cannot easily come in at the same time to view a building exhibit.

The new building could contain three classrooms that would simultaneously accommodate separate classes and a family program, West said.

He cautioned that the city is still in the early stages of designing a new building, which could begin construction in 2019 if the council eventually approves a design.

City leaders would like the new building closer to the nature center’s parking lot, a move residents who provided input have supported, West said.

"That’s a must," West said.

He said he did not know what impact moving the building to a new location would have on existing trees at the nature center. Such details would be considered during the planned schematic design phase.

The city’s master plan anticipates that an outdoor learning area could replace the existing building near an existing waterfall and pond. A pavilion could provide shelter for visitors on the site.

In addition to a new location for the potential replacement building, design considerations identified in the staff report include energy efficiency, a low need for maintenance, separate community gathering space that does not interfere with programming, the three classrooms, accommodations for a hearing loop system, increased youth, family and adult programming, interactive exhibits and an enhanced partnership with the St. Louis Park School District that includes programming for early childhood education and senior citizens.

Other design considerations include the addition of restrooms that are available to the public when the building is otherwise closed, staff office space and work areas, storage locations and a small rental room that could be used by book clubs or neighborhood groups.

A vision document in the Nov. 21 council packet said the main emphasis of community comments gathered online, during a Halloween party and during a community meeting related to a sense that the nature center "is great as it is."

The document continues regarding public sentiment, "Change very little unless change is required to allow (the nature center) to function and continue to offer the great programming it always has."

Of the comments, West said, "They know the building is in disrepair. We all understand that. But don’t make this stark museum – let’s make it still our hometown nature center with a warm, inviting feel."

The vision document states that people who attended a community input meeting said the ideal building "would fit into the larger natural context of the site and would disappear." Residents expressed a preference for images including grass roofs and open window walls for viewing instead of "more utilitarian structures," according to the document.

The city’s capital improvement plan anticipates the city would initiate an $11 million project in 2019, although West said he remains "very cautious about that number."

He added, "We’ve very early in the process."

If the project did cost $11 million, a 20-year bond to pay for the project could create an annual tax impact to the median value home in St. Louis Park – about $240,000 – of $32-35 per year, according to the city staff report.

West said comments from the members of the public make clear that they treasure Westwood Hills Nature Center.

He said, "We know it’s a very valuable asset for residents and visitors."

Community members who would like to comment on the nature center planning may contact West at 952-924-2554 or jwest@stlouispark.org.

Contact Seth Rowe at seth.rowe@ecm-inc.com


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