ROCHESTER – A vacant old Catholic high school here could be the first stumbling block for Mayo Clinic's new $5 billion downtown expansion.

The city's historic preservation commission voted Tuesday to recommend that parts of the old Lourdes High School be designated a local landmark; Mayo plans to tear the building down and build a logistics center/storage facility.

The commission is an advisory panel — the Rochester City Council has the final say. But several residents are speaking out against demolishing the building.

"I don't understand why it can't be a community center," local artist Chris Allen told the commission Tuesday. "I know there's other ideas, I know Mayo Clinic would love the proximity. But honestly, why store stuff when you can make connections with people?"

The commission split 4-3 on its recommendation, with one member abstaining.

Most commission members supported Mayo's right to change the property. Yet they pointed out the commission's role was to review buildings as they are rather than their future use.

"This is a bigger question than we are really allowed to address," commission member Anthony Poirier said.

The old Lourdes building, a Gothic-looking structure, was built in 1941 then added onto in 1958 and 1986. The Diocese of Winona-Rochester sold it to Mayo Clinic in 2013 after building a new school in the northwest part of town.

The building has remained empty ever since, but it was put on a list of potential landmarks in 2019 after an independent study found the building qualified for protected status.

A recent Mayo-funded study concluded the same thing. But the nonprofit medical system wants to tear it down and build a larger structure in its place with higher ceilings. The new building is expected to be in service for at least 50 years.

Tim Siegfried, chair of Mayo's facilities division, said Mayo looked at other potential sites for a logistics center, including a block north of the high school. But the extra distance from other planned facilities would cause too much wasted time transporting supplies.

"This is definitely our preferred location," Siegfried said.

The Rev. Jerry Mahon told the commission the Rochester Catholic Schools Board of Trustees supports Mayo's expansion plans. Part of the reason the board sold the building was because it had aged out of usefulness and would have cost $12 million to upgrade at the time.

But several history-minded residents disagreed, arguing the old building had plenty of upgrades at the time it was sold and could have been used as a shelter, day care or other community space over the past decade if Mayo so chose.

"There was selfishness on the part of the Mayo Clinic for this facility not to be available to the community until there was a better use," said John Kruesel, an antique-store owner who has advocated to preserve other buildings in the past.

Mayo officials said in response that they have supported various Rochester nonprofits over the years, contributing over $14 million to local causes in 2023.

Kruesel said after the meeting that it was important for residents to weigh in on Mayo's plans now.

"The reason to be here is to set the record straight," he said. "For people in the future, when they look at a postcard and say, 'Why is this all we have left? What was its role in the community?' "