[The Des Moines Register]

Mercy Medical Center plans to demolish a sprawling apartment complex at its Des Moines hospital to make room for more inpatient facilities, hospital officials told The Register on Wednesday.

The move, which will displace more than 200 residents at the Mercy Park apartments, drew criticism from housing advocates, who described it as a setback for the efforts to maintain affordable rentals in the metro area.

But officials with Mercy say they are giving residents more than 10 months to move and have hired a housing specialist to help residents find a new place to live. Mercy is also offering up to $1,000 off rent to cover moving expenses and is working with apartment developers to find new housing for residents, said Laura Vanden Bosch, director of public relations and marketing for Mercy Medical Center.

“We wanted to give residents lots of time to review their options and make a decision,” she said.

The hospital plans to close Mercy Park in September. The apartment complex includes 202 rental units in four six-story buildings lining Second Avenue just south of University Avenue.

Tearing down the apartments will clear about 4.5 acres for development on the east side of the hospital.

Mercy hasn’t decided when it will demolish the apartments or finalized plans for building more inpatient facilities at the site. A long-range plan completed this year highlighted a need for more inpatient hospital rooms. Mercy’s inpatient towers were state-of-the-art when built in the 1970s, but weren’t designed for today’s standards, which demand larger patient rooms and more uniform floor plans, Vanden Bosch said.

“We know the decision to close Mercy Park is a difficult one,” she said. “These people we consider part of our family but at the end of the day… our core mission is providing health care and we need to make sure we are offering the facilities to do that.”

Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, called the decision to close Mercy Park “a blow to affordable housing.” Cheap, well-maintained rental units like Mercy Park are hard to find in metro Des Moines, especially those within walking distance to a grocery store and medical services, he said.

Affordable apartments near hospitals are important because they provide housing for workers like cleaning staff and nurses assistants who often work odd hours and benefit significantly from being able to walk to work, Burmeister said.

“If I were a hospital administrator, I would see (the apartments) as an asset,” he said.

Mercy Park apartments are open to any renters and are not income- or age-restricted. They are not reserved to hospital patients or employees. Rent ranges from from $575 for an efficiency to $1,044 for a three-bedroom.

Such affordable housing is in short supply around Des Moines. A recent survey showed a need for about 10,000 more rentals for low-income households. About one-third of local residents qualify as housing-cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

“Were in a market right now where there are very few vacancies, and I don’t suspect that is going to change 10 months from now,” Burmeister said.

The Mercy Park apartments were built in 1966. Mercy bought them in 1985 with an eye toward possible future expansion. The assessed value of the apartments is about $9 million, according to Polk County records.

Mercy Park apartments will close in September 2016.Mercy Park apartments will close in September 2016. (Photo: Special to The Register/Polk County Assessor)