School Votes to Tear Down Old Church
Thursday, August 2, 2018 3:10 PM

The former St. Andrew church building dates to 1927. The parish closed in 2011.

Board members of the Twin Cities German Immersion School voted 6-1 on July 30 to tear down the old St. Andrew's church building and replace it with a new building that can accommodate the public charter school's growing enrollment. The board rejected the possibility of purchasing the Central Lutheran property, on Lexington Parkway just south of Pierce Butler Route, as too risky.

Demolition and construction are expected to begin in May 2019, at the end of the upcoming school year. Residents in the Save Historic St. Andrews group say they will continue working to add the former church building to the city's historic registry.

The school board's decision clears the way for formal design of a new building, which is expected to contain about 23,000 square feet on three levels. A formal plan also clears the way for practical discussions with the community and city about the building itself and the related impacts of the school's success, including parking, traffic, noise, and pedestrian safety. The school has created a website dedicated exclusively to its expansion plan – its second addition since moving into South Como in 2013.

The charter school, at 1031 Como Ave., has been evaluating expansion options for months. It announced in October 2017 that replacing the church building was among those options. It also studied moving into other school buildings, leasing space, purchasing the Mission Orthodox Presbyterian church property across the street, and purchasing the entire city block that includes Central Lutheran. In the end, school board members stuck with what they told parents and staff on March 20, 2018: that replacing the former St. Andrew church – which it calls the Aula, or auditorium – is the most effective plan.

The expansion project website gives a history of the school's growth and plans, pros and cons of different options from the school's perspective, financial details, and links to dozens of research documents.

Neighbors raise concerns, opposition
More than 125 people attended a District 10 Land Use Committee meeting on May 2 to hear and ask questions about the school's plans. City officials from zoning, planning, preservation, and finance also explained conditions and options that may come into play around parking, height, and other issues as the school develops actual construction details.

Since then, the school's facilities committee  has been meeting with nearby residents to hear concerns about the impact of expansion. A group of residents and others, calling themselves Save Historic Saint Andrew's, asked the school on May 8, 2018, to delay its plans for a year. The group wanted more time to explore options to demolishing the church building, including the possibility of having it officially designated as an historic structure. (Here is the group's Facebook page.)

George Gause, who staffs Saint Paul's Heritage Preservation Commission, says the research required for historic designation is a formal process that can take up to a year. Certain types of historic designation can make a property eligible for financing to help preserve a structure. Financing includes the possibility of state grants and federal and state tax credits. Those credits, however, are seldom available or useful for nonprofits, such as the school's building corporation, Gause said at the May 2 meeting. He also said it is almost unheard of for a property to receive historic designation without consent of the owner.

Growing enrollment forces decision
The school needs to expand to handle enrollment that continues to exceed projections, says parent Nic Ludwig, who chairs the school’s facilities committee. The school now has 555 pupils in grades K-8. It projects enrollment of 613 within four years, but lacks space to handle additional class sections as children move into higher grades.

School director Ted Anderson says the unanticipated growth is caused mostly by unusually high retention rates; in other words, once families enroll in the school, they don’t leave. He says the goal is to provide enough space to handle three class sections in each grade (K-8). Based on a maximum class size of 72 per grade (or 24 per classroom) -- which is what Anderson says the school has pledged to parents -- that would cap enrollment at 648.

Church building needs extensive repairs
Parent Sam Walling, who now chairs the school board, says it would be too expensive and less efficient to retrofit the 1927 church building, and impossible to make it meet the school's space needs. That building needs at least $1.2 million in repairs and upgrades, including a new roof, boiler, windows, doors, insulation, and tuck-pointing. The proposed addition, he says, would give the school “a building designed for the 21st Century … not as worship space.”

Initial drawings plan for a new addition with about 23,000 square feet on three levels. It would have, for the first time, space designed specifically as a gymnasium and cafeteria. It also is likely to add eight classrooms and additional office space.

Keeping options open on parking
The construction plans presented to parents also included replacing the parking lot east of the church building with a play area and “green space” and examining the possibility of using the Como Pool parking lot for staff parking. The pool option would need city approval, but could reduce the need for parking lots adjacent to the school and nearby homes.

Plans originally included purchasing the single-family house at 1042 Van Slyke, tearing it down, and using the lot for “outdoor space” or, if required by the city, additional off-street parking. Within a few weeks, the school cancelled that contingent purchase agreement.

Other schools also expanding
The German Immersion School plan is only one of several school expansions going on in Como:

  • Como Park Senior High School is in the final year of a three-year project that includes extensive renovations inside and outside the school, plus a 21,000-square-foot addition to its campus on Rose Ave.
  • Hmong College Prep Academy added 98,000 square feet for classrooms and other academics on its Brewster Ave. campus. It also is adding 441 more parking spaces, an outdoor athletic field, and an 85,000-square-foot seasonal sports dome.
  • Great River School completed a 19,000-square-foot addition on Energy Park Drive that opened for the 2018-2019 school year.
  • Metro Deaf School has purchased and renovated a new, larger location along Lexington Parkway, just north of Energy Park Drive. It moved from its Brewster Ave. location in January 2019.
  • Higher Ground Academy purchased the Metro Deaf property to create a second campus for its middle and high school grades.It plans construction of a second story on the classroom wing, and hopes to open in August 2019.

Originally published on March 23, 2018. Most recently updated on Feb. 15, 2019.

(C) 2019 Como Community Council.

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