Planning Commission Opposes Historic Designation for St. Andrew's Building
Friday, December 14, 2018 9:55 AM

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Saint Paul’s Planning Commission voted 12-1 on Dec. 14 against adding the former St. Andrew’s church to the city’s registry of historical buildings. In doing so, the Planning Commission accepted the recommendation made two days earlier by its own Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee.
But the Planning Commission decision clashes with the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission, which ruled Nov. 5 that the former church building – now owned by Twin Cities German Immersion School – is eligible for historical designation.
The Heritage Preservation decision is based on the historical and architectural significance of the building, which planning commissioners did not dispute. Instead, the planning commissioners decided that other policies and principles in the city’s Comprehensive Plan outweigh the conflicting historical criteria in the plan.

Juggling different priorities
In particular, planning commissioners wrestled with the potential broader impacts of historic designation.
“Neighborhood vitality and vibrancy clearly outweigh preserving an individual structure,” commissioner Jeff Risberg said in summarizing the position of the committee. “The potential negative affects of losing the school outweigh the potential benefits of the designation.”
For example, planning commissioners emphasized the value the Comprehensive Plan places on educational institutions, including a policy requiring the city to “collaborate” with schools on construction or remodeling. They cited the plan’s preference for jobs and the need to encourage, not discourage, investment in the city.
Several commissioners said they did not want to set a precedent by giving a building historic designation without the owner’s agreement. The German Immersion School, which uses the former church as its Aula, opposes historic designation. At a committee meeting, commissioner Adrian Perryman said establishing a precedent could allow the designation process to be "weaponized" to prevent development.

Fear of a vacant building
In citing the concept of neighborhood character, planning commissioners speculated which option would make a bigger contribution: an architecturally impressive but underutilized church building, a vibrant elementary school or, conceivably, a vacant building if the school moves.
“We’re not in a position to know if the school may be forced to move, but the will of the owner certainly seems relevant here,” Risberg said. “Thinking more broadly, vacant buildings are not an asset to city.”
A few commissioners expressed disappointment that the attempt to preserve the building is not accompanied by a plan for adaptive reuse that would make preserving it successful. Commissioner Kris Fredson, who cast the lone “no” vote, said, “It would be an absolute tragedy if this building went down.”

Back to HPC, then City Council
The fate of the building’s historic designation now goes back to the Heritage Preservation Commission. Those commissioners will weigh the recommendation of the Planning Commission, along with a separate determination by the state’s Historic Preservation Office, before making a final recommendation, possibly on Jan. 14. That recommendation goes to the City Council, which ultimately has the final word. City Council could have a public hearing on the issue as soon as Feb. 6.
Meanwhile, on Dec. 20, the Planning Commission's Zoning Committee delayed a vote on the site plan and variances the school needs for its expansion. That committee is now scheduled to make a recommendation on Jan. 17 to the full commission, which is scheduled to discuss it Jan. 25.
The group Save Historic St. Andrew’s is working to save the building, and filed the application seeking historical designation. The German Immersion School, which bought the property in 2013, intends to demolish the former church. Instead, the school plans an addition containing more classrooms and academic space, a gymnasium, and a cafeteria to accommodate growing enrollment.

Previous developments

  • District 10's Land Use Committee recommended approving the zoning variances the school is seeking for its proposed expansion. The committee voted Dec. 5 to support variances on lot coverage, height, and parking.
  • Save Historic Saint Andrew’s filed an extensive data practices request on Nov. 29, asking the school to provide details on expansion alternatives it considered that would relocate the school, otherwise not demolish the former church building, and reasons it is not pursuing those alternatives. The request also seeks a wide range of information on costs, decision-making, and communication.
  • At the request of the city, the school is wrapping up a study of traffic flow, parking, and pedestrian activity near the school.

Originally published Nov. 30; updated Jan. 7, 2019

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