A fight over whether a successful public charter school should be allowed to raze a former church heads to the St. Paul City Council Wednesday. Many fear the divisions created by the conflict may scar the neighborhood for years to come.
The Twin Cities German Immersion School, which bought the former St. Andrew’s Catholic Church near Como Lake in 2013, has used the building as a gymnasium, performance space and cafeteria. School officials say they need to replace it with a modern classroom building to better serve their growing student body.
A group of neighbors and historic preservationists, however, is pushing to save the 1927 building designed by Charles Hausler, St. Paul’s first city architect. St. Andrew’s closed in 2011. Late last year, the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission recommended it be given historic designation, while the city Planning Commission voted to allow the school to proceed with demolition.
Wednesday evening, both sides will seek to sway the City Council at a public hearing. No matter how the council votes, however, observers expect the nearly yearlong fight to continue. Acrimony has spilled onto social media and protest signs, with each side accusing the other of overheated rhetoric and even threats.
“It has gotten ugly. It’s been a very divisive issue,” said Michael Kuchta, executive director of the District 10 Como Community Council. “Both sides have dug in and are fighting to win.”
The school, which enrolled 580 students this year, wants to replace the former church — what it calls the “Aula,” German for “auditorium” — with an 18,000 square-foot addition. While officials say they’ve used the space as well as they can, they say it no longer works educationally. And they would have to spend upward of $1 million in deferred maintenance to keep it going.
A City Council vote to give the building historic designation, school board chairman Sam Walling said, would tie the school’s hands and “we will have a hard time meeting the needs of our kids.”
The addition would cost $4 million to $5 million, he said. It would increase classroom space, create a real gymnasium and cafeteria and give the school more options.
“In our minds, it’s a better use of taxpayer dollars and a better fit for the kids if we are allowed to build the addition,” Walling said.
The school’s board voted in July to raze the building after considering other options, such as buying a neighboring school. Several neighbors, however, believe the school hasn’t tried hard enough.
Bonnie Youngquist, a member of a group called Save Historic St. Andrew’s, said her group is trying to preserve a vital historic thread in the fabric of their neighborhood. They’ve rallied historians, reached out to architects and even asked that the city conduct an environmental assessment (it hasn’t).
“It’s really hard for us to assess how the meeting will go,” she said. “We have experienced so many ups and downs already.”
Youngquist said that when her group first formed, its goal was to persuade the school to wait a year before tearing down St. Andrew’s and work with neighbors to find alternatives. “Yet they have refused to look at any other option,” she said.
Not so, said Walling. It’s just that other options have so far proven too expensive or too uncertain, he said.
No matter what the council decides — and the school’s site plan and zoning variance requests will also come up for council action in June — some fear that lasting damage has been done.
City Council President Amy Brendmoen, who lives near the school, said, “My hope is that there is a path for resiliency in our neighborhood. There are really good people on both sides.”
Rather than find common ground since last July, she said, the sides have used the time to dig in deeper.
Maggie Zimmerman, an 11-year Como area resident and member of the District 10 board, said she cares less about what the City Council decides than how this area will move forward afterward.
“This has been a hardship on Como. It’s been sad to watch and hard to watch,” she said. “No matter what the outcome is, the divides are so deep in some places, it’s hard to see what good comes from this.”