The Star Tribune’s May 28 editorial “Property rights vs. historic preservation” was disappointing on many levels, not least its framing the controversy between the Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS) and the neighborhood group Save Historic St. Andrew’s as one about “property rights.”
TCGIS is, in fact, a public charter school. Its $8.2 million acquisition and renovation of the former St. Andrew’s Church and school in 2013 was funded through low-interest conduit bonds issued by the city of St. Paul, bonds that are repaid with lease aid from the state of Minnesota that currently sits at $1,314 per student.
With nearly 600 students projected next year, that figure guarantees an annual public subsidy of more than $750,000 — well in excess of their annual lease payments.
In principle, the annual reserve that this excess creates should go to maintaining the 92-year-old building the school purchased with our tax dollars. Instead, that money has been held in reserve while basic upkeep of the beautiful exterior is neglected — apparently so the school’s officials could treat normal wear and tear as evidence of the historic church “falling down.” These are gross exaggerations that TCGIS has repeated during public meetings and in hearings before the St. Paul City Council.
Such behavior seems far more reminiscent of how one might expect a predatory developer to behave, given the disdain the school has shown for any kind of public process in the lead up to its March 2018 decision to demolish the church.
That the Editorial Board would simply parrot the school’s argument that demolition should be allowed because the writer claims St. Andrew’s “is not the only church of its kind in St. Paul and the region” is beyond baffling.
Should we tear down a Frank Lloyd Wright house because other examples can be found in a community?
St. Andrew’s church is not some garden-variety structure. It was designed by Charles Hausler, St. Paul’s first municipal architect, also the architect for the St. Anthony Park Library, Riverview Library, Arlington Hills Library, the Minnesota Building, and the Minnesota Milk Company Building. Several of his creations are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (St. Andrew’s could be the next.)
Equally important, the church was constructed in 1927 by local craftsmen and immigrant members of the church. Hardworking Hungarian, German and Italian families literally built the Romanesque Revival-style building by hand, one stone at a time, contributing their precious earnings to the endeavor.
Should all that history be obliterated because a school won’t consider any alternatives?
If the Editorial Board had done its homework, it would have discovered that TCGIS wants to tear down a building of great historic and cultural significance because it is unwilling to cap its enrollment at 550 students, the number that school leaders projected for the Como area site back in 2013.
Does it make sense that an additional $5.1 million of taxpayer money should be spent to do so?
If TCGIS were a traditional public school, that kind of question would have been addressed by a publicly-elected school board — after many neighborhood meetings seeking community input — before any decision about demolition or expansion was even considered.
But no such accountability exists with TCGIS because, as a charter school, its school board is not elected by the public. Instead, it answers to the families of the school’s children, over half of whom commute to the school from outside of St. Paul.
Interestingly, we can find no evidence of another charter school tearing down a historic building to expand its campus. Academia Cesar Chavez, also a St. Paul-based charter, converted the former Blessed Sacrament Church into a beautiful new library — just one of 13 metro-area churches that have been re-purposed rather than demolished.
Unfortunately, TCGIS’ board has refused to consider alternatives that could turn the church into a far-more usable educational space than it currently provides — and for less cost than a new building. School officials also dismissed out-of-hand a demonstration video shown at the May 15 City Council hearing that offered incredible possibilities for converting the former sanctuary into a performance venue, classrooms and offices.
Doing so would require the school to locate a new gymnasium and cafeteria in a scaled down building nearby — perhaps above the parking lot next door — but this is a solvable problem, one all the more achievable because former dean of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, Tom Fisher, has offered the services of the Minnesota Design Center on a pro bono basis.
Save Historic St. Andrew’s is committed to a win-win strategy that re-purposes the former church to meet the school’s educational needs while preserving a beautiful and iconic building that has stood in the neighborhood for nearly 100 years.
It’s a shame the Editorial Board doesn’t share a similar view and would endorse consigning this treasure to a landfill.
Teri Alberico, Bonnie Youngquist and Muriel Gubasta are officers of Save Historic St. Andrew’s: www.savehistoricsaintandrews.org.