ST. LOUIS — Ponce Health Sciences University announced an $80 million investment toward creating a new medical school in north St. Louis, on the land of the former Pruitt-Igoe complex.
David Lenihan, a St. Louis native and president of Ponce Health Sciences University, said the medical school’s construction will be funded by the university’s operations — it already has a campus in Puerto Rico and one in downtown St. Louis — and by the investment group that owns it.
Leaders touted the move as a strategy to address a shortage of primary care physicians, which include pediatricians, family doctors and internists. The U.S. faces a shortage of up to 49,000 primary care doctors over the next decade, according to a 2018 report by the Missouri Hospital Association.
“We all know there’s a shortage. We all know there’s a problem,” Lenihan said.
He made the announcement at an event Friday at the Globe building in downtown St. Louis, where the university operates here. He described the expansion as a way to improve the quality of health care in the region and prepare students for jobs in the industry.
The proposed campus will serve up to 1,200 students with 120 faculty and staff. Construction is expected to begin in late 2020 or early 2021, and the first class of 150 could be admitted in the fall of 2022.
Lenihan said student recruitment will begin next year.
Ponce Health Sciences University was founded in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1977. It opened its St. Louis location in 2018.
The proposed medical school will be part of the NorthSide Regeneration Plan led by developer Paul McKee.
McKee bought hundreds of properties in north St. Louis, and in 2009 received approval to rebuild on large swaths of land there.
In 2016, McKee purchased the former site of the Pruitt-Igoe project — a hulking public housing complex built as part of the federal government’s postwar efforts to alleviate poverty. The 33-tower complex opened in the 1950s, just as the city began hemorrhaging population, and it was ultimately demolished in the 1970s after years of high vacancy rates and decay.
The site is near the future western headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
The first phase of the NorthSide Regeneration project includes a three-bed hospital that McKee plans to expand in the future. Already built are a GreenLeaf grocery and Zoom gas station, both on North Tucker Boulevard.
The medical school will be built on a section of the Pruitt-Igoe land, leased from NorthSide Regeneration. Lenihan said NorthSide Regeneration does not have an ownership position in the school but owns the land it will occupy.
The structure will be built by Clayco.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, said in a statement that north St. Louis suffers from significant health care disparities, manifested in higher rates of chronic illnesses and lower life expectancies than other parts of the region. He called the medical school “an important project that will increase access to quality healthcare in underserved neighborhoods.”
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the announcement is “great news for economic development in the region and will further strengthen Missouri’s role as a national leader in medical education.”
Auris Alvarado, a student at the St. Louis campus of Ponce, attended Friday’s event. She started the program in August .
The 28-year-old, originally from Puerto Rico, is working to complete her one-year master’s program. She said the program provides opportunities for students who didn’t do as well as others during their undergraduate work, due to life circumstances and other factors beyond their control.
“They gave me a chance to prove that I can excel,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado said many of her classes require students to watch lecture videos outside of class, so that class time can be used for discussion, activities and testing — a model known as a “flipped classroom.”
The current St. Louis program offers a master’s in medical sciences and a doctorate in clinical psychology. The proposed north St. Louis campus would add a doctor of medicine.
St. Louis University School of Medicine will refer interested students to the Ponce Health Sciences University programs and will interview Ponce graduates who meet guidelines for SLU’s doctor of medicine program, according to a news release.
Lenihan said the university opens opportunities for promising students who may not be able to get into medical school on the first try.
“They’re really smart, but maybe they tripped up freshman year in chemistry,” Lenihan said. “This gives them a second chance to prove themselves.”