Council Rejects Historic Designation for St. Andrew’s
Wednesday, June 5, 2019 4:00 PM


The Saint Paul City Council voted 5-0 June 5 to deny local historic designation to the former St. Andrew’s church building. A few hours later, council members voted -- again 5-0 -- to approve three zoning variances and a site plan that Twin Cities German Immersion School needs for its plan to tear down the church building and replace it with an 23,000-square-foot addition holding additional classrooms, a gymnasium, and cafeteria.

Demolition, however, is not imminent. City staff say that, in normal circumstances, it takes about six weeks for the school to receive all the permits and approvals it needs to start demolition and construction -- and there has been nothing normal about this project (see timeline at right). In addition, the preservation group Save Historic St. Andrew's has filed court challenges seeking to block demolition of the church.

Historic designation
Council president Amy Brendmoen – who lives a block from the school and former church building – was the only council member to speak to the designation. She said she believed granting historic designation over the objection of the owner was a form of taking private property without compensation. She said she did not want to set that precedent in Saint Paul.

Brendmoen said she continues to believe there could be a “better, middle-ground solution” that allows the school to meet its needs and save what she called a “handsome” building. But she criticized what she called “a dig-in, win-at-any-cost mentality” on both sides and the increasing practice of “abdicating responsibility to work through problems.”

Her comments came after a last-ditch attempt to find a resolution failed. After conducting a "conflict assessment," mediator Aimee Gourlay concluded June 1: "There is little likelihood of a useful mediation at this point."

The city's Heritage Preservation Commission said the former church building was eligible for historic designation, and the State Historic Preservation Office said it would qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the city's Planning Commission said historic designation would not be compatible with the city's Comprehensive Plan.

Cleaning up the Planning Commission's mess
The City Council also approved a site plan for the school's construction plan, which includes zoning variances on parking, height, and lot coverage. Both the District 10 Como Community Council and Save Historic St. Andrew's forced the City Council action after they appealed a series of votes the Planning Commision took on Jan. 25 and Feb. 8. Those votes wiped out weeks of work by city staff, the school, and the community council to address impacts the school's enrollment growth has on parking, traffic, pedestrian safety, and playground noise, which affect nearby streets and residents. Because of voting irregularities, the city attorney's office voided the results of four votes the Planning Commission took Jan. 25. However, the commissioners voted Feb. 8 not to take new votes.

The City Council cleaned up that mess June 5 by approving an updated site plan that includes conditions, commitments and ongoing re-evaluation by the city, school, and community council. The variances:

  • Allow the school's new building to reach 33 feet, 1 inch. That is 3 feet, 1 inch higher than allowed by zoning for new construction, but about 14 feet shorter than the peak of the church building.
  • Allow the school to cover 36 percent of its property, which is 1 percent above what zoning normally allows. The school's lot coverage currently is at about 32 percent.
  • Exempt the school from providing 34 additional parking spaces required by zoning code. It is presumed that most of this parking will end up on nearby streets. The school will provide 28 off-street spaces in its west lot, 15 off-street spaces through an official shared parking arrangement with Mission Orthodox Church across the street, and offset 9 parking spaces by installing excess bicycle parking (a provision that is allowed in city code).

The parking variance also includes a condition that forbids the school from having more than 9 grade levels and 27 total class sections. Because school policy limits class size to 24 pupils, the condition creates a de facto enrollment cap of 648. Also, because the condition is tied to school use, city staff say they believe it means the parking variance would not automatically transfer if, in the future, the school sells the property to a new owner who plans a different use.

Site plan
In addition to the variances, the updated site plan includes customized language that requires additional action and collaboration by the city, school, and community council if initial steps don't significantly resolve problems involving parking, traffic, operations, and playground noise. These are areas the school, residents, and community council have been trying to resolve for years.

At the request of the community council, the City Council added a requirement that the school build a 7-foot, solid, obscuring fence along its east property line as a sound and sight buffer for adjoining residents. Other conditions required the school to place crossing guards at Como and Oxford; direct staff and parents not to park on Como Ave.; and adopt tactics to reduce vehicle traffic. These tactics include promoting use of walking, biking, and Metro Transit by staff and pupils; supporting carpooling by staff and families; and increasing the number of buses for pupils.

In addition, the school agreed to implement future changes as ordered by the city’s Department of Public Works. These possibilities include directing staff and parents not to park on additional residential streets near the school, and implementing a staggered release time at the end of the school day. The city, for its part, says it will continue tweaking signal timing at Lexington and Como Ave., add a marked crosswalk across Como Ave. at Oxford, and examine other congestion issues, including expanding areas around the school where parking is not permitted at certain times of the day.

East Side City Council member Jane Prince recused herself from the June 5 votes; interim East Side council member Kassim Busuri was absent.

(C) 2019 Como Community Council.

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