It was just over a year ago when Golden Valley’s elected officials showed a disgraceful lack of leadership and delivered a public relations black eye to their city. Doubts about community values still linger after the mayor and many City Council members allowed a small group of hysterical neighbors to run out of town a proposed day treatment center for children suffering from depression, trauma and autism.
St. Paul’s elected leaders have a high-profile opportunity at hand to avoid making the same mistake. A different but still respected mental health treatment provider is seeking approval from the city to move from St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood into a vacant former convent on the East Side. A public hearing before the City Council, which comes after the city’s planning commission recommended approving the treatment center’s request, is scheduled Wednesday, when a vote on the move could also occur.
Short-term community-based treatment centers such as the Diane Ahrens Crisis Residence, which aims to move into the convent at 1784 Lacrosse Av., fill a critical but underserved need. Plans to upgrade the facility, currently housed in two older St. Paul homes connected by a breezeway, to the more modern, tranquil convent merit the council’s strong support.
Handling the treatment center’s request with compassionate flexibility would also embolden other cities faced with similar decisions to do the same. This is a chance to lead, and St. Paul officials ought to seize it rather than cave to ill-informed zoning concerns or fears about the clients.
The center, named after a longtime Ramsey County commissioner, has 16 beds. It serves adults with mental health illnesses — such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder — who are having a difficult time but don’t require hospitalization. Stays are typically one to 10 days. Potential clients who are violent are sent elsewhere for help.
The current location on Hewitt Avenue is close to Hamline University and student housing. Hamline officials said this week that the Ahrens Residence has been a good neighbor, with no security issues noted. A check with St. Paul police also yielded reassurance about the center’s safety for nearby residents. Opponents of the new location often cite the volume of police calls to the residence but fail to note that the reasons typically involve client transport, medical assistance or helping a client deal with harassment from a family member or a former roommate, for example.
Other opponents, such as local activist Chuck Repke, complain of preferential treatment for the facility, claiming that approving the move would be illegal “spot zoning.” However, this is a charge often tossed out by disgruntled opponents. The request by the Ahrens center has been evaluated by the St. Paul city attorney’s office and the city’s planning commission, according to an aide for Mayor Chris Coleman. The move has not been determined to be spot zoning.
Bill Griffith, a Larkin Hoffman attorney who specializes in land use, agreed with that conclusion Tuesday. “St. Paul did the right thing, in my view, and had an authority to do so. No spot zoning here,’’ he said.
Coleman commendably said Tuesday that he supports the Ahrens facility. The mayor needs to advocate even more forcefully at Wednesday’s meeting, and the City Council should follow his lead and support this organization’s move and critical mission.