Despite opposition from alumni, the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield is selling part of its front lawn for commercial development that is expected to include a Walgreens store.

Although the lawn has been lightly used in recent years, the decision Monday by the Holy Angels board to sell almost 2 acres of land for $5.7 million upset families and alumni who remember graduations and prom marches there.

"It's sad," said John Boyle, the father of two Holy Angels graduates. Boyle was among a dozen people who waited outside the school Monday night as the board voted in private and part of a larger group that unsuccessfully pushed Holy Angels to more openly discuss the land sale, which the board says will help the school in several ways.

"I love [Holy Angels] and a lot of people love it and a lot of people are in pain right now," Boyle said. "They feel alienated and disenfranchised because they used a secret process to make a decision in a backroom."

Jon Austin, a public relations consultant for the school, said the issue had "roused passions on both sides."

"Some people will continue to disagree with [the sale], and we understand that," he said. "We hope they view the decision in the context of the school overall and what it means to students."

Almost 1,300 people had signed an online petition opposing the land sale along Nicollet Avenue at 66th Street. Semper Development is the purchaser, and part of the plan is to relocate a Walgreens that is now across the street at the Hub shopping center to the Holy Angels land. That proposal still has a long process to go through to win city approval.

Use of proceeds

In a statement on the Holy Angels website, Board of Trustees Chairwoman Shannon Mayer said the money will be used to help pay down debt, create an endowment, add to student financial aid, invest in infrastructure and help retain employees. Last year, officials said the school had almost $10 million in debt because of construction of a dome and convocation center and purchase of the school and land from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Boyle and others had offered to help the school raise money, saying that selling the land was a short-term solution that would change the character of the Holy Angels campus and duplicate retail that already exists across the street at the Hub.

In her statement on the website, Mayer said the board had carefully considered those options but decided the land sale was the best course. She said that the school's agreement with Semper gave Holy Angels the right to restrict the style, size and use of new buildings.

Other fundraising options "would require us to chip away at our needs a little each year and to accept for the foreseeable future the risk that an unexpected expense or a downturn in the economy could force us into a year — or a decade — of retrenchment," she said.

Still to come

Before anything is built on the Holy Angels land, the development must get approval from the city of Richfield. While a narrow strip of land along Nicollet is zoned commercial, most of the school land that is being sold is classified as residential and would require changes to Richfield's comprehensive plan and to zoning regulations.

Holy Angels official got some skeptical questioning from Richfield officials last year when they made a presentation to the City Council, but Richfield Community Development Director John Stark said the city hasn't formally reacted to anything because it has not yet been contacted.

"They have to initiate the process," he said.

The Holy Angels website says that the Walgreens built on school land would replace the one across the street at the Hub, which is a concern for the city. The drugstore is one of the anchors of the 1950s shopping center, which historically has been the central retail focus in the city.

"We are concerned about what it would do to the Hub, and we've shared those concerns with Hub management," Stark said.

Boyle, who has been a donor to Holy Angels, said he is not sure whether he will give again.

"The secrecy, the stilted process and the lack of candor that has characterized the board's recent activities give me and others great pause," he said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380