Alexandria’s New High School: An Upgrade?

The new high school in Alexandria, MN was highlighted as a model of innovation in a piece by Jenna Ross in Sunday’s StarTribune.

This $73.2 million high school, recently heralded “the Googleplex of Schools” by technology magazine Fast Company, reflects a broader shift in education and is already becoming a template. Students have given more than 50 tours of the place — 40 of them to officials and teachers from other school districts. Looking to build one high school and renovate another, St. Cloud folks stopped by, then hired the same architects.

The new facility, designed by Cunningham Group in Minneapolis, may be a model 21st Century education facility. An investment in the education and future of a city should be applauded, and I’m glad to see we are constantly re-evaluating the environment in which students learn the best.

Yet other writers on have highlighted another trend in modern school planning playing out in Mankato, New Ulm, and St. Cloud: isolated schools on the unwalkable fringe. This appears no different. Fast Company notes, “When the city of Alexandria, Minnesota, asked community members what they wanted in their new high school to be like, they replied, ‘like the Google campus.'” Fitting, since Google operates hundreds of buses each day to shuttle workers from their walkable San Francisco neighborhoods 40 miles south to their sprawling Mountain View campus.

Location matters

The old high school in Alexandria is located at 1401 Jefferson, on the southern fringe of Alexandria’s traditional development pattern and humane grid. It had a Walk Score of 42. A majority of the traditional grid was within a 20 minute walkshed, and even the northern fringes of the city were within 20 minutes by bicycle.

Old Alexandria HS walkshed

Looking for a safe route? Take your pick on the grid!

The new high school a mile and a half south, surrounded by farm fields and an active railroad track. It has a Walk Score of 8. There’s literally no pedestrian shed to show. Even if students wanted to bicycle on the shoulders of unsafe high-speed rural highways, they couldn’t get to town within 20 minutes.

New Alexandria HS Bikeshed

Want a safe route to school? Nope. And this bikeshed is giving you the finger for asking.

Not even a Safe Routes to School grant will fix this land use mistake. The school district will need to pay to bus students, who used to be able to walk or bike, in perpetuity. Students will be more likely to drive, and no longer have active lifestyle choices for their school commute which will likely cascade through their adult lives. Students who cannot afford a car or aren’t capable of driving will be even more isolated and less likely to participate in enriching after-school sports or activities that do not coincide with a busing schedule.

A lesson for other school districts

In the Strib piece, classrooms are equated to “cell-like boxes.” Other references are made to classrooms as the “c-word.” Okay, we have a prison metaphor. A prison isolates. So does two miles of farm fields. The promotional video (below) from the architect, who usually builds quality work in human-scale environments, starts with a hubris-laden quote from (anti-urban?) Buckminster Fuller: “The best way to predict the future is to design it.” If that’s the case, let’s design our schools to integrate with the built environment of the community they serve, rather than isolate from it.

Alexandria’s new school is already built, and the old one is nearly demolished. So let’s not dwell on their case study. But let’s let it be a lesson for other school districts in Minnesota who can choose to build their new school facilities in a land use that connects students with their communities.

We need build beautiful, enriching school facilities. But let’s build them in beautiful, connected places.


32 thoughts on “Alexandria’s New High School: An Upgrade?

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Yikes, that walkscore map is pretty damning. Education is not isolated from the rest of our social lives, and our schools shouldn’t be isolated from our cities and towns either. Prepare for a horrorwshow of trucks and minivans each day queueing up outside the parking lot.

  2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    I bet no voter was told what the increase in bus expenditures would be. Or what the cost will be to sustain the technology they’re committing to.

  3. Jason

    thank you for bringing this very important issue to the forefront. School districts are solely focused on the short term (cost/availability of land) not realizing the long terms costs. Later they come asking for SRTS (fed/state) money to bail out the local officials. This is an epidemic in St. Cloud

  4. Claire VanderEykClaire VanderEyk

    “We need build beautiful, enriching school facilities. But let’s build them in beautiful, connected places.”
    Amen, Matt. AMEN! Why is this such a difficult concept for city leaders and school boards to grasp.

  5. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Author here. Let me clarify that, while I used some of Cunningham Group’s own promo on this project to critique it, I doubt the architect is at fault here. I’m not blaming Cunningham Group. In fact, this is larger than just the people in Alexandria who planned this site. The root cause is really how our society views mobility and land use.

  6. Monte Castleman

    How many months of the school year is it warm enough for ordinary people (as opposed to spandex and helmet road warriors) to bicycle?

    But two questions (that I don’t know the answer to
    Is there a plot of land closer in that the school could have been built on?
    Would the extra costs of doing so offset extra busing in perpetuity?

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I see a lot of 5-8 year old kids playing pond hockey for hours at a time in the dead of winter. Or high school kids (myself included) who went outside for 2 hours every afternoon to do cross-country skiing (in just a spandex suit for meets, no less). Same for the downhill ski team. I don’t think it’s particularly crazy to think kids could safely walk or bike to school in MN winters. A bunch of warm layers and a bike costs <<< than a car + gas for your teenager, even if you assume 4 kids carpool to school.

      As to costs, it's an interesting discussion. It's not just busing, the school needs pipes, electric utilities, roads, big parking lots, etc that it once didn't. It's also possible that re-use with multi-year staged renovations could avoid the cost/need to build a new school while operating the existing one.

  7. Ben Franske

    To be fair for a relatively rural place like Alexandria the school will likely be drawing from such a large area that only a very small percentage of the students would live within the grid itself and would need to be bussed in anyway. I can appreciate your point and other good reasons for making a school part of a neighborhood but it’s also important to note that in the case of rural schools the district usually encompasses such a large land area that the vast majority of students will always need to be bussed/drive in.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      While it’s a good point that there’s a large portion of students in “rural” districts that come in from the countryside, that’s another failure of land use as well. Generations ago, the kids being bused in from the countryside would be the kids whose families lived in that land use for vocational reasons. Most likely, they lived on an active farm.

      Fast forward a few generations, and we’ve highly subsidized a land use and car-oriented lifestyle where a majority of people living in the countryside are living on multi-acre hobby farms or extremely-low-density housing tracts.

      We used to have a much more healthy urban-rural dynamic, even in towns like Alexandria. And now we’ve devalued small-town-urbanity and subsidized a land use that creates more demand for out-of-town living (and thus busing for students).

    2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      True in this case. As of the 2013-14 school year, the Alexandria district covered about 340 square miles…almost half of Douglas County (and twice the size of Ramsey County). It stretches from the Pope County line to Miltona, and from Garfield to east of Douglas.

        1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

          I haven’t looked. There’s a possibly better proxy than what you suggested at 3:27pm in looking at where school-age children in the school district live. That’s doable at the census-block level from Census data, but would take awhile to dig through and sort out.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        Maybe a proxy, but the OnTheMap tool says 11,400 “workers” live in the Alexandria School District boundaries, while 4,150 live in Alexandria proper. If you assume those households are just as likely to have the same number of kids, that’s ~36% in the city proper. Some of those live in the more sprawly parts on the north part of town. I’d say it’s not crazy to say 30% of the high school’s draw lives within reasonable walk/bike distance of the old school.

  8. Scott

    I voted “no” for the referendum to build the “googleplex” in Alexandria. It is basically the definition of “excess” and I think we could have done just fine with a 50 million dollar building. But for some reason this isn’t why you’re upset.

    Where would you liked to have built this school exactly in Alexandria?? Please give the address otherwise this article is pointless. They specifically thought about what it would take to renovate Jefferson, or demolish and rebuild on site, and it was APPALLINGLY more expensive to do so, not to mention that it would displace students for a very long time.

    I continually hear this kind of argument with no actual solutions or alternative, affordable, walkable locations.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      Ah yes, the “if you don’t supply some detail that isn’t what you are writing about, you are wrong” angle.

    2. Monte Castleman

      I have to agree. A generic piece on idealistic locations for schools would be one thing, but with criticizing a specific example, it would bolster the author’s point if we knew a specific, reasonable, alternative location was actually available.

    3. Claire VanderEykClaire VanderEyk

      I’m not familiar with the specifics of the Alexandria example, but I will say that the cost comparisons for renovation/demolition of an existing school against building a new school often appear, at face value, to lien towards building a new school. Particularly when it comes to renovating an existing school – architects and engineers tend to over-estimate those costs and end up disproportionately favoring new construction. Not to mention those things that cannot be measured by a dollar amount (such as walkability, impact on surrounding neighborhoods and so on). So, to your question of where the alternative location should be – it’s probably right where it is now.

    4. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I guess, I’ve only been to Alex like 3 in my life, and I’m no expert on the exact situation. But it sure seems like this big giant open area next to the high school and the parking lot would have been a decent location. There’s also this 3 block stretch of land right in the center of town that looks pretty under-utilized One of the two already disrupts the grid. A school could have been built there, with modern athletic fields put in place of the northern portion of the old school’s parcel, about a 0.6 mile walk from the new site. Side benefit, these become assets for the community around it instead of empty fields outside the hours of 3 to 5 PM.

      Meter the streets near the school (would make sense for a near-downtown area anyway) but give rural students a slight discount. A surface lot could be located adjacent to the athletic fields where the old school was for people who don’t want to pay to park but want/need to drive in, with a shuttle running for an hour before and after class hours between them.

      Here’s another site that looks like it used to have a school on it (now performing district functions?)

      The new school’s footprint (excluding athletics and parking, of course), which undoubtedly makes use of the availability of land, is roughly 430′ by 630′. I find it hard to believe either site I showed would have been too terribly difficult to fit a high school serving less than 1,000 total students.

      But as Matt has said, the point isn’t to dwell too long on this particular case study. It’s done, nothing can change here. We just need to learn for future projects.

      1. Nathanael

        There’s also the vacant lot taking up an entire block between Hawthorne, Irving, 2nd, and 3rd…

        Build UP (my district’s old school was six stories tall) and you have an amazing amount of space.

      2. Monte Castleman

        Even if you take the idealistic view that no student will drive, the sites closer in seem to be too small for both a school and athletic fields. The running track alone takes up more than a square block. If students arrive by walking but need to ride a bus to gym class or after school sports, what have we accomplished?

        Apparently the school claims the existing site was too small. I don’t know why, since it looks like there’s a lot of land to build more fields or more parking if those are the issues, as well as rebuild the school behind or to the side of the existing building, but I can’t judge that since I’m not in a position to know.

        1. Nathanael

          *sigh* In some places, I’ve seen groups of students WALKING to athletic fields. Through neighborhoods, for several blocks.

          When my city’s old school was replaced with the new school, they had to build a school library at substantial additional expense. The former school was located across the street from the public library.

          There are some advantages — economies of scale, if you will — to actual cities.

      3. Matt Brillhart

        The locals call Alexandria “Alec” for short. It’s the weirdest thing. Not sure if they spell it “Alex” though…I noticed you used the shorthand here.

        Also, they pronounce Lake Carlos as “car-luss”, as opposed to the Hispanic first name Carlos, so I don’t think you can trust anyone up there 😉

        1. Jeff

          I’m a native of God’s Country. I’d say it’s split on how many say “Alec” vs “Alex.” I go either way. It comes from the pronunciation of “Alec-zandria.” And my parents live on Lake “Carluss” which drives my wife mad every time I pronounce it. Most of us do say Le Homme Dieu correctly but with more of a Scandinavian accent than French.
          As far as the new high school goes I think it’s great. The old school was horrible and that big grassy area others pointed out was prone to flooding (as was the lowest floor of the school). It would have taken a considerable amount of fill and likely some significant regional stormwater mitigation to make that area buildable. I don’t see the location as that big of an issue. When I was there choosing to take an alternative transportation mode meant riding your snowmobile. I can’t think of maybe more then one or two people in HS that I knew who even lived close enough to Jefferson to walk/bike much less that actually did. Maybe that’s changed but I doubt by very much. So if building another 1.5 miles further out of the city lowered land cost and gave them enough room to do all the things they wanted then I’m fine with that.

          1. Jodi

            I agree with Jeff. Jhs grad and current Alex resident… The old school site shared parking with the technical college… Of which the college got most of the space. It is in a lie lying water shed area that would have cost a mint to fill and still haven’t solved the parking situation. 25 years ago when I went to Jefferson I didn’t know anyone that walked. We live in a community of lakes. No one lives close to anything. My kids best friend is an hour round trip from my house to theirs and we both still live in Alexandria (driving around this lake and that lake). The school location is a mute point. It’s great where it is at! So much room for further development, and soon the entire areas around the school will build up and it won’t be so rural anymore. Parking is very adequate…. Staff park on bl north side students to the south. Student lot has at least 50 plus open spices on a given day. The only thing they missed the mark on was no hockey rink on site… But we have turf on that football field!… Which is covered by snow most months. At least a hockey rink would have been a source of revenue for year round activity. … whole different discussion. (But there is room for one)!
            But if you haven’t heard FCA is putting up a private Christian school just to the north of the new high school, heard rumor of two rinks and school facility. It will serve as national headquarters for FCA hockey.
            We don’t mind the school where it is, we have currently a road closure (that lovely road construction)… So that is making things a little messed up for now!
            Alex is not a town that things are convenient to get to, things are spread out and very interrupted by the lakes…. It don’t matter where you live .

  9. Monte Castleman

    I recall a Bloomington city council meeting years ago, when they were discussing putting senior housing at Bloomdale. Once councilmember commented”
    “No matter where you put this kind of thing, some people will think it’s the wrong place. If you put it in a residential area, people will worry about the traffic as well as saying it should be some place where the residents can walk to businesses. If you put it in a business district, people would say it should be in a residential area where it won’t displace commercial development and things will be quieter for the residents. These have to go somewhere.”

    So where do you put a school?
    If you put it along a high speed rural road, you’ve eliminated walking from the small portion that would do so.

    If you put it in a residential area, the vast majority of students that drive or take the bus will annoy the homeowners to no end. Bonus points for not having room for adequate parking so students park on residential streets.

    If you put it along a busy city street, that land is probably pretty valuable and would displace potential taxable businesses as well as having an initial acquisition cost.

      1. GlowBoy

        Right! The idea that only a small minority walks or bikes is a very new concept, really only going back to around the time of the Jacob Wetterling abduction. Prior to that time parents weren’t as afraid to let their kids walk to school (or otherwise free-range) even in suburban areas.

  10. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    The tie to Google is interesting. Perhaps the folks planning this should have studied a bit better. Google have been moving employees in to downtown San Francisco for a few years at the employees request and because so many people they wanted to hire only wanted to work for places they could walk or bike to. They’ve purchased three buildings in the Mission District just in the past 18 months.

    I also question the benefit of these big box campuses vs several smaller campuses with fewer students.

  11. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Here’s a 1951 aerial photograph of Alexandria, showing the former Jefferson High School site adjacent to the grid.

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