By Kevin Anderson, Teri Alberico, Anna Mosser, Bonnie Youngquist
—for Friends of Warrendale, Save Historic St. Andrew’s LLC.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
—Jane Jacobs, from her classic The Death and Life of the Great American Cities
The Warrendale neighborhood, nestled amongst the leafy trees on the southern edge of Como Park, represents many things to many people. For hundreds of us, it is home; it is family. It is an investment in property, a place to raise kids, and garner relationships with friends and neighbors. It has been a place for schoolchildren to learn and forge the bonds that can last a lifetime. It is all of these things and more because the neighborhood has successfully woven its many diverse uses into a cohesive whole.
In 2013, we welcomed new neighbors. The Twin Cities German Immersion School, a public charter school, moved into the former church and school building. The families have brought great energy, but unlike previous schools, nearly three-quarters of the current 585 students travel by car.
Unprecedented numbers of automobiles streamed into this residential neighborhood. Neighborhood parents struggled with the safety of their children at our bus stops. On formerly calm corners, cars repeatedly violated school bus flashing lights and stop arms. In the five years since the school moved in, it has more than doubled its enrollment, even as it reduced its on-site parking. Nearby streets filled with parked cars, and twice a day, clogged with lines of cars that routinely extend several blocks in either direction.
But the tipping point came in the spring of 2018 when the school announced not only a further expansion but their intention to tear down the crown jewel that for nearly a century kept watch at the heart of the neighborhood. The beloved and extraordinary former Church of Saint Andrew’s, which had been social and physical center of the neighborhood—would be leveled.
More students would mean more cars, more congestion, less safety, and less livability. Moreover, we would lose our neighborhood’s most visible historic structure and neighborhood landmark.
A group of neighbors quickly assembled and started a petition to delay the demolition. Father John Forliti, a widely-respected retired Catholic leader who has lived most of his life on the same street corner as Saint Andrew’s, invited German School board members and neighbors to his house for a series of dinners. Relationships were forged at these meetings. Everyone, school parents and neighbors alike, pressed board members to work collaboratively to explore alternative solutions that could include preservation of the unusual and ornate former Church of Saint Andrew’s.
In response, the school’s current board Chair said flatly, no.
The goodwill between school and community quickly unraveled.
In the following months, we’ve tried twice more to explore collaborative solutions. We identified skilled architects willing to contribute their expertise in architectural design and collaboration. When the district council asked the school to explore collaborative solutions last August, the school board rejected them. When we asked again last fall, we were rejected a third time.
The expansion that the German Immersion School proposes would make the school much denser than any other school in the city’s residential zoning districts. Their student population would be over four times denser than the median school in any of the city’s R1 to R4 zoning districts. The school looks to receive city zoning variances, city site plan approval, and city financing for a project that tears down a historic building and creates untenable transportation gridlock and safety concerns. These public asks are huge.
Unlike traditional public schools, which adjust to demographic and market swings, charter schools have control over their enrollment. The schools themselves set their enrollment cap each year. This expansion is the board’s choice. In actuality, it is an effort to push the true costs of operating the school onto the neighborhood. Instead of paying to bus most of their students, as other schools do, they expect the neighborhood to carry this burden in the form of reduced safety and livability. Instead of restoring the former church, as Cesar Chavez Academy Charter School did in Saint Paul, they want to build a facility that suits their immediate needs, pushing the loss of an indelible landmark on as a cost to their neighbors.
Rather than agree to neighborly collaboration, this school has mounted an unprecedented, cynical and antagonistic offensive on those neighbors who disagree. This is a sophisticated campaign designed to turn political support in their favor, identifying and cultivating allies, turning neighbor against neighbor.
At the center of the school’s strategy is TenSquare, a national for-profit consulting firm that currently operates in seven states and the District of Columbia. One of the city’s most connected, lucrative, and controversial charter consulting companies, Ten Square prefers to operate out of public sight, but their local Director of Real Estate Development quietly attends public meetings and coordinates public strategy. They communicate with paid media strategists, legal consultants, and architects. Their fees are paid by the school with taxpayer dollars.
Throughout all this, we neighbors aren’t willing to give up on the hope of finding a future together. We hold fast to our core belief in collaboration.
In Saint Paul, there are examples of former churches reused for performance spaces, homes, and yes, a charter school facility. Tom Fischer, the former Dean of the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Minnesota, met with the school and community leaders last summer. He walked away believing win-win solutions were eminently possible, even within a tight budget. In the AIA Guide to Twin Cities Architecture, retired Pioneer
Press writer Larry Millet called out the building as one of the best local examples of period revival. While rain gardens and pollinator gardens have their benefits, the environmental rewards of adaptive reuse are far more significant. The greenest building is the one already standing. This building deserves to be valued, not leveled.
Renowned writer and urban observer Jane Jacobs believed that a diversity of uses is what gives life to urban neighborhoods: schools, homes, churches, offices, and parks. She encouraged density for its critical role in the health of urban neighborhoods. But along with those beliefs, Jacobs realized, as we all should today, that a neighborhood’s core historic fabric and identity matters. Perhaps above all, she recognized that the delicate balance of uses and density that can make urban neighborhoods great can only come about when the people of that neighborhood have a central role in shaping its future. Together.