HPC Clears Way for Historic Designation
Monday, January 21, 2019 11:25 AM


It’s now up to the Saint Paul City Council to decide whether the former St. Andrew’s church building receives historic designation.

The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission cleared the way on Jan. 14 -- commissioners voted 6-2 to approve proposed boundaries and a preservation program for the building. That follows a commission vote on Nov. 5 that declared the building eligible for local designation.

The City Council is scheduled to begin deliberations on May 1; that would mean a public hearing on Wednesday May 15, leading to a City Council vote on May 22.

The commission’s vote came despite opposition from the building’s owner, Twin Cities German Immersion School. The school plans to tear down the building, which was decommissioned by the archdiocese in 2011. Instead, the school intends to build a three-level addition holding classrooms, a cafeteria, and gymnasium to meet growing enrollment.

School says designation jeopardizes its future
School representatives told commissioners that historic designation would infringe on its property rights, and that fighting the designation is draining staff and financial resources that the school cannot afford. School director Ted Anderson said that even additional adaptive reuse of the building, which the school now uses as its Aula, would not meet the school’s educational needs.

School board president Sam Walling said designation puts the school’s very existence at risk. He said commissioners were “trying to preserve the city’s past at the expense of its future.”

Carrie Zochart, an attorney for the school, called the historic designation a “hostile” process and said the proposed preservation program “presumes the school can continue to use the building; it can not.” Zochart stated bluntly: “We don’t want the designation; we didn’t ask for the designation.”

The historic designation is being driven by Save Historic St. Andrew’s – a local preservation group that formed in April 2018.

Commissioners cite different priorities
Heritage Preservation commissioners largely dismissed the school’s concerns. Commissioner Richard Dana, one of the two dissenting votes, said he feared designation would force the school to sell and move. But Commissioner David Wagner seemed OK with that.

“The pushback assumes no other option can be found other than demolition,” Wagner said. He noted that the old church building has stood since 1927, but the school has owned it only since 2013. He called it short-sighted to bend to the needs of a “short-term occupant.” If the school can’t make adaptive reuse work, Wagner said, “we should give other owners the opportunity.”

Commissioner Joseph H. Peroutka also directly challenged the school’s claims. He said adaptive reuse is part of Saint Paul’s identity; in fact, he said, “In Saint Paul, the past is the future.” He cited three examples in which church buildings have been converted: one into a performing arts center, the other two into condominiums. While noting that the St. Andrew’s situation is “not typical,” Peroutka said, “If the church is demolished, there are no options.... The options will be gone if the building is gone.”

Commissioner Stuart MacDonald, while calling this “an absolutely impossible situation,” said the school seems unwilling to seriously investigate adaptive reuse. “From a preservation standpoint, we should do all we can do to save the building,” MacDonald said.

It’s far from over
The commission’s vote is the latest episode of city agencies ping-ponging the issue back and forth, as they have for months.

In November, the Heritage Preservation Commission, using historical and architectural standards, said the building is eligible for designation. In December, the city’s Planning Commission, using a different set of criteria, said designation would not be compatible with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

In the meantime, the Planning Commission’s Zoning Committee delayed a decision (until this Thursday, Jan. 17) on whether to approve the site plan and zoning variances the school needs for its proposed construction project. The zoning and historic designation issues are on separate, parallel and conflicting paths that, ultimately, the City Council will have to sort out.

The Heritage Preservation Commission’s vote on Jan. 14 means it is now bundling together for the City Council its previous findings, the Planning Commission’s findings, a recommendation from the State Historic Preservation Office (which calls the building “an ideal candidate for local designation”), and the guidelines the school or future owner would have to follow if the building receives designation.

The “preservation program” establishes specific approaches for any future preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, or reconstruction work. It covers such items as cleaning, replacing, or repairing brick or other masonry, tiles, roofing, windows, doors, stairways, railings, lighting, or mechanicals. HPC’s Boulware says the preservation program does not mandate work on the building, but provides guidelines that must be followed if and when work is done. The “boundaries” portion of the designation attempts to maintain sight lines of the building, and affects setbacks and any “attachments” that connect the old church building to any new structures.

The city is still awaiting word from the State Historic Preservation Office on whether St. Andrew’s is eligible not only for local designation, but for national designation as well. National designation would open up the possibility of additional grant money for rehabilitation or restoration work.

Originally published Jan. 7, 2019; updated Feb. 8 and April 15

(C) 2019 Como Community Council.

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