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Construction is scheduled to begin in May on a spacious new interpretive center in St. Louis Park that will feature classrooms, exhibit space, raptor cages, scenic outdoor decks and state-of-the-art energy efficiency.

The new facility is expected to open in early 2020 at the Westwood Hills Nature Center, a popular 160-acre recreation and educational destination near the intersection of Interstate 394 and Hwy. 169.

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for April 22, which happens to be Earth Day.

“Shovels in the ground May 1 is what we’re looking at,” weather and other factors permitting, said Jason West, the city’s recreation superintendent.

At 13,500 square feet, the $12 million interpretive center will be five times the size of the existing building, a concrete structure built in 1981 that hosts exhibits, educational programming and other activities in its cramped quarters.

Mark Oestreich, manager of the nature center, said the current building is so small that if a school group is visiting there’s no room for drop-in groups.

“There’s a lot of conflict in that way,” he said. “We think of it as a single-use facility, kind of like a one-room schoolhouse.”

With three multipurpose rooms, the new building will accommodate multiple programs simultaneously, West said. The three rooms can open to form one big room for weddings and other large-group rentals.

The facility’s original $12.5 million budget drew criticism last year from some residents, who argued that the money could be better spent on social programs. But opposition has quieted down since construction bids came in about $200,000 under budget, West said. Average taxpayers will see an estimated $34 to $37 increase in their bills.

Plans call for a contemporary-style building with exhibit space, homes for raptors that visitors can view from outside the building, a conference room and lounges.

Restrooms will be available outside the building for use by hikers in the nature center when the interpretive center is closed.

Solar panels will generate power, and underground geothermal wells will regulate temperature. Oestreich said the goal is to make it a zero-energy building, meaning it generates about the same amount of energy onsite from renewable sources as it consumes. It will be one of the first commercial buildings of that kind in Minnesota, he said.

A bog site, taken from a construction zone in northern Minnesota and transplanted to a space near the interpretive center, will be part of the center’s updated stormwater management system. It will be designed to improve water quality while teaching visitors about aquatic life.

“This building is being designed as a teaching tool, to demonstrate, to educate, to use for [staff-provided] programming as well as hosting other programs,” Oestreich said.

The existing building is not energy-efficient and lacks sufficient office and storage space. It’s perched on a hill, not visible from the parking lot and difficult to reach for people with disabilities, Oestreich said. The new building will be on flat ground just 100 feet from the parking lot, which will be enlarged.

The current building will remain open during construction. When the new building opens, the old one will be “deconstructed” — a process that salvages reusable parts — and then razed, West said.

The Westwood Hills center, developed in the 1960s from a former country club, is home to deer, turkeys, mink and other wildlife. It hosts camps and other outdoor events as well as indoor programming, drawing about 36,000 visitors a year.

Cindy Walsh, operations and recreation director for St. Louis Park, has predicted the improved experience offered by the new building could potentially double annual visits within a few years.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583