Neal St. Anthony
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A decade ago, the dirtiest mile of the 22-mile-long Minnehaha Creek was little more than a stagnant drainage ditch that ran through the “backyard” of Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park and other commercial properties.

Duane Spiegle is the vice president of real estate for Park Nicollet Health Services, of which Methodist is the flagship with its 28-acre campus. He reached out to the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District about permits for a hospital expansion. It inspired a discussion about restoring the creek to its original meander and depth, cleaning out invasive species and capturing stormwater into what had become a several-acre stink pot.

Today, the backyard of Methodist is a several-acre showcase of clean water, wetland filtration, flourishing native plants, fish, bees and other habitat that Methodist said plays a great role in the health of patients, staff and the public. They enjoy it out a window or along a boardwalk Methodist built that connects to area walkways.

“What we considered a nuisance is now a great asset,” Spiegle said last week. “Having a healthy stream and wetland incorporated into our Methodist campus differentiates us. This place of healing now promotes well-being inside and outside.”

Methodist, part of $1.6 billion-revenue Park Nicollet Health Services, starting in 2009, has spent less than $2 million on what has become an $8.4 million project among public-and-private partners that border the once-rancid, mile-long stretch of creek through St. Louis Park and Hopkins. The partners also reduced flood risk and heightened awareness about the benefits of working with nature.

Jim Holm, a retired engineering manager at Methodist, chuckled that he had to “fight for the capital” at first for the wetlands project and later to increase native-planting landscapes and so-called “smart irrigation” that dramatically cut water consumption and for ways of reducing salt without compromising vehicular safety, as well as shrinking the size of a once-vast lawn.

Methodist’s long boardwalk through its nature preserve has become a much-praised environmental-and-health showcase.

The “green” movement in commercial space, firmly entrenched indoors with building managers who readily invest in energy-efficient HVAC systems, thermal glass and more to save fuel and money, is slowly spreading to the outdoor environment.

Generally, it’s cheaper to cut the grass and fertilize than to make long-term, conservation investments. These investments cost more up front but become worthwhile as water, grass-and-snow maintenance and other costs decline.

“Methodist is a leader because it has invested in the intangibles ... its environment, which benefits health and healing, and not just what delivers the fastest return on investment,” said Paulita LaPlante, an owner of 38-year-old Prescription Landscape of St. Paul, which works with Methodist, and is considered a local leader in the movement. “We try to get all our clients to invest increasingly [at least] in perennial gardens and trees. Whatever we can do to reduce mowing is in our long-term interest and the client’s.”

Last week, at a regional conference in St. Paul of the U.S. Green Building Council, there was increased focus on outside-the-building environment. Teams from Prescription Landscape and Wellington Management addressed “eco-friendly,” campuses, including walking paths, “climate-cognizant” landscaping and water management and conservation.

These also are top trends in the $100 billion landscaping business, according to the National Association of Landscaping survey of industry members in 2018. The biggest player, Pennsylvania-based Brightview, which has extensive operations in water-short California and the Southwest, has pushed industry trends with drought-tolerant and low-maintenance landscapes, efficient irrigation and water recycling.

Water-sewer rates in the Twin Cities are lower, $3-to-$4 per thousand gallons, LaPlante noted. However, up to 60% of water use in warm-weather months is watering. And there is a growing group of customers saving dollars through the use of smart-watering systems.

Steve Wellington is the founder of Wellington Management, which owns the Greenway Office Building, built 20-years ago on once-polluted land on several acres near Hiawatha Avenue and E. Lake Street. The building has won a slew of awards for integrating everything from solar energy, an insulating roof garden, geothermal heating and cooling, and using rain water to irrigate its expansive perennial gardens.

“The building is full and the rents are high enough,” said Wellington. “The energy costs are lower because of all the technology.

“However, property managers are quite bottom-line oriented, including us. And I still don’t see that many lawns ripped out for prairie grass,” he added. “Mowing is still cheaper. You still have to find vagrant weeds, but once [a prairie lawn] is established it works well.”

Wellington is happy to get greener, and can explain long-term financial and environmental benefits to owners so inclined.

And he and other building owners are pushed by tenant environmental committees, rising garbage fees, water rules and other pressures to implement everything from organics recycling to community gardens to capturing stormwater for rain gardens.

Wellington publishes a quarterly sustainability report that indicates slow-but-steady environmental trends.