By Bonnie Youngquist
The op-ed in the February issue of the Bugle by Ted Anderson, executive director of the Twin Cities German Immersion School, was troubling on many fronts. Not the least, we feel, was his misrepresentation of what city code says about historic preservation, his distortion of the process that led to the proposed teardown of the former church building now occupied by him and his attempted marginalization of our group, Save Historic St. Andrew’s.
It’s unfortunate that the executive director of an educational institution would resort to such tactics and misinformation. Sadly, this has characterized much of the way that leaders of the German Immersion School have demonized the former church building and those individuals who believe it can be effectively repurposed rather than demolished.
Church an important anchor
The former St. Andrew’s Church has been an important anchor for early immigrants to our city, was part of the education of generations of children at the adjacent St. Andrew’s School, and helped spawn no fewer than five other area Catholic churches. It sits in the social, religious, and architectural heart of the Warrendale community, a neighborhood originally platted by renowned landscape architect Horace Cleveland as an extension of Como Park.
Anderson asserts that Save Historic St. Andrews (SHSA) is a “small vocal group of Warrendale residents” who found “TCGIS’s demolition unacceptable.” But he ignores that SHSA turned out nearly 75 people to a recent District 10 meeting and more than a 100 to an Oct. 11 forum in which alternative solutions to demolition were explored.
Anybody who walks through the blocks adjacent to the school will notice signs in front of many homes imploring the school to “Stop the Demolition” and “consider better solutions.” Mr. Anderson may not want to admit that reality, but the notion that only a handful of neighbors are concerned about the proposed destruction of a 92-year-old landmark is ludicrous.
Anderson also claims that TCGIS undertook a “two-year search of possible alternatives” to “accommodate the students’ needs” before concluding that “there were no other feasible and prudent alternatives to the demolition plan.” What he fails to disclose is that the search was conducted exclusively within the echo chamber of TCGIS’s “small, vocal group of board members” and sought no public input or neighborhood involvement.
Only when the proposed demolition was officially announced did TCGIS attempt any community outreach—and those meetings happened primarily because the individuals who formed SHSA organized their neighbors, raised public awareness, and planted bright orange lawn signs in so many yards.
Options to demolition
In truth, there were many options available to TCGIS short of demolition, including buying the now-vacant Central Lutheran School building and operating a dual campus in the interim while improvements were made to that building. Or, as we have repeatedly suggested, re-purposing the former sanctuary into classroom space, offices, a cafeteria, etc.—the same way that thirteen other historic churches in the Twin Cities region have been successfully renovated.
Unfortunately, TCGIS has resisted any such collaborative efforts, including our call for a design charette in which local architects and design experts would work with school leaders and neighbors in a public visioning process. Such an exercise would focus not only on the school’s space needs, but also address neighborhood concerns about traffic safety, parking, and noise that the school has largely ignored since moving into the neighborhood five years ago.
Not everything the school desires might be possible to achieve, but a “good neighbor”—as Anderson characterizes the school—would seek compromise by fully exhausting all alternatives, not simply resort to demolition as its “default” option.
Anderson would like Bugle readers to believe that historic designation is an impediment to the school meeting its space needs. But historic designation is primarily focused on the exterior of a building, not what goes on inside. (The beautiful renovation of the former Blessed Sacrament Church into a library for Academia Cesar Chavez, another St. Paul charter school, gives a sense of what might be possible.)
Saving historic buildings is a time-honored tradition that has the support of most states and local governments, is backed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and is a preference enshrined in both the City’s and District 10’s Comprehensive Plans. What Mr. Anderson calls “forced preservation” can be found nowhere within the St. Paul Municipal Code; it is simply a made-up term.
What the code actually says is this: “The council of the City of Saint Paul hereby declares as a matter of public policy that the preservation, protection, perpetuation and use of areas, places, buildings, structures and other objects having a special historical, community or aesthetic interest or value is a public necessity and is required in the interest of the health, prosperity, safety and welfare of the people.”
That’s a far cry from what Anderson wrote, and the fact that the political influence wielded by TCGIS had led the Planning Commission to ignore the recommendations by the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission for historic designation and by its own Zoning Committee against granting the school’s requested variances is a sad testament to how the considerations of a well-connected charter school can trump the concerns of long-time neighbors.
The “controversy” that exists in the Warrendale neighborhood has come about because TCGIS is unwilling to cap its enrollment at the 550 students it forecast for the site when it moved to the Como area in 2013. Rather than do so now, the school proposes to spend another $6 million of taxpayer funding on a new building project just five years after investing $8 million of city HRA bond money to help renovate a historic structure that it now intends to demolish.
Even students and families loyal to TCGIS can understand why that’s a financially irresponsible path forward—not to mention sacrificing a treasured neighborhood landmark in the process.
Bonnie Youngquist is secretary of Friends of Warrendale / Save Historic St. Andrew’s. She and her husband have lived within a stone’s throw of the former St. Andrew’s Church for more than 25 years.