MARIN COUNTY, SAN RAFAEL – With a design and ambiance surpassing even the highest-income serving facilities, the Marin County Board of Supervisor’s decision to build a centralized wellness center for low-income residents is probably the best possible use of money won from a lawsuit against tobacco.

The $32 million Marin Health and Wellness Campus is the epitome of state-of-the-art design and green building, offering a host of services for the low-income, uninsured and underinsured. This 2009 Business Journal Top Projects winner was funded through a $206 billion settlement between seven tobacco companies and 46 states.

“There was really disbelief by many in the community that this wonderful, beautiful and environmentally friendly health care and social services campus was so accessible to so many – and such a stark difference to what we had before: services spread out in 10 locations, in these dingy, over-crowded basement kind of operations,” said Marin Health and Human Services Director Larry Meredith.

The project was the county’s largest undertaking since the Marin Civic Center, according to Jeanne Miche, Marin Department of Public Works project manager and lead on the project.

“The fact is the space the programs were operating from before just was not adequate,” Ms. Miche said in an interview before the opening Nov. 16 last year.

“At the same time, it will be a great efficiency for the county, moving everything in one location and offering a greater economy of scale.”

The 74,000-square-foot center is the result of a massive renovation, completed by Seagate Properties, Dome Construction, Nova Partners and RMW architects. The five buildings in the Canal District of San Rafael were previously the home of Lucasfilm’s headquarters, and the 35-year-old infrastructure was nowhere near suited for health care operations.

“The design was a tremendous challenge. We didn’t want it to look like a standard office building, and there was an enormous amount of work that went into repositioning these kinds of buildings for medical services,” said Seagate Chief Financial Officer Dennis Fisco.

The construction team unveiled the   LEED gold-certified property on time and under-budget last November after about year of work. Among many unique design features, a parking lot in the center of the site was transformed into a courtyard, healing garden and social area for the community, and copper-plating thematically runs throughout buildings and rooflines. More than 75 percent of building waste was recycled, and solar panels fuel much of operations. Landscaping is drought-resistant and watered by recycled sources.

“When we actually started purchasing property in 2006, global warming was one of Marin County’s goals and objectives for its countywide plan, and we thought why not make an example of this government project and shoot for LEED gold,” said Assistant Director of Public Works Saaid Fakharzadeh in an interview earlier this year.

In addition to consolidating a multitude of services into one location, the property is within walking distance to an estimated 40 percent of its clients and connected to others through public transit and bicycle trails. The campus is also connected to the Marin Community Clinics' new site at 3110 Kerner Blvd. through sidewalks and parking.

Programs located in the campus include: youth and family mental health services; WIC; children and family health; the Children’s Health Initiative; Medi-Cal billing referral and enrollment; community prevention and health promotion; the Community Advisory Board; volunteering services; outpatient mental health and support and treatment after release; Buckelew employment and independent living; Community Action Marin; gynecology; family planning; maternity; obstetric; immunization; and STD, Hepatitis, TB and HIV/AIDS testing and treatment.

The space also includes a conference center for community events, which most recently hosted a carbon-reduction planning workshop by the Marin Transportation Authority. In March this year, the Buckelew program opened the Blue Skies Cafe on the wellness campus, offering employment for the mentally disabled. The coffee and lunch cart offers healthy and sustainably made meals and drinks supplied by local organic roaster Equator Estate Coffee & Teas and San Rafael-based Jessie & Laurent food.