Project calls for Mercy Hospital to leave Portland's West End in four years

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Mercy Hospital is reviving plans to move out of Portland’s West End and consolidate operations at its Fore River Parkway campus with an $80 million to $100 million project scheduled for completion by its 2018 centennial.

The proposal announced Wednesday would add up to 250,000 square feet of hospital space and nearly 170,000 square feet of new offices, according to Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, which merged with Mercy in 2013.

Planning for the project, which is substantially larger than what the hospital proposed in 2006, is in the early stages and no decision has been made about the future of the hospital’s handsome brick campus on State Street, where West End residents and many others in the city have come to depend on accessible health care. Mercy is focusing first on receiving approval for the expansion plans, which are before the city’s Planning Board.

“Honestly, we’re in such an early stage we need to figure out what we can do, what we need this (development) to be,” said Robert Nutter, Mercy’s vice president and chief operating officer. “The need for acute in-patient beds is certainly different than it was years ago. What we’re trying to do is get our basic homework done, to understand what the limits are on the site.”

Putting all of its hospital operations in one location could save the hospital $9.5 million a year, according to Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

Mercy has long wanted to consolidate its facilities at the Fore River site, said Mercy spokeswoman Susan Corliss, but the process was halted two years ago until the merger with Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems was completed.

Portland’s Planning Board now must determine whether the proposed development is similar enough to the 2006 plans to avoid hashing out a new zoning agreement.

Building plans at the Fore River complex have been limited by a 3.5-acre pond at the center of the site. Realizing the pond would impede its ability to build future additions, Mercy has received permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection that will allow it to fill in the pond and build on top of it. Mercy paid $834,000 to offset the destruction of the wetland, which was formerly a gravel pit.

Mercy already has a 137,000-square-foot hospital and an 80,000-square-foot medical office building at the Fore River Parkway site. The new project also would add two parking structures with 1,200 spaces.

If the hospital’s projections hold, construction could start by 2015 at the latest and be completed for the 2018 hospital centennial.

The hospital has kept the West End Neighborhood Association informed about its consolidation plans, group member Rosanne Graef said. Residents met in March with hospital officials, who laid out their plans.

“Since they got bought out by Eastern Maine (Healthcare Systems), that brought a whole new dimension to it,” Graef said. “We’re extremely interested in it, and there are quite a few people in the neighborhood concerned about losing Mercy at State Street.”

Although no plans have been completed for the historic brick complex, Graef said a best-case scenario for the aging campus would be a takeover by an educational institution. She also could see housing as a viable alternative, or a mix of both.

“I think the biggest thing is no surprises,” she said. “Keep us informed as they move along. People want to know what’s coming at them, especially when it’s right in their own backyard.”

Mercy Hospital began operating during the 1918 flu epidemic, when the Sisters of Mercy started treating residents in Portland at Queen’s Hospital at State and Congress streets.

In 1943, the nonprofit hospital opened its 150-bed facility at 144 State St. The hospital was expanded in 1952 and renovated in the 1980s.

Mercy also has locations in Windham, Westbrook, Yarmouth and Gorham.

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