Medicine has always been a calling card for the city of Rochester, Minnesota—or at least since Dr. William Worrall Mayo settled there in 1863. The foundation that bears his name is now the state’s largest employer, sustaining nearly 33,000 jobs throughout Minnesota and beckoning more than 2.5 million visitors to Rochester each year. Now an ambitious master plan led by Perkins Eastman aims to help the Mayo Clinic sustain that economic engine over the next two decades by investing in medical and municipal amenities alike.
Mayo and private developers plan to pour $6.5 billion into the so-called Destination Medical Center plan over the next 20 years. The challenge will be in preserving Rochester’s small town charm while supercharging medical tourism and potentially doubling the population of Minnesota’s third largest city.
That is a balancing act not lost on Lisa Clarke, executive director of an economic development agency set up to guide Destination Medical Center’s design and implementation.
“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t disrupt the charm of Rochester,” said Clarke, explaining that since the plan first emerged in 2009, the team behind it has been conducting research to determine where and how to invest in development. “Seventy percent of the time when a patient comes to Rochester, they’re in the community,” said Clarke. “It quickly became apparent that it’s not just about one product or one service or one building.”
Perkins Eastman’s Peter Cavaluzzi also stressed the importance of community meetings and the role they play in contextually nuanced design.
“It couldn’t be something that was imported or that overwhelmed the cultural trajectory of the city of Rochester. It needed to feel like it belonged to the city,” said Cavaluzzi. “At the same time it completely reset their scale and idea of what their city is.”
The resulting plan is organized around six new districts spread across 550 acres: It calls for a revamped downtown waterfront along the Zumbro River; an ice-skating rink at the foot of Pelli Clarke Pelli’s Gonda Building; an urban office park for biotech companies dubbed “Discovery Square”; and potentially a new rail connection to the Twin Cities, 90 miles to Rochester’s north. This kind of investment could presage an explosion of new housing, hotels, and commercial space—as well as new high-tech medical facilities from Mayo—but Cavaluzzi said the plan’s emphasis on public spaces and walkability maintains the “hometown healthcare nature of Rochester.”
“Medical facilities are usually very antiseptic, very institutional. They also grow in ways that are very uncomfortable,” said Cavaluzzi. By contrast he claims that “Rochester has a chance to create an authentic medical city.”
In 2013 the Minnesota Legislature approved a $585 million funding package for public infrastructure to complement the $3.5 billion Mayo Clinic plans to kick in over the life of the project. None of the public money can be used to develop private Mayo Clinic spaces.
But as the market for medical tourism increasingly caters to wealthy international clients, some worry the needs of local residents—including affordable housing and historic preservation—could clash with Mayo’s business model. Foreign real estate investment has already begun flowing into Rochester.
To mediate such potential conflicts, Clarke said that Mayo will reevaluate their plans and respond to community input every five years. Work could soon begin on the first phase of the project, “The Heart of the City,” which will focus on retail and commercial development around the intersection of 1st Avenue and 1st Street, where an arched “Light Pavilion” canopy will hang overhead.
“It’s something totally unexpected for a hospital,” said Cavaluzzi.