Construction in Huntsville, Ala., for medical office space

Governors Drive, long Huntsville's main street of medicine, suddenly has some competition.

Five large medical office buildings are either under construction or soon to break ground on Whitesburg Drive, adding about 200,000 square feet of prime space for doctors who work at nearby Crestwood Medical Center. The buildings will line both sides of Whitesburg between Teakwood Drive and Whitesport Circle, transforming an area best known for its restaurants into a "Doctors Row" of cardiologists, orthopedic surgeons and other specialists.

"We're growing, and our expansion is really causing the need for more physician office space on or near our campus," Crestwood spokeswoman Lori Light said Thursday. "Doctors are busy in the hospital, they're busy in the office, and this will give them a quick travel time."

Bellwood Office Center opened Jan. 2 with a large cardiology practice on the top floor. Across the street, another building is nearing completion. Triad Properties, which built the Big Spring Summit tower downtown, is scheduled to break ground in April on the first of two planned medical office buildings at the old Mayfair Church of Christ site.

SportsMed Orthopaedic Surgery & Spine Center is also in the midst of a major expansion of its distinctive, green-domed campus, adding a massive wing that is scheduled to bring the practice under one roof late next year. It's now scattered among three buildings.

Ben Walker, a partner with SportsMed on its expansion, got the new construction rolling with the 30,000-square-foot Bellwood Office Center, built on part of the old Fleming farm on the east side of Whitesburg Drive. Walker is married to Sally Fleming Walker, whose family still owns a large amount of property in the area.

Walker said his development company will share ownership of the building with the physician tenants. Huntsville Cardiovascular Clinic just relocated from Balmoral Drive; Alabama Digestive Disorders, a gastroenterology practice, is due to move in June from the Crestwood campus.

"What you wind up getting here are largely expanding practices," Walker said Thursday. "Part of the trend is that doctors that used to rent want to own, or at least have an ownership share in the building. It works out well for both of us."

Across Whitesburg Drive, a development company with ties to SCI Systems founder Olin King is adding a two-story medical office building where a Girl Scout headquarters once stood. It will house General Surgery Associates, now in the Crestwood Medical Pavilion; and Urology Specialists, now on Airport Road near Memorial Parkway.

Right next door, Triad Properties' planned Mayfair Professional Center will have 105,000 square feet of medical office space in two nearly identical brick-and-glass buildings. They will replace the old Mayfair Church of Christ, which has a date with the wrecking ball this spring.

Triad Principal William Stroud said the company is spending about $18 million on the project and will sell or lease the space, depending on what doctors need. It is leasing the property from Peter Lowe, a Huntsville resident and University of Alabama trustee who will have an ownership stake.

"We're excited about what's going on down there," Stroud said. "Ben Walker sets the bar high, and that's very good for the neighborhood."

Huntsville's Fuqua & Partners Architects designed the SportsMed expansion and the Mayfair Professional Center.

"I think it's good to have a second medical district," Blake Bentley, SportsMed's chief executive officer, said Thursday. "There are going to be some nice buildings that are convenient for patients.

The City Council and City Planning Commission laid the groundwork for the medical office growth along Whitesburg Drive with a major rezoning in late 2005 and early 2006.

The changes came after Crestwood Medical Center and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods agreed to a new medical district zoning - M-2. Under that zoning, buildings can be no taller than five stories, must have extensive landscaping and be at least 100 feet from the nearest residential property line.

City Councilman Bill Kling, whose district includes parts of Whitesburg Drive, said the new medical buildings are a result of that cooperation and the tendency for physicians to locate near hospitals.

The construction boom has a downside, though: More traffic. During a council work session Thursday night, Kling urged City Transportation Director Richard Kramer to accelerate plans to widen Whitesburg Drive from California Street to Airport Road.

"I think seven lanes needs a hard look," he said.

Staff writer John Peck contributed to this story.