St. Louis Park officials are looking to build a $12 million facility to house the Westwood Hills Nature Center, replacing an aging and crowded structure that has hosted most of its activities for nearly 40 years.

Westwood Hills draws about 36,000 visitors a year, according to staff. Schools from across the west metro take eager children to check out its exhibits, and nearby residents stroll through the grounds on their afternoon walks.

But the interpretive center — a concrete, angular building where most of Westwood Hills’ exhibits and youth activities take place — is too small, officials say. Visiting groups often stumble over one another, and there is not enough storage for all that the center has acquired since it opened in 1981.

“We currently operate out of a … one-room schoolhouse,” said Jason West, the city’s recreation superintendent. “It’s just not efficient for our programming needs.”

The new facility, scheduled to open in 2020, would be five times larger than the current center at 13,500 square feet, with enough room for three classrooms, a community space on the east and adjoining raptor cages on the west.

It also would be more accessible for visitors with disabilities. People must walk up a curved road to reach the existing center, but the new building would be just off the parking lot, also to be expanded.

The new building would be energy efficient, project leaders say, with rooftop solar panels expected to offset the building’s energy usage over time. Lights would automatically dim depending on the time of day.

The City Council is expected to vote on the building in late April or early May, said Cindy Walsh, operations and recreation director for St. Louis Park. Bids could be accepted as soon as this fall, with construction slated to begin in spring 2019. The existing center would be demolished once the new building is finished.

Needed (but pricey) update

Westwood Hills, like other nature centers sprinkled across the Twin Cities, is considered a hidden gem by its residents. It hosts weekly school classes as well as summer and winter camps.

Volunteers care for in-house critters, including turtles and raptors, and run popular events such as a puppet story time. Wild deer and turkeys wander freely through its 160 acres.

Project leaders and Westwood Hills staff answered questions from residents at a recent meeting. Most praised the buiding’s design and accessibility. David Yakes, who lives in St. Louis Park, said the new center could be an even better educational tool for schools.

“If we don’t put money on this, I think it’s an opportunity that we’re passing up on,” he said.

But some were critical of the project’s multimillion-dollar price tag. At $12 million, the project would mean an increase of about $35 a year for the average homeowner, according to city officials.

“Something needs to be done. It’s too small, too outdated,” said Joan Fenton, who lives near Westwood Hills. “But $12 million is just a lot of money.”

Fenton said St. Louis Park spends too much money on single projects, such as the recently opened Recreation Outdoor Center, and not enough on social issues.

“My concern is the bigger picture,” she said. “If there is one homeless person, one hungry person or one lonely senior citizen in this town, we have no business spending any money on this building.”

Another resident, Margot Avey, echoed Fenton’s concerns.

“There are some things that they could change a little bit to make it less expensive,” she said. “I’m not opposed to [renovation], just lesser cost is all.”

Walsh said project leaders would make final revisions to the design before presenting it to the council. She said the new building would make visiting the nature center a better experience for all.

“I expect our visitors will probably double within the first few years,” she said.