UnitedHealth project has neighbors worried

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 2, 2012 - 11:23 AM

The health care giant has started building an Eden Prairie campus, prompting concern among residents about traffic and other effects on their neighborhood.

In the 21 years that Corrine Lynch has lived in Eden Prairie, the biggest change to the area is nearing as a new neighbor, health care giant UnitedHealth Group, moves in.

From her backyard windows, Lynch now sees towering cranes and beginnings of eight-story buildings that the company is constructing as part of a 1.5 million-square-foot office development.

As the massive, $250 million UnitedHealth project takes root between Hwys. 62 and 212, Lynch and other Eden Prairie residents of the Cherokee Trail neighborhood are raising concerns about how their own health and quality of life could be affected.

They're meeting with city staff in the coming days after making a presentation to the City Council last month, hoping to address issues before the city begins widening Shady Oak Road in November for the extra traffic.

The project promises to be a big boost to the city's tax base. But it will also usher 6,700 UnitedHealth employees into the area. Residents worry that it could jam up an already clogged Crosstown Hwy. 62, increase pollution with thousands more idling cars, and spur commuters to cut through residential streets.

"We're concerned the end result may be frustration and decreasing property values, because who's going to want to live in that mess?" Lynch said. "I don't know what else we can do."

City officials say they understand concerns and have adjusted plans to improve landscaping to be a buffer between the road and residences, at an increased cost for UnitedHealth.

"They want this corridor to look nice as well," Public Works Director Robert Ellis said of UnitedHealth. "UnitedHealth Group, throughout this project, has really come to the table to accept responsibility for traffic improvements."

Neighborhood not notified

Over the next four years, UnitedHealth plans to build four buildings and parking ramps on the 71 acres near wooded wetlands. Two eight-story towers are under construction now and will open in 2013. The other two buildings planned are a 10-story and 15-story tower. The latter will be the tallest building in Eden Prairie.

Despite living about a quarter mile away, the neighborhood wasn't notified of the UnitedHealth project because the city is only required to notify residents within 500 feet of the site. The city, however, hosted two public meetings about the road construction last year and last August, attended by about 50 people.

As a result of residents' concerns, Ellis said the city has added more trees to the 200 trees that will be planted along the roadway, replacing large ones cut down for the construction. To boost the aesthetics, the city is adding more colorful vegetation like purple coneflower, decorative fencing, benches and stone retaining walls.

Improvements will mostly be funded by UnitedHealth, which is picking up the tab for about 91 percent of the $11.3 million roadway-related project; the rest is paid by the city, which will fund $700,000 for trails and a turn lane, and Hennepin County, which is paying $300,000 for trails.

UnitedHealth spokesman Dimitri Senaratna said the company is sensitive to community concerns and "wants to be a good corporate citizen."

Looming Hwy. 62 concerns

The year-long construction on Shady Oak Road starts in November, widening it to two lanes in each direction, adding turn lanes to enter UnitedHealth's campus at two intersections, and adding a double entry ramp for westbound Hwy. 62 to adjust for the likely doubling of traffic by 2030, mostly due to UnitedHealth.

Stacy Bettison, a resident since 2009 and member of the Eden Prairie Conservation Commission, commended the city for responding to concerns and plans to follow up in a meeting with the city soon. Both residents and the city plan to monitor cars cutting through the neighborhood to see if traffic rises as a result of the project.

"The real burning question is what does 62 east look like going forward?" she said. "If it's backed up that close [now], it's going to be a total log jam."

No solution in sight

A solution, though, for Hwy. 62 may not come in the near future -- or ever.

Land on UnitedHealth's campus has been set aside for a Southwest Corridor light rail line station, but that's not expected to arrive until 2018. And the Minnesota Department of Transportation's 20-year expansion plan doesn't include any added lanes to Hwy. 62.

"[Hwy.] 62 is one of our most congested corridors," said MnDOT engineer April Crockett. But the only future work would be repairs; no money is set aside for adding lanes, besides auxiliary lanes to and from exits. "We're not going to be able to address all the congestion in the Twin Cities."

When the time comes for Lynch's neighbors to sell their homes, she said she hopes the development doesn't affect property values.

"If traffic is terrible and they look out at all these looming buildings, that's not going to help," said Lynch, a member of the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District board f managers.

In the meantime, she doesn't have any plans to leave the home where she and her husband have raised four children and spent two decades near Bryant Lake.

"I really love the neighborhood," she said, "so we're just kind of holding our breath to see what 6,700 more cars will do."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib

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