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A charter school’s attempt to sabotage historic preservation and the people trying to save it

City Pages

City Pages

This month, the St. Paul City Council will decide whether to designate a 92-year-old former church for historic preservation. It’s safe to count leaders of the Twin Cities German Immersion School in vigorous opposition.

The public charter school owns the former St. Andrew’s Church in the Como Park neighborhood of St. Paul, operating a cafeteria and gymnasium there. They seek to demolish the Romanesque revivalist structure, replacing it with a new gym to better meet the needs of a growing student body.

So for months, quietly and behind the scenes, they’ve been doing their best to sabotage any hope that the building lives on.

Since opening in 2005, German Immersion has grown from serving two grades to nine. It hosts students and teachers from abroad and sends its own to a sister school in Germany. Enrollment has risen to 580 kids, with the expectation of breaking 600 by 2021. St. Andrew’s must go, says Executive Director Ted Anderson, if the school is to succeed.

But since announcing its intent to bulldoze the former church in late 2017, the plan has drawn the ire of neighbors and preservationists. Among them is Muriel Gubasta, whose great-grandparents immigrated from Hungary to Como in the early 1900s, attending the church that was built in the 1920s.

Its history of serving the Hungarian community, and its century-old architecture style rarely found in the Twin Cities are compelling reasons to save it, Gubasta says. ”People fused their spiritual and social lives in this building.”

Internal emails show the school debating ways to sabotage the neighborhood group Save Historic St. Andrew’s, above.

Internal emails show the school debating ways to sabotage the neighborhood group Save Historic St. Andrew’s, above. City Pages

Yet last fall, school leaders announced a plan to take down take down St. Andrew’s bell tower eight months before the remainder would be demolished. In September, Nic Ludwig, chairman of German Immersion’s facilities committee, told the District 10 Como Community Council that “urgency was needed... because of some cost savings” for the school, according to minutes of that meeting. (Ludwig denies saying this.)

“The contractor has given us an estimate of how much time would be saved by having part of the building removed before the construction starts,” Ludwig told a Como Community subcommittee the following month, according to an audio recording.

But internal school emails show a more pressing rationale: School leaders hoped that by quickly killing the tower, the city would have no choice but to let them destroy the rest.

The tactics of ‘bad developers’

Anderson maintains that historic designation would be “catastrophic” for the school, since it would “lock us into the building.”

German Immersion bought the church in 2013—two years after the Catholic diocese decommissioned it—and renamed it the Aula, the German word for auditorium. The sanctuary was converted into the school’s first on-site gym.

But it would soon become clear that a former church sanctuary was “very limiting to gym class,” says Anderson.

The Aula’s useable space is not big enough to host basketball or volleyball games, or to install a climbing wall, he adds. School leaders also maintain the building needs more than $1 million for a new roof, boiler, windows, and doors.

“If we can’t deliver the program that we really want to, that makes us less desirable as a school,” Anderson says.

But to the group Save Historic St. Andrew’s, which rose from talk of demolition, the building’s history and architecture gives their neighborhood a central identity.

Roy Neal lives near Hamline University and has been involved in efforts to save older buildings that the college targeted for removal. He says preserving history isn’t about nostalgia or living in the past.

“They are education resources for the future,” Neal says of these structures. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

While Anderson says the neighborhood group “appears unconcerned about what goes on inside the building,” members say they hope to find a solution to keep the school operating there.

Still, school leaders took historic designation as a threat.

“We are facing a neighborhood group that is seeking historic designation (without our agreement),” Ludwig wrote in an email to Eric Olson at RJM Construction—the school’s contractor—in June 2018. “One way to help stop the historical designation is to change enough of the church building now.”

Father Farliti, at his home across the street with the former cross of St. Andrew’s

Father Farliti, at his home across the street with the former cross of St. Andrew’s

Another email from August shows Ludwig asking Craig Kepler, a Minneapolis real estate attorney, to weigh in on the possibility of the school “pulling a demo permit early and altering the building enough to diminish the architecture enough to get the neighbor group to stop seeking historic designation.”

Gubasta says the emails show a school breaching its “already slim trust” with the surrounding community. “People who intentionally deceive the public should not be allowed to manage charter school projects,” she says.

Neal argues that defacing an old building is a classic tactic of “bad developers.” He calls the emails “shady and churlish.”

Yet Ludwig downplays any untoward plot. “That’s not the sole purpose of our endeavor of asking contractors to look at opportunities like that,” he says. “The case was, ‘How can we move forward with the building project, as owners of the building?’”

The emails are also but a small part of the internal debate, Anderson adds: “I wouldn’t take five or six comments from a few emails to represent the whole of the discussion.... Any assertion that people are being less than honest or sneaky or disingenuous is not consistent with what I’ve experienced.”

Just five likes

Yet internal emails show German Immersion worrying about the neighborhood group as early as spring of last year.

“What’s the word on historical designation of the Aula?” Ludwig wrote to Anderson and several others in March 2018. “What are the possibilities of a group pushing for some sort of designation? There is a historical preservation group (self organized, not city official) that created a save St. Andrews [Facebook] page and other posts about the project.”

“Unfortunately, groups can have an impact on what happens even if they don’t own the building,” responded Deb Rathman, a principal at Rivera Architects. “We may want to consider taking out a demo permit sooner than later to flush this out.”

Others agreed, though some acknowledged it could cause controversy.

“Demolition permits in Minneapolis and St. Paul have become very hot-button issues,” wrote John Steingraeber, another architect working with the school.

Anderson, for his part, didn’t seem too threatened by Save St. Andrew’s at first.

“Not sure what the best course of action is,” he wrote the next day, “but I am pleased at the number of level-headed and helpful comments I saw from names I don’t know.”

He added: “The ‘Save St. Andrew’s’ page remains at 5 likes.”

This reassurance didn’t last long. Two days later, school officials learned the group had approached the city about historical designation.

“I guess this is their notification that they are not interested in working with German Immersion to come to a solution that works for the school and are only interested in keeping the building, at our expense,” Anderson wrote.

‘I like bold’

As the weeks went on, German Immersion continued to share concern about the neighborhood group. In June, Kepler wrote that historical designation “can be a nightmare” for property owners.

“It can, for example, impose a requirement that all exterior maintenance involve historically accurate windows and surface materials—very expensive,” he wrote.

He recalled being involved “in a battle” over the failed preservation of a Rex Hardware building on 26th Street and Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis —“a crappy little 1,000 sf single-floor brick building with rotting floors, a haven for drug users and prostitutes.”

That same month, Adam Lindberg, an engineer with Ericksen Roed & Associates, expressed belief that the school had reached the point of no return.

“Since the neighborhood has become unwilling to work with us, they have made the decision here in my opinion,” he wrote. “We have reached out many olive branches to try to come to a compromise.”

Soon, Ludwig sent the email suggesting they “change enough of the building now” to “help stop historic designation.”

But in a follow-up, Steingraeber cautioned that partial demolition could make it “very tricky” for the school “to maintain our certificate of occupancy.” That’s because the Aula building would then be “under construction (or deconstruction)” for an entire school year, and the structural integrity of the building would have to be maintained.

“That said: the idea is bold, and I like bold,” Steingraeber wrote. The bell tower plan needed to “remain strictly confidential,” Ludwig emphasized. Today, Anderson says the school was simply exploring all options. One idea was to save a doorway and stained glass, to be displayed at the new building as a compromise to the neighborhood group. But Neal likens this to “making grandma an organ donor” after she dies. The ideas were rejected. “Collaboration is working together,” Neal says. “Not ‘We’re going to go forward with our plan and throw you a bone.’”

‘It won’t save us any money’

By October, the school made its partial demolition plan public and was facing backlash. Save St. Andrew’s members protested with signs across the street, to the dismay of school leaders. “We all knew they would try to chain themselves to the building before this was over,” Lindberg wrote in an email.

But German Immersion also began to grow weary of the bell tower idea. Explained Dori Dufresne of the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections: “The concern is that the building will become unsafe for occupants.” In other words, the school would need a special permit.

Ludwig complained about the city’s objections, writing of “extraneous additional requirements” and “a new slate of things we are being told we need to do.”

But Steingraeber recommended taking partial demolition “off the table.” For one, he “highly doubted” that removing the bell tower would prevent historic designation on its own and emphasized that factors besides architecture are also considered in the process.

“The city is right to ask for a building permit for partial demo,” Steingraeber wrote. “You can’t just put a new roof over a demolished part of a school without a permit.”

The plan also “won’t save us any money because of the costs of the temporary water line and additional permit fees,” he added. “We have not at all addressed the possibility that something could go wrong during partial demolition that could impact school safety or operations or—worse—jeopardize our certificate of occupancy.”

Others ultimately agreed. Anderson even questioned how Eric Olsen at RJM Construction, the school’s contractor, and Karl Jentoft, a principal at Tensquare, the Washington D.C.-based consulting company that the school also contracts with, “let us go down this road.”

Still, Anderson tells City Pages he has full confidence in the advice he’s getting from contractors and consultants. His email simply bemoans “all the roadblocks” the school has faced.

“We just want to educate our kids,” he says.

It’s not just the neighbors German Immersion must overcome. Last fall, the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission voted to support historic designation. In January, the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office recommended that the building be placed on the National Registry.

The St. Paul Planning Commission, on the other hand, sided with the school, noting the city’s desire to work with educational institutions.

More roadblocks may or may not be on the way. The City Council will hold a public hearing May 15. They are expected to vote on historic designation a week later. Not until June will the school know whether it can finally demolish St. Andrew’s and build anew.

It still hopes to have a new gym waiting for students when they arrive this fall.