Proposed Wakota Life Care Center Expansion

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The West St. Paul Planning Commission met this week to consider the proposed expansion of the Wakota Life Care Center on Robert Street. The Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the plan, citing concerns over the medical classification, the size of the proposed building, and a convoluted parking situation.

The proposal will go to the City Council on January 27 for further consideration.

The Proposal

Wakota Life Care Center is a nonprofit pregnancy center founded in 1976 with a pro-life/anti-abortion (however you want to label it) focus. They offer services including pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, education, and material assistance (diapers, blankets, clothes, etc.).

Located on Robert Street, they proposed demolishing their current 2,000-square-foot site and building a two-story, 9,785-square-foot facility. They went big with their plan, on the advice of Mayor Dave Napier, which included raising $3.2 million in a capital campaign. The extra space would replace a couple of storage pods they currently rely on and give them room to grow in the future.

City staff recommended approval with a number of conditions (which is normal), including a conditional use permit to allow Wakota to operate as a medical office and maintaining shared parking agreements that allowed Wakota to meet the required number of spaces.

The Arguments

During the public hearing portion of the meeting a number of residents spoke in opposition to the Wakota Life Care Center expansion. Their reasons included issues such as:

  • Medical office: A number of concerns surrounded the classification of Wakota Life Care Center as a medical office, considering the lack of required licensing. Dan Saad, the executive director of Wakota Life Care Center, noted that medical services (ultrasounds) account for only 13% of what they do.
  • City planning: While the Wakota Life Care Center proposal suggests that the design fits with city planning documents, some residents pointed to the updated Renaissance Plan for Robert Street and argued that a large building doesn’t fit with plans for this section of Robert Street.
  • Misleading information: Several residents pointed to inaccurate or misleading claims from Wakota Life, including offering advice that’s not based on evidence or science. Specific complaints included saying birth control can cause cancer (the American Cancer Society says yes and no) and touting partnerships with organizations that aren’t aware of a partnership with Wakota Life Care Center. (The American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics has explored a broader argument about the ethics of crisis pregnancy centers that puts some of these complaints in context.)

The Wakota Life Care Center did not respond to any of the concerns raised during the public hearing.

Planning Commission members themselves had concerns with the size of the building, the tenuous nature of the shared parking agreements, and concern over the lack of clarity with the medical office designation in the zoning and how Wakota Life meets the definition of a medical office.

  • Long-term vision: “This is a mess,” said Planning Commissioner Dan McPhillips. “It’s a lot of building, a hodgepodge of parking, and I don’t think it’s part of the vision we had for this community.”
  • Medical facility: “The definition of a medical office is ‘principally engaged,’ and what I heard from Mr. Saad is about 13% of what they do is for medical uses,” said Commissioner Tori Elsmore. “I don’t think this falls under that definition. That’s my biggest hangup.”
  • Multiple concerns: “I think we’re looking at a multitude of issues,” said Commissioner Samantha Green. “We’re not just talking about whether or not it’s a medical facility, we’re talking about parking, the footprint—if that was the only issue, then yes, we could make a recommendation. But we’re talking about issues that are a lot bigger than is it a medical facility.”

The Result

The Planning Commission ultimately voted unanimously to deny the plan. Next it will go to the City Council on January 27.

You can watch this Planning Commission meeting online.

To learn more about what the Planning Commission does, read our interview with Chair Morgan Kavanaugh.

Update (Jan. 27): City staff is recommending approval, though comments from Wakota Life Care Center’s executive director are raising eyebrows.

Update (Jan. 31): City Council approved the proposed expansion.

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    1. This story was about Planning Commission, not City Council. So the mayor, feckless or otherwise, was not present.

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