By Ted Anderson
The current controversy in the Warrendale neighborhood about whether our successful public charter school, Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS), should be allowed to tear down and rebuild on its own property raises many public-policy issues.
Our plan to replace the remnants of the substantially altered former St. Andrew’s Church sanctuary is driven by one factor: The need to provide our student body with space that is adequate and safe. In two years we expect to top out at around 630 students, K-8. This will finally establish TCGIS in a St. Paul school landscape that includes excellence across the spectrum from public charter, to traditional public (SPPS) to independent (private) schools.
After a two-year search of possible alternatives, including nearby buildings and other possible locations to accommodate the students’ needs, it was clear that demolition and replacement were our only option. TCGIS concluded that there were no other feasible and prudent alternatives to the demolition plan.
A small vocal group of Warrendale residents found our plan unacceptable and has been doing everything it can to keep the building up by burdening the school with a historic designation that we do not want, that we cannot afford and that would force TCGIS to spend public dollars on the preservation of a church.
Against our wishes, the group submitted an application to the city for local historic designation of our building. This past Nov. 5, the city’s Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) voted 8-1 to saddle the school’s students and staff, Warrendale neighbors and ultimately other St. Paul decision-makers with the burden of designating the failing structure as a historic property worthy of preservation. We believe this decision is flawed for several reasons.
In 1983 and again in 2001, the building failed to make the cut for historic designation in surveys done by HPC. Further, the Catholic Church decommissioned and abandoned the site in 2011, merging the parish with another. Neither the diocese nor the Vatican’s canonical real estate agents ever declared the building worthy of preservation.
Another fact: When the school purchased the property in 2013, there was no discussion of historic designation. Should the space ultimately be designated against our wishes, it will present a very troublesome precedent for the future sales of similar properties.
Thankfully, on Dec. 14, the City’s Planning Commission countered the HPC’s action and voted 12-1 against adding the altered Aula to the city’s registry of historical buildings. The Commission’s decision rests on the city’s 2040 comprehensive plan “to prioritize publicly-owned buildings,” and Chapter 73 of the City’s Code of Ordinances, which prohibits forced preservation:
It is impossible to argue that forced preservation of a historic building is in the interest and welfare of “the people” when that very preservation will have a deep and negative impact on the prosperity, safety and welfare of the people who learn, study and work within that building. The vote is consistent with comments made by several members of the Planning Commission’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee which indicated that historical designation should not be used as “a weapon” by people who will not have to carry any responsibility, including any financial obligation, for the burden imposed when there is a designation over the property owner’s objection.
Those people fighting demolition include a minority of Warrendale residents and a few outliers calling themselves “Save Historic St. Andrew’s” (SHSA). They have now challenged the school’s site plan, including its request for a parking variance.
TCGIS has clearly outlined that the variance will not negatively affect neighborhood parking, a conclusion based on the data and analysis of an independent traffic research firm. This evaluation, at a cost of $12,000 to the school, was performed at the request of city planners to ensure that the new building and site plan would not disrupt traffic flow for neighbors.
TCGIS is confident the full City Council will do the right thing and approve the school’s construction project when it finally meets to discuss the plan (most likely in early March). The only German immersion school in the state, TCGIS gives Minnesota kids the chance to engage with the world. TCGIS is also a model Minnesota public charter school.
The school has increased the vitality—and value—of the Warrendale neighborhood in numerous ways and it will continue to do so with its new building. Some of the ways in which this community—and the city—have benefited from TCGIS include:
- To date, nearly every one of TCGIS 120-plus graduates has had the chance to participate in our exchange with a German partner school, regardless of financial situation.
- Teachers and TCGIS families continue to move to the neighborhood to be close to school, buying or renting. In at least two cases, “troubled” neighborhood properties were purchased and completely renovated. This increase in demand and quality has raised property values for residents.
- The school has made the pre-existing school site greener by landscaping and adding play areas, turf fields, and rain gardens that have improved the character of the surrounding area with greater stormwater filtration and served as pollinator habitat for monarch butterflies.
- The TCGIS location in Warrendale is its “forever home.” And it’s going to continue to be a good neighbor!
Ted Anderson is the executive director of TCGIS and has been a St. Anthony Park resident since 2005.