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District 10 recommends approval of variances for TCGIS expansion

Posted on 13 January 2019 by Calvin

Board stressed they were not taking a position for or against historic preservation or value of former church building

District 10 Board members debate three variance requests from the Twin Cities German Immersion School who hopes to demolish the existing St. Andrew’s church building and construct an addition there. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
District 10 Board members have approved three variance requests for the Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS) expansion project, but the board has not taken a position for or against historic designation of the former St. Andrew’s Church building that is at the center of this divisive neighborhood issue.

Photo right: On Dec. 18, 2018, District 10 Board members (left to right) Amy Perna (Vice Chair), Ryan Flynn (Chair), Anne Hartmann (treasurer) and Tim Post (secretary) consider three variance requests from the Twin Cities German Immersion School. Representatives from the school and Save Historic Saint Andrews spoke at the meeting. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

Before receiving official city approval, projects must go before their local district councils. In the Como area, the process for building projects is that they first go before the Land Use Committee, which is composed of however many neighborhood residents attend each meeting, and then the 17-member District 10 Board.

District council votes are advisory, and the city council is not required to go along with the recommendations.

While the approval process for the proposed school addition progresses on one track, the possible historic designation of the former St. Andrew’s Church building moves on another.

The city’s Preservation Commission ruled on Nov. 5, 2018, that the former church designed by the city’s first architect, Charles A. Hausler, is eligible for historic status. However, on Dec. 14, the city’s Planning Commission voted against it being eligible using a different set of criteria. The Heritage Preservation Commission held a public hearing on Jan. 14, past this Monitor’s deadline.

Variance 1: height
Charter schools often make do with spaces, observed TCGIS Executive Director Ted Anderson during the Dec. 18, 2018 District 10 Board meeting. “One of the biggest reasons that we’re motivated to build in this space is that we really want to have usable space for our kids.”

“We’ve seriously looked at how we can keep this building,” said board member and neighborhood resident Nic Ludwig. “We spent two months looking at that before we looked at other options.”

The proposed addition following the demolition of the former St. Andrew’s Church would have a cafeteria on the main level and an expanded commons area adjacent to the addition TCGIS built in 2013 when it moved to the site. Floor two would have six classrooms and RTI (response to interventions) space to provide individualized education.

In the lower floor would be two gymnasiums.

The proposed structure would be a bit wider and shorter than the existing church building.

However, it would be slightly taller than what is allowed by city code, so TCGIS is requesting a variance to the height of 3.1 feet for a total height of 33.1 feet. The existing church building is taller than what is now allowed by the city code. At the peak of the church roof, the current building is 47 feet tall, and it is 38 feet, 6 inches at the midpoint of the roof, according to a St. Paul staff report.

Photo right: District 10 Board member and Land Use Committee Chair Maggie Zimmerman presents highlights from the recent Land Use Committee meeting regarding the Twin Cities German Immersion School’s variance requests during a board meeting on Dec. 18. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

At the District 10 Land Use Committee meeting on Dec. 5, people had voted 96-76 to granting the variance. Land Use Committee members include anyone age 18 or older who resides in geographic boundaries of District 10; or anyone who is a designated representative of a business or nonprofit organization physically located within District 10.

Of the 230 people at the meeting, 187 were District 10 residents who could vote, according to Land Use Committee Chair Maggie Zimmerman. Of that, 60% were from subdistrict 2 (which includes Warrendale), 15% from subdistrict 1, 17% from subdistrict 4, and 8% from subdistrict 3.

Following the recommendation of its Land Use Committee, the District 10 Board voted 14-1 on Dec. 18 to support the variance request for height. Zimmerman and chair Ryan Flynn abstained from all the votes. St. Paul staff is also recommending approval of this variance.

Board position on historic designation
Vice Chair Amy Perna proposed an amendment to the first two motions that they be contingent upon the application for historical designation being denied.

“I think we have two processes going on and if the historic preservation goes through that changes the landscape,” explained Perna.
This amendment was not added following two 7-8 votes as the majority of board members felt that the issue would need to return to them if the historical designation moved forward.

Chair Ryan Flynn affirmed that support for the variance requests “is not an opposition to the historic designation.” He added, “The board has not taken a position on historic designation.”

Variance 2: lot coverage
The second variance request would allow TCGIS to have a total lot coverage of 36%, 1% more than the city’s allowable amount in an R4 residential district. Right now, the former St. Andrew’s Church occupies 32% of the site.

The Land Use Committee approved this by a 100-74 vote.

District 10 Board members approved 14-1 with two abstentions. St. Paul staff is also recommending approval of this variance.
Kevin Anderson of Save Historic St. Andrews (SHSA), the group pushing for preservation, argued that in the city’s zoning ordinance, there is language preventing the overcrowding of land and undue congestion of population. He pointed out that of the elementary schools in St. Paul, TCGIS is the highest in density. TCGIS has 375.1 students per acre while the next closest schools, Achieve Language Academy, has 270.5 students per acre, Murray Middle has 188.1 students per acre, and St. Paul Music Academy has 176.4 students per acre. SHSA believes the density puts a strain on the site and neighborhood streets.

Variance 3: parking
The last variance request generated the most discussion by the District 10 Board.

TCGIS is asking the city to waive the requirement that it provide 37 additional parking spaces with the addition. The school’s current proposal accounts for just 50 parking spaces, but it anticipates having 87 full-time equivalent employees with the school expansion.

The school’s parking lot on the west side currently has 33 spaces, and it will lose one spot with the addition. TCGIS will also remove the six-space parking lot on the east side to create green space there for a net loss of seven parking spaces.

It has contracted with Mission Church across the street to use 15 spaces there when they’re not needed by the church, an agreement that expires in June 2019. The school will offset nine parking spaces by providing bike racks for 36 bikes. The remaining vehicles are expected to use on-street parking in the neighborhood or by staff using alternative forms of transportation.

Ludwig noted that the school plans to meet with the city about using the Como pool lot, but that will cost the school money.

School representatives and those from Save Historic St. Andrews presented conflicting traffic and parking data during the meeting, with one side stating there was plenty of parking spaces available during school hours and the other stating there wasn’t. Each had photos to illustrate their point. The majority of TCGIS school students do come from outside the neighborhood and either ride the bus to school or come by vehicle. Of the 560 students, 55 live in District 10 and half in St. Paul, according to T. Anderson.

A traffic study is currently being done by TCGIS using measures set by the city.

At the Land Use Committee meeting, the school asked for a variance of 37 spaces. Before the District 10 board meeting, the city recommended a variance of only 29 spaces with no net loss in on-site parking.

During its vote, District 10 Board members agreed to follow through on the Land Use Committee vote (101-76) and approved a variance of 37 parking spaces on an 8-7 vote with two abstaining.

Those in favor of the motion explained that they supported more green space over parking. “I’m concerned about the message we’re sending to prioritize a parking lot,” said board member Laura Jo Busian.

Those opposed were concerned about shifting the burden of parking to neighborhood streets. “I think it does have the biggest impact on the neighborhood,” said board member Olivia Mulvey Morawiecki.

A neighborhood divided
School representatives stated that they don’t think they can keep the school financially stable and cover the costs of keeping the church as a historic building. “Will that make us leave tomorrow? No, but it will be a drain on our budget,” said T. Anderson.
They do not think the city should designate the former church as a historic site over their objections.

Save Historic Saint Andrews (SHSA) member Anna Moser pointed out that neighbors banded together to save the historic Victoria Theater at 825 University Ave. in Frogtown when the property owner wanted to tear it own. The structure was granted historic preservation status and is in the middle of a renovation project.

District 10 Board member Mike Ireland observed, “Since I started on the board there have been issues with the community and the school. It’s been exacerbated since the demolition came up. At some point, one side is going to walk away happy and one very sad.” He expressed his concern about the division he sees and asked how the school and community were going to come together after this.
On behalf of the school, Ludwig stated that TCGIS will continue to host neighborhood events such as National Night Out.
SHSA representative K. Anderson said that it is important to be respectful of each other in this process.

“I respect and understand that the school is an important part of our community, but I want it to be a positive part of the community,” stated Moser.

SHSA has requested data from the school to facilitate a design meeting this winter in which all stakeholders in the project would attempt to resolve the conflict and preserve the historic church structure.

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