A longtime Frogtown school will be transformed into a youth center housing up to 16 young people.
On Jan. 21, 2022, the St. Paul Planning Commission Jan. 21 unanimously approved a conditional use permit for the project at 643 Virginia St. That decision wasn’t appealed to the St. Paul City Council within 10 days so it will stand.
Approval allows the Irreducible Grace Foundation and its Black Youth Healing Arts Collective to convert the longtime school into an innovative space to support young people. It will be used for congregate care of up to 16 beds. Along with sleeping units there will be kitchen and dining areas, therapy space, training and teaching areas, staff and administrative offices.
The Minneapolis-based foundation is a non-profit focused on creating safe spaces with youth of color. It provides mentoring, life skills, employment, self-care practice, and safe space for teens and young adults. Through the use of visual and performing arts and movement techniques the foundation helps young people learn new skills for dealing with stress, trauma and fostering their voices. Foundation leader Darlene Fry presented plans to the Planning Commission Zoning Committee in January.
Irreducible Grace Foundation was started in 2012 by a group of educators, led by Fry, who saw the large racial disparities of on-time graduation rates between African American, American Indian, and Hispanic students to their Caucasian and Asian counterparts.
The foundation submitted detailed floor plans to the planning commission, along with information on the planned center itself. The center is seen as a way to provide needed space for Black youth to have a safe place to heal from generations of trauma.
The center is to be operated with cooperative values. It will have residential leaders, services, activates and training opportunities for Black youth throughout the day. All of the program offerings will have a holistic, integrative health/healing-focused approach, to help young people make the transition to successfully living on their own.
Young people ages 16-26 will be from the ranks of people who are homeless. The organizers are looking at ways to being in more services for the residents, who will take part in healing arts activities.
Another focus will be on training opportunities for skills development, with community partners. The collective is looking into ideas including food preparation and culinary skills, a reading and therapy dog training program, and various community services programs such as neighborhood cleanup, home painting and minor home repairs, yard work and other services to assist neighbors.
The collective organizers have numerous steps ahead including raise more than $6 million for property purchase, renovation and furnishing the building, and other work needed.
Planning staff recommended approval of the conditional use permit, indicating it meets all requirements needed for approval.
The school’s oldest section dates from 1901, built as St. Vincent’s Catholic School. A gym and community room space were added several years ago. The church is just to the north. It is on the block bounded by LaFond, Western and Blair avenues and Virginia St. It has served as a charter school for many years housing the St. Paul City School middle school. Before that it housed a Native American school, Red School House, which was started in 1972.
The permit allows for reuse of the 20,795-square-foot school building for an arts and healing center/supportive housing facility. The property is zoned for residential/townhouse use so no zoning change is needed. A conditional use permit is needed for conversion or reuse of residential structures of more than 9,000 square feet gross floor area and permitted nonresidential structures such as churches and schools if several conditions are met.
The school has eight classrooms, making it small for some school uses but too large to be converted for single-family or duplex use, or for smaller-scale supportive housing for six or fewer people.
Exterior alterations or changes to the parking area, which is accessed off of LaFond, aren’t planned.
No members of the public spoke at the Zoning Committee hearing. Frogtown Neighborhood Association didn’t submit a recommendation.
Three conditions were placed on the permit. One is that final plans approved by the zoning administrator for the use shall be in substantial compliance with the plan submitted and approved as part of this application. The applicant shall obtain a building permit to change the occupancy type of the structure and a certificate of occupancy. The number of residents receiving services shall not exceed 16.
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