The St. Paul City Council delayed voting on a construction and financing plan for a big project it's participating in with a church.
Concerns about being sued over church-state separation issues has prompted St. Paul officials to hold off approval of a draft development agreement for a $36 million community center project that involves a church.
The City Council was supposed to vote Wednesday on the plan, which outlines financing and construction of the "Payne-Maryland Project." It's envisioned to be a neighborhood gem that includes a city-run library, recreation center and performing arts center, as well as a privately run funeral home and a Lutheran church.
Instead, the matter was laid over for a month to work out details on how the city would protect the partners from probable legal action.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota has requested project documents and is watching closely how the city works with Arlington Hills Lutheran Church.
The city already has its share, $13.9 million in bond money, in the bank ready to go. The partnership, which includes the church and Bradshaw Funeral Home, will be on the hook for about $22.5 million.
The draft agreement states no part of the city bond money can be used for religious instruction or worship.
Council Member Dan Bostrom, a project advocate, said there will be a definite "firewall" between the city and church spaces. He said the purpose of fine-tuning the indemnification portion of the agreement is to ensure the city protects the public and "ensures success for the partners."
"It's better to be concerned about it now" than when the community center is built, Bostrom said. He added that he's convinced there will be no line crossed but conceded that a lawsuit is possible.
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the state ACLU, said there's no lawsuit in the works now, but he questioned the financial arrangements and whether all groups will have the same access to space that the church would.
City Council President Kathy Lantry has questions about some of the details in the draft agreement and asked the city attorney's office for an opinion. "I need more information, a risk assessment," she said.
In general, the project has broad support. The site is at the southeast corner of Payne and Maryland avenues, where the city already owns a rec center and park.
The East Side has been trudging uphill for a while now. Scores of jobs disappeared in recent decades. Foreclosures and crime hit hard. More than 300 buildings are vacant in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood alone. Property values have dropped.
That's where the community center comes in, supporters say, because it would offer services and amenities to people of all ages and raise property values.
"This will improve the neighborhood significantly," Bostrom said.
Chris Havens • 612-673-4148