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City, hospital officials meet with residents about Deerfield Drive expansion

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JAMES P. LEUTE
August 12, 2011
— It might have been five years ago that a Walmart Supercenter and Sam's Club went up on Janesville's northeast side, but the memories of that construction and its aftermath are still fresh for neighbors.

Many of those same neighbors referenced the Walmart project Thursday as they questioned Mercy Health System officials about a project that will start small but could potentially grow into a development with more square footage than Walmart and Sam's Club combined.


Mercy officials staged the meeting to lay out plans for a 23,000-square-foot physician clinic and emergency department on Deerfield Drive just north of Home Depot.


But officials also showed a site plan that could include more clinic buildings and a hospital that would total about 470,000 square feet.


Rich Gruber, Mercy's vice president of community advocacy, said the initial building is working it way through city channels now. It involves myriad issues, including but not limited to an updated traffic study that Mercy is paying for, as well as storm water discharge.


Gruber said the emergency department/clinic is proposed as the first phase of the site's development.


While the emergency department will be a licensed extension of Mercy's emergency department and Level II trauma center on its main campus on Mineral Point Avenue, Gruber said the new facility would likely be rated Level III.


While there's no timetable for future phases, Gruber said Mercy wants to present the site's full development potential so city officials can make intelligent decisions.


In fact, he said, further development at the 24-acre site could be 15 or 20 years away. Because health care is changing so quickly, he said Mercy officials have no way of knowing today exactly what the site could be used for down the road.


As part of a planned-unit development, Mercy would be required to get city approval for each and every building.


Gruber said Mercy hopes to appear before the city's plan commission in September for a conditional use permit for the initial phase.


Mercy officials have said they hope to open the new emergency department and clinic by the end of the year.


Gruber acknowledged Wednesday that planning, building and opening such a facility in four-plus months is aggressive, but he said it's a reflection of Mercy's way of doing business.


Constrained with just 16 emergency rooms at its main campus, the system needs eight more, he said. Because it's landlocked on the main campus, Mercy decided a satellite facility would fill the void and better serve patients on the northeast side.


"We identified a need, figured out a way to address it and are moving forward as quickly as we can to implement it," Gruber said.


In fact, Mercy's contractors are already moving dirt on the site. The city is allowing preliminary erosion and stormwater work with the understanding that if the project doesn't get final approval, the land will be returned to a tillable state.


Several residents questioned Gruber and Gale Price, the city's manager of building and development services, about traffic congestion, stormwater drainage and greenbelt buffering for neighbors in the Briar Crest subdivision.


Price said consultants should have an updated traffic study in two weeks that takes into account 470,000 square feet of Mercy development.


He said stormwater problems created by the Walmart development will soon be alleviated and should not be an issue with the Mercy development.


And unlike what happened with the Walmart development, trees in the greenbelt will not be touched without city approval, Gruber said.


"I think everyone learned a lot from the Walmart project," he said. "There were mistakes that aren't going to happen again."


Price said he has some concerns about the potential height of Mercy buildings in future phases. Current zoning does not restrict the height, something city staff will study further, he said.


Neighbors also expressed concerns over potential helicopter visits to the new emergency department.


Gruber said state law requires that the emergency department have a helipad, but he said helicopter traffic will almost always be in and out of the system's main hospital on Mineral Point Avenue.


"It would be a blue moon before you ever see a helicopter at that site," Gruber said. "Medical control at the main Mercy campus dictates where helicopters go, but it would defy all logic to fly a trauma patient to a likely Level III facility when we've got the Level II center where the treatment would be more intense."


That response didn't satisfy one neighbor, who said Gruber's oral assurances Thursday won't mean anything down the road.


Other concerns centered on noise, both from the increased traffic and development, as well as the potential for construction on double shifts to meet Mercy's timetable.


Gruber said the greenbelt should help buffer noises, and he said contractors would work as quickly and as quietly as possible.


"I apologize in advance if the noise bothers anyone," he said. "We think this will be a valuable addition to the community, and we hope that it more than offsets any discomfort we cause in the process."



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