Defending the Twin Cities German Immersion School plans

CommentaryD

By Ronald Okenfuss 

I write this commentary in response to the recent op-ed pieces in the Bugle regarding Save Historic St. Andrew’s (SHSA) ongoing efforts to prevent the Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS) from constructing a properly designed renovation for its students, faculty and staff. 

The ongoing efforts of “Save Historic St. Andrew’s” have nothing to do with historic preservation but rather the weaponization of City processes and procedures to prevent the campus improvement initiative of the Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS) “in their neighborhood.”

Attacks on the Immersion School’s building plans should be seen for what they are and the City Council should vote accordingly against them. 

SHSA’s actions — I’ll list them below — are not appeals to save a historically significant building. SHSA’s “opinion / editorials” in area newspapers highlight not the historic preservation of the building — they wander from traffic concerns, to height variances, to the additional sound of more students, to parking and even to the NAACP’s stance against charter schools. 

These are the actions of “not in my backyard” neighbors using a building as an excuse to keep their immediate streets quiet and free of cars and kids. Is that really what we want St. Paul to be? A quiet museum of a neighborhood that never changes with no traffic, no investment, no young families?

Of course not. Vibrant communities, investing in children, top notch schools, creating communities of the future — all this drives quality of life and property values. This is what TCGIS is bringing to St. Paul.

Churches have a role in that vibrancy. But when the parishioners don’t pay for the upkeep and leave for the suburbs, and the architect’s family moves to Florida, do the rest of us really have to pay to keep up their old memories? Eighty percent of SHSA petitioners don’t even live in District 10 anymore. Responsibility for saving St. Andrew’s was clearly the responsibility of the parish — when they owned it. And now it’s time for former parishioners and the neighborhood to move on.

Here is a brief rundown of the other steps SHSA has taken since October 2018:

  • Filed a petition for historic designation over the School’s objection and without notifying the school, despite a personal assurance from an SHSA member that notification would be given. 
  • Filed a lawsuit against the School without notifying the school, (again) despite a personal assurance from an SHSA member that notification would be given. 
  • Opposed the School’s site plan and variance requests at every committee and commission despite the review and approval of professional City staff with deep experience in planning and zoning.
  • Appealed the School’s site plan and variance requests to the City Council.
  • Petitioned the state Environmental Review Board to require that an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) be done about the building plans as another delay tactic.
  • Filed two labor-intensive and costly Minnesota Data Privacy Act requests.

And it should be noted that SHSA has not been shy about using its connections in furtherance of these actions:

  • Its petition for historic designation was co-authored by the Historic Preservation Commission’s vice chair [now chair]
  • A second member of the Historic Preservation Commission voluntarily recused himself because of contact with SHSA. 
  • SHSA members include a former member of the Planning Commission, whose letter of opposition has been repeatedly, specifically, and disproportionately cited by name by current Planning Commission members who oppose the school’s plans.
  • It intervened to have a current Planning Commission member who supports the School’s plans from voting on the School’s site plan and variance requests.
  • It intervened to have the city attorney direct the Planning Commission to revote on the School’s site plan and variance requests.

I urge the City Council to put an end to this sad state of affairs and allow the school to move forward. As the City Council begins to vote on this issue, it should keep in mind the misuse of City procedures to block TCGIS investment. It is not about the building. We should value the community of the present and the children building our future. We all need to move on. 

Ronald Okenfuss lives in the Como Park neighborhood.

    5 Responses

    1. On June 22, SHSA informed TCGIS of our intent to seek historic designation, as promised. While we were door knocking, fundraising, researching, and hiring a team to prepare our nomination, TCGIS was quietly hatching a plan to demolish the bell-tower which would have halted historic protection. With very little time, we filed the paperwork required for a temporary restraining order. Thankfully, the city did not grant the demo permit required. There was no need to proceed, we did not file a hearing with the judge. There was no litigation.

      The paperwork was filed prior to the mediation, not that this matter since St. Andrew’s was under threat of demo.

      The real deception is that a public school elected to end any chance of due process defined by the City of St. Paul.

    2. Rich Iwen

      Readers wanting more information on SHSA’s legal filing can look up Ramsey County Court civil proceeding #62-CV-18-6824 at mncourts.gov, filed on Oct 10, 2018, the day before SHSA met with TCGIS in a mediated discussion hosted by District 10. SHSA did not mention that filing at the mediation on Oct 11. Three SHSA members are listed as providing affidavits in the filing, although only two affidavits are available. The filing states “This is a TRO [Temporary Restraining Order] without notice to the defendant at this time…This is a TRO case on a fast track.” The letter from SHSA’s attorney states “the owner [of the church, [TCGIS] has not been apprised of this litigation at this time…”

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