Tre McClellan Penn, playing on Howe playground equipment.

Steve Brandt, Star Tribune

Sept. 28, 2010: Vacant school generates a seesaw of debate

  • Article by: Steve Brandt
  • Star Tribune
  • September 28, 2010 - 10:46 PM

It seemed like a no-brainer to 13-year-old Trace Thompson as he lounged atop the colorful if faded playground equipment on a soft September night in south Minneapolis.

Of course the slides, ladders and hanging bars should remain on the grounds of what was once Howe elementary school, even though it hasn't been a school since 2005. Younger kids deserve the same opportunity he had to grow up using the play area.

While Trace watched over a younger neighbor, their parents were four blocks away in a park building debating what to do with the equipment that Howe's classes once romped on. The answer there didn't seem quite so obvious.

After an hour of fervent but polite debate, the only thing that the roomful of 45 people agreed on was that finding a viable reuse for the school is the long-run solution, and that it's long overdue.

Removal of the playground equipment has been requested repeatedly by the neighbors living closest to the two-story brick school, as repeated proposals for reuse of the building have come and gone without success. The Longfellow Community Council called the meeting last week to address the issue.

Those attending made it clear that they're fed up with kids and young adults much older than Trace who hang around the school and on its playground equipment after dark.

They're tired of the language. They're tired of the noise. They're tired of the graffiti. They're tired of what look to them like drug deals.

"We can't live like this anymore," complained Bernadette Ammons, who has been perhaps the most vocal of the half-dozen or so neighbors who live across the street from the playground.

"It's really just been a nightmare -- a sell-your-house, move-out-of-the-city nightmare," Ammons said in an interview.

She has kids ages 9 and 12 who she said have been exposed to years of profanity drifting through their bedroom windows from the playground after dark. "We're the only ones in Minnesota who don't look forward to summer coming," she said.

There's plenty of sympathy for these closest neighbors from those who live farther away, even if the latter group wants the equipment to stay.

"Taking away the playground is punishing the community," said Erica Marston, who lives on the next block north of the playground. "When you take away the playground, you're taking away a whole bunch of parents who are on the playground."

Marston holds that opinion even though she's witnessed some of the behavior described by those who want to yank out the playground equipment. She's seen kids lighting firecrackers on the playground. She's seen them atop the school roof. She's seen them in the dumpster. She's even seen kids bombing the schoolyard from the rooftop with cans of pop from a 12-pack she saw them buy at a convenience store nearby.

But to her, removing the playground would add insult to the injury of losing the school, one of three to close in the Longfellow community this decade. She regards it as one of her area's few public amenities.

Marston was in the majority at the meeting. Though a straw poll was merely advisory to the Longfellow Community Council, which will make the final call, 30 of the 43 people who voted said they prefer to keep the climbing equipment rather than rip it out.

The rising discontent over this spillover from a shuttered school follows repeated attempts to find a tenant who can make a go of the building on the Minneapolis school board's terms.

Liz Greenbaum, who heads Articulture, an arts education group that was in the neighborhood then, made two separate attempts to work on a shared-use concept for using the school but ultimately gave up in frustration. Last year, Nova Classical Academy heard the school was available and offered to buy both Howe and Cooper, another vacant Longfellow school. A school official said the school was told that the district's policy was not to sell to charter schools; the district said Nova's proposal came in after a deadline for taking such proposals.

Ultimately, United Properties got the chance to pursue developing the Howe site for senior or workforce housing. But faced with neighborhood insistence that the historical building be retained in the project, United said it couldn't make the numbers work.

So the building now sits vacant, and the district is about to seek proposals for using it once again. There's a light atop the empty hulk that shines down toward the playground. The district has painted over graffiti, saying the shutoff of water in the building means it can't power-scrub vandals' tags off the plastic equipment. It said it will trim overgrown shrubbery around benches on a corner of the property. And it said it can install signs banning trespassing during night hours at Howe, as it has at Cooper.

After Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy organized a similar meeting a year or two ago, where the prevailing sentiment also favored keeping the equipment, neighbors organized a stroll patrol to keep an eye on after-dark activity at Howe during the warmer months. But it lacked staying power.

Ultimately, the school district will do what the board of the neighborhood group decides about removing the playground equipment. The neighborhood has part ownership of the equipment because it contributed $33,500 in neighborhood revitalization funds to purchase and install it in 1997, splitting the cost with the school district. The city's Neighborhood Revitalization Program would have to approve any disposition of the equipment, according to Director Bob Miller.

Ripping out the equipment would likely destroy it because it's so deeply anchored in concrete, according to school officials. That disappointed charter school officials who attended the meeting in hopes of taking the equipment if the neighborhood decides to pull it out. If it stays, the closest neighbors want the broader community to take responsibility.

"We're the ones living with the consequences," one of them, Rolf Almquist, told last week's gathering. "If you want it, take ownership of it. Get your butts over there."

Third Ward summit

Given this column's previous reporting on City Council Member Diane Hofstede, it's only fair to give the Third Ward politico her props for the Neighborhoodfest she and partnering businesses and neighborhood groups put on last week at Nicollet Island Pavilion. The lively event certainly offered a combination of performances and exhibits designed to engage residents more deeply in what's happening in the river-spanning North Side-Northeast ward.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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