Abbott Northwestern Hospital is planning to build a new central utilities plant that would replace decades-old equipment and set the stage for a series of changes to the hospital’s campus.

The medical center in Minneapolis wants to build a $122 million facility on the northwest corner of its campus that would house new backup generators as well as new boilers for steam, which the hospital uses for heat and sterilizing medical equipment.

Abbott also is planning a $77 million parking garage and transportation center at the south edge of its campus that might eventually allow for a new patient care building near the main hospital.

Expanded utilities along with new parking that might eventually replace an existing garage would allow Abbott to update medical services that are expected to be the most advanced within the Allina Health System, said Ann Madden Rice, the hospital’s president, in an interview.

“Some of our buildings were built in the 1920s,” Rice said of the hospital. “Medical care has changed a lot, and some of our facilities need to be significantly altered to continue to deliver the level of care that Allina expects.”

Abbott Northwestern Hospital is one of Minnesota’s largest medical centers. It had the third highest tally of staffed hospital beds in the state during 2017, data show. The hospital is part of Allina, which is one of the state’s largest nonprofit groups with 11 hospitals and more than 60 clinics.

The new central utility plant would be built at the southeast corner of Chicago Avenue and E. 26th Street, close to where the existing facility sits. Walking to the current utilities plant from the hospital’s executive offices is a bit like stepping back in time.

Three massive boilers that stand 22 feet tall date back to 1956, when they were manufactured by a company that’s no longer in business. The largest of the boilers was built in 1973 and generates 60,000 pounds of steam per hour.

The boilers are massive gray boxes that produce a constant, low rumble, like a street cleaner driving by.

“It’s not too bad, but once these are fired up big-time, it gets really noisy,” says Steven Waderich, director of facilities management, during a tour this week. “We have a couple doors open here with a cage — when these boilers are operating at full capacity, it pulls a lot of air.”

The boilers generate high-pressure steam that is required to sterilize about 5 million pieces of surgical equipment each year. Steam that’s passed through pressure-reducing stations is used to heat Abbott Northwestern Hospital as well as Children’s Minnesota, which is just to the north of Abbott’s campus.

The new boilers will be more energy efficient, hospital officials say. That’s also true of backup generators that will be replaced. The generators run on diesel fuel, so Abbott maintains a 96-hour supply.

An unusually bitter snap of cold weather in January and February 2019 shows why efficiency matters. Utilities in Minneapolis at the time were struggling to provide enough natural gas just to heat homes, so large power users like Abbott were told to use alternate power sources.

Given the extreme temperatures, the hospital was running all four boilers, which burned through diesel fuel at a rate of 420 gallons per hour. During that week, the hospital spent about $92,000 on diesel, which typically costs about three times the price of natural gas.

“We think the carbon footprint would benefit from an investment like this,” Rice said of the infrastructure project. The existing equipment “is not as efficient as what’s available today,” she said.

Construction of the new utilities plant will require taking down two small buildings at the north edge of the hospital campus. A new parking garage planned for the south end would be built on what’s now a surface parking lot that’s bordered by the Midtown Green­way bike trail.

Beyond parking, the structure would include bicycle storage, locker rooms and showers so more workers could bike to work. There’s also a plan to add two floors of parking on top of a garage that sits at the southeast corner of Chicago Avenue and E. 28th Street.

Abbott Northwestern has begun seeking regulatory approvals for the central utility plant. Once the plant and parking structures are built, the hospital could then demolish a parking garage that’s now at the center of the hospital campus and build new space for patient care, Rice said.

Abbott Northwestern officials have been describing the plan to public officials for some time, and on Thursday night presented it at a public meeting of a neighborhood group.

Planning for the patient care space would take place over the next two years, Rice said, while construction on the parking garage could begin in 2020, pending necessary approvals. She said the central utilities plant might be ready to go online in 2 ½ to 3 years.

Two overriding goals with the projects, Rice said, are for the hospital to stay within its geographic footprint while helping to reduce the number of car trips coming into the neighborhood.


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck