New details on Health First's planned Merritt Island hospital, 'wellness village' – Florida Today

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Health First’s massive plan for a new hospital and “wellness village” off State Road 520 on Merritt Island is starting to get its first formal public airings, as the project seeks regulatory approval.
In May, Health First will seek the support of the Brevard County Planning and Zoning Board and the Brevard County Commission for a series of zoning changes and related waivers that would allow the project to move forward.
Health First hopes to open the new seven-story, 120-bed hospital as early as 2025. It would replace the current six-story, 150-bed Cape Canaveral Hospital on State Road 520 in Cocoa Beach, which would close when the new hospital opens.
Earlier this week, more than 50 invited Merritt Island residents and business owners attended an informal open house at the former Merritt Island Pro-Health & Fitness building to see initial artist renderings of the project and ask questions of Health First officials.
Lance Skelly, Health First’s system director for public and media relations, said the response from attendees was generally positive, with the chief topics of concern raised about traffic and noise issues.
What to expect:Health First updates plans for ‘wellness villages’ for Melbourne, Merritt Island
High-ranking hospital:Newsweek ranks Health First’s Cape Canaveral Hospital among nation’s best
According to Health First’s preliminary development plan filed with the county, the project will have a number of components, with a total of 828,000 square feet of development uses. Among them:
Located on top of the parking structure will be components of the wellness village. The wellness village will consist of the medical office building, child day care center, fitness center, coffee shop, education center, spa, retail, food hall, market/juice bar, event space, amphitheater and information tower. The wellness village also will contain landscaping and pedestrian walkways, as well as emergency, maintenance and event vehicle access. 
“It’s an all-inclusive one-stop shop for the hospital,” Skelly said. “It’s an amazing, unique design. It’s going to be the latest, greatest, and it’s going to be right there” on a 15.05-acre site across State Road 520 from Merritt Square mall.
Skelly said Health First is not releasing cost estimates for the project at this time. The project is expected to break ground in 2023 and be completed in 2025.
While the Merritt Island project is the only new hospital that Health First is planning, it also plans to develop two other health villages — in Melbourne and Palm Bay. The three projects were first announced in 2019, but construction had been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Melbourne wellness village will be adjacent to Health First’s Holmes Regional Medical Center, its largest hospital. Groundbreaking for the Melbourne wellness village is scheduled for 2023. The 22-acre Melbourne wellness village is expected to be completed in 2024.
The Palm Bay project would be near Malabar and Minton roads. Health First has not released a timeline for that project.
Health First said its wellness villages “will be destination centers for consumers that embody the transition from an era almost exclusively focused on sick care to an era of wellness.” 
In a statement, Matthew Gerrell, Health First’s chief executive officer for retail services,
described the wellness villages as “unique and special in scope, size, design and offerings. This truly is cutting-edge, but we could not accomplish or even dare imagine something so ambitious without the voice of our customers and community by our side or at the heart of all we do.”    
Skelly said, in addition to the new hospital itself, people attending the open house were excited about such things as the dining options, the on-site walking trails and the hurricane protection level of the buildings.
The county’s advisory Planning and Zoning Board is scheduled to discuss Health First’s Merritt Island project on May 9. It will issue a recommendation to the County Commission, which will consider Health First’s request for the zoning change on May 26.
Health First wants to change the zoning of the site to be a planned unit development. The property now has a combination of general retail commercial zoning and retail/warehousing/wholesale commercial zoning. The planned unit development designation allows for greater flexibility in developing a large project like this.
Most of the property in the surrounding area is commercial, although there also is residential property nearby, including the Harbour Del Rio Condominiums, with its closest condo building about 480 feet from the northwest corner of Health First property.
A county staff analysis of the proposal said it could “act as a catalyst for additional development within Merritt Island and the surrounding area.”
Health First said the project would “complement and support the surrounding area.”
Health First is seeking various waivers from county code for the project, including related to building height, setbacks, distance between structures and heliport requirements.
The zoning discussion in May will be a prelude to the county’s formal review of the project’s site plan, which also will be the time when traffic issues are studied in greater detail. A preliminary estimate by Health First’s consultants indicates that the project will generate 7,971 additional vehicle trips on a typical weekday. A formal traffic study will be undertaken to further examine the issue.
The current Cape Canaveral Hospital in Cocoa Beach has more than 200 full-time attending physicians, 600 associates and 150 volunteers.
That hospital opened in 1962, and will remain open until the new hospital on Merritt Island opens, Skelly said. So will an adjacent six-story medical office building.
In 2019, when its expansion plans were first announced, Health First said the wellness center initiative at the three sites would cost a total of $600 million. But costs likely have risen since then.
Health First is Brevard County’s largest health care provider, with four hospitals — Cape Canaveral, Holmes, Palm Bay Hospital and Viera Hospital. Its operations also include health insurance plans, a multispecialty medical group, and outpatient and wellness services.  
Health First said it will provide updates on its wellness villages project on a special website:
Dave Berman is business editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Berman at Twitter: @bydaveberman.
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