The case for saving St. Andrew’s Church building

Commentary 

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.

    5 Responses

    1. Publius

      This article lacks some details.

      The TCGIS Board researched operating a dual campus. A dual campus would have resulted in an operating deficit after 2 years. Public schools by law can’t operate in a deficit. The Central Lutheran site was unviable due to finances.

      The former sanctuary is already fully repurposed as a gym. Moving classroom and office spaces into the gym would result in no gym space for the school. This is not a solution to the space needs of the school.

      TCGIS investigated building a new structure on either side of the former sanctuary. Both schemes would have been wildly out of zoning code for both lot coverage (ie, how much space on a lot is covered by buildings) and parking. Both schemes would also be unviable due to finances. (See slides 47-50 in the powerpoint presentation that was given to the St Paul Zoning Committee on Dec 20, 2018 here: https://www.stpaul.gov/sites/default/files/Media%20Root/Planning%20%26%20Economic%20Development/TCGIS%20Zoning%20Committee%20Slides%20-%2012202018.pdf)

      Academia Cesar Chavez is sited on a much larger site which allowed an addition to be built while maintaining the original structure. That is not simply possible at TCGIS. (Tangentially, TCGIS has employed the same architect that worked on Academia Cesar Chavez. Continued reuse was evaluated, but is simply not possible.)

      Capping enrollment at 550 is problematic in many ways. Enrollment is “growing” at TCGIS because students are not leaving the school at the higher grades as they did previously – a mark of a sucessful school. Reducing incoming kindergarten class sizes to 20 in three sections (20 students per 3 sections per grades K-8 = 550) would not reduce the space need because there would still be three classrooms required per grade. Combining sections in the upper grades would result in class sizes of approx 40 which would result in overcrowding in classrooms. Combining sections in the upper grades would also result in teachers in those grades knowing exactly when their job would be at risk due to lack of students to teach – hardly an ideal scenario for staff retention in a school that requires a very specific skill set. All of these reasons are not the most relevant reason that capping enrollment at 550 would “save” the former church – the state funding at 550 pupils would not provide enough funding to pay for required repairs and maintenance on the former church.

      At 550 students, the student body would fit, but would not result in enough revenue for maintaining the former church. The expected maximum population of 648 will result in enough revenue – but is too big for the current structure. (Slide 12 here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b198e03ee1759f2bea1054e/t/5b4fe9801ae6cfa99e58cff9/1531963779823/f_tcgis_listening_session_-_facilities_-_02.26.18.pptx.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0Mq9QMAIYH0h6OaRZP-ikF-U-in8Llqrok91La1jjos2tIZs54jpFv8bA)

      A comment above already linked to the invitation to the public to be involved in discussions regarding possible expansion in Oct 2017. The Midway Monitor newspaper also had two articles regarding possible expansion in October and December 2017. The public was informed and invited to participate throughout.

      Finally, the great majority of the $8million bond that Bonnie mentions was spent on refurbishing the 1950s classroom wing and constructing an addition to link the classroom wing to the former church. The former church had new flooring installed in the sanctuary to make it appropriate for a gym space, and ADA-accessible elevators, etc, installed. Bond payments are paid out from the state pupil funding that provides virtually all of TCGIS’s funding. TCGIS would have recieved no more or less funding regardless of the bond issuance.

    2. E. E. Smith

      Is anyone allowed to make comments that oppose your op-ed?
      Hmmm … it seems that the Bugle is very selective in what it allows people to comment.
      Given comments don’t get posted after being made?

    3. Elizabeth Tobias

      The church is **already** gone. The neighbors repeatedly change their reason for saving the building. But, the claim about historical preservation is the most ridiculous. If you have been inside the building, it has already been gutted; no one complained. The statuary was removed; no complaints. The religious art was removed; no complaints. They say the only thing they care about is having a pretty building to drive by and decorate the neighborhood.

      I care that the students have a safe, healthy building to go to school in.

    4. Dani Nicholson

      “HOW CAN I GET INVOLVED AND STAY INFORMED?
      As part of the process, the Facilities Committee will seek substantive input from teachers, students, parents and neighbors. Please read your Elternbriefe and check your facebook feed for opportunities to share and be heard.
      Also, we are looking for a few more committed community members, perhaps with practical experience in such projects, to join us as we move this forward. If you are interested in becoming involved at that level, please contact xxxxx”

      http://www.district10comopark.org/german_immersion_school_looks_at_expansion.html?fbclid=IwAR2rdAhmBdGzxRosZT8bGCjX78wp-_arExJm9AUonqi3407Hjy4VmdkCeIE

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