A New Look for Minnehaha Academy

Cuningham Group’s rendering of the Riverside addition to Minnehaha Academy

When Minnehaha Academy shared its rebuilding plans with the nearby community, any regular Streets.mn reader could have predicted the outcome: neighbors were concerned about building height, the lack of a traditional brick school design, migratory birds, and, yes, traffic and parking.

The now-empty space where the original classrooms were will become an open plaza.


Minnehaha Academy has garnered an outpouring of community support following the tragic gas explosion that killed two beloved staff members, injured others, and destroyed the heart of the Upper School during the summer of 2017. But out of the ashes that remained, the Minnehaha community is rising together to reclaim the site for future generations.

If that sounds a little thick, it’s because the events affect me. Our daughter graduated from MA in 2015 and our son is currently a fourth-grader there. I knew the buildings and hallways and people intimately, and I mourn the losses. I feel the pain of displacement as hundreds of students take refuge for at least two years in Mendota Heights, disrupting often delicately balanced education and transportation plans. The longer the process of rebuilding, the greater the educational disruption for the whole community.


The “Flash Track” to Rebuilding

Minnehaha Academy is on what it terms a “flash track” process to rebuild in time for the 2019-20 school year. Matching up the timelines in terms of funding, design, construction, and the school year is a challenge, especially when doing it all as a private institution very much in the public eye because of the events. The administration has been surprised at times by the level of public scrutiny.

School president Donna Harris, Ed.D., told me, “Our school has been a community asset for 105 years. It is always our intent to be good neighbors.” She described the process of how Minnehaha Academy brought together the internal school community to imagine the rebuild and engage the right partners, ultimately choosing Cuningham Group for the design. (Cuningham had designed MA’s new science lab addition, which was destroyed.)  

In looking at options, the school put everything on the table, including (gulp!) relocating the campus entirely to the suburbs. There were several permutations for reconfiguring both the Lower and Upper Campus properties. Ultimately, it settled on rebuilding at 3100 West River Parkway.

Engaging Stakeholders

Minnehaha Academy had solicited design input from its staff and families, and had plans to engage neighbors, simultaneously going to the city to request conditional use permits for the additions and for increasing the height, as well as variances to reduce the front and side setbacks and to allow parking between the front lot line and the principal structure (which was the current case). Administration and their partners were, perhaps naively, caught off guard when the media published the planning documents filed with the city before MA had an opportunity to engage with all the stakeholders. ”We were caught by surprise,” said Harris, “and that has caused some of our neighbors to view this as intentional.”

Minnehaha President Donna Harris speaks about the building plans to parents, staff, and neighbors.

Ward 2 City Councilmember Cameron Gordon said that the process was understandable. As he explained, when people are looking to change a home, they talk together as a family first rather than bringing the neighbors into the discussion at the outset. 

While families of students expressed many of the same questions as neighbors, the mood among parents has been strikingly positive toward the plans. This was reflected in the letters collected as public input by the Planning Commission. Even with the more controversial Phase II plan to eventually return the middle school to the Upper Campus, many parents are excited by the academic, arts, and athletic opportunities that open up for middle-schoolers with a dedicated space for them.

The New Upper Campus

The historic building that was lost in the explosion had a charming brick exterior but the interior was not well suited to today’s educational needs and methods. It was a warren of staircases and cramped rooms and hallways with funny jogs. Beloved, but difficult to keep comfortable in Minnesota temperatures. It may have fit traditional models of lecture-based classroom instruction but didn’t have much space conducive to current teaching and learning. And it was not accessible to students or family members with disabilities.

The new design incorporates the old space in a way that honors its absence: as a courtyard memorial space with a garden and art. The new high school angles out from there toward the Mississippi, embracing the river and the natural beauty of the landscape in a way the old building could not. Instead of being fronted by a parking lot and tennis courts, there’s a graceful building that allows open space and sunlight. The potential middle school addition is planned behind the existing school space to the west. It would be constructed when funding and time allow.

I know many neighbors feel the loss anew with a design that doesn’t harken back to the early 1900s look and feel. Some neighbors have vociferously condemned the design, particularly because of the height near the river. Neighbors have suggested lowering the height by adding a lower level instead of one of the above-ground floors. The school, however, has to look forward. Minnehaha Academy will “filter input on the building through our goals and aspirations for our learners,” according to Harris, and creating a student-centered learning environment comes first. Cuningham Group hosted charrettes in April to consider design features through the lens of the school’s mission. “We certainly want to look at how we can create an environment the whole community can enjoy. As we continue the process, we are asking everyone, how can this be used by the community? We are creating additional green spaces that our neighbors will find enjoyable.”

Neighbors characterize their concerns about the new school design largely as being about height, but supporters point out that the new buildings aren’t higher than the old. Staff findings stated, “The proposed building … would be 53 ft. 8 in. tall and the steeple would be 64 ft. in height [this has since been reduced to 56 ft. 6 in.]. The building that was destroyed by the explosion was 4 stories, 54 ft.8 in. in height. Staff finds that the proposed high school addition is consistent with historic height would not prove to be detrimental to or endanger the public health, safety, comfort or general welfare.”

Traffic and Parking around an Urban School

The other issue that has consistently aroused anger is transportation. Some neighbors see the relatively short time frame for input as being intended to limit their voices. Many are now bringing up longstanding traffic issues before and after school and events. Increasing enrollment and moving an additional three grades from the Lower Campus to the Upper Campus while simultaneously reducing the parking lot by 35 spaces (due to city parking maximums) is bound to affect the neighborhood, particularly when many school families and neighbors believe the parking was already inadequate. Harris emphasized, “We are early in the stage of traffic planning,” and there is time to come up with reasonable measures.

Despite how Minnehaha Academy draws students from across the metro area, it’s an urban school that has been in place for more than a century. The neighborhood grew up around it and has benefited from that proximity. Today, roughly 60 percent of Minnehaha students live in Minneapolis or St. Paul, and about half of those live in zip codes adjacent to the school. About half of students are currently bussed. From my perspective, families and visitors have transportation options that haven’t yet been explored and promoted. Better attention to active transportation can have significant results, especially given current enrollment trends in the lower grades,

Harris noted that the city requires the school to come up with robust plans for transportation and for communicating about transportation alternatives to families, which will be reviewed annually. A draft Travel Demand Management Plan calls for a baseline commuter survey in the first year and then every two years so that adjustments can be made as needed.

As a Minneapolis family that has used bike, school bus, Metro Transit, and car to get to and from the school, here are a few thoughts on what that can be explored in a comprehensive plan:

Current access coming from Lake Street by foot or on bike.

Biking. Although Minnehaha Academy is near some of the best bicycle structure in the city (the Greenway, River Parkway, Pelham) the school hasn’t connected well to that infrastructure. Providing safer pedestrian and bicycle access to both campuses, separated from cars and cleared of snow in the winter, will help. So will encouraging use by providing safer bike parking and making it a visible option for students, teachers, and families. Current plans are to increase the number of bicycle parking spots from about a dozen to 111. How about an inter-campus bike share for students and staff to move the 1.5 miles between the Upper and Lower Schools?

Carpooling. Improving the infrastructure for carpooling can also be an effective option for reducing the need for so many individual trips. Encouraging students driving each other is not the safest choice for young drivers, but families and teachers can be better connected to share rides. The draft plan addresses ideas as well for communicating with visiting school teams and fans about parking and carpooling.

School parking permit systems. Does parking need to be free? The school charges families for each child for bus transportation, with parking scarce, should this continue to be a free benefit for everyone? How can parking be more effectively rationed? Used as a fundraiser like these creative students did? With paid parking, however, there may be greater spillover into the neighborhood streets, and neighbors at the Planning Commission and in written public comments continuously asserted their belief that they have the rights to the parking in front of their houses. Some even demand the school adopt a no offsite parking policy. In other words, it may not be a way to win friends in the neighborhood.

Make active transportation visible and rewarded. Compensate staff for using transit, biking, or walking. Start a frequent bikers club with rewards and incentives.

Busing. Take a page from rural schools and offer activity buses and transit passes as options for students who take part in athletics or other school activities. Is there an alternative bus drop-off site for Upper School that might require students to walk a few blocks?

Traffic monitors can help ensure traffic moves smoothly at peak times and direct vehicles to maintain safety for pedestrians and bikers.

Engage the students. High school students can be incredibly creative in getting places they want to go. Be sure to include them in service-learning projects as the school thinks about options for transportation and how to effectively encourage alternatives to cars.

Joint solutions. Any change that affects transportation at the Upper Campus naturally affects the Lower Campus as well. Neighbors adjacent to both sites need to be informed and have a clear point of contact for issues. 

Looking Ahead

The plans passed the Planning Commission 7-2 this week, and while neighbors are contemplating their next steps, with the possibility of an appeal looming, Minnehaha is moving systematically forward.

The neighborhood has grown up around a school that is more than 100 years old. Minnehaha Academy was there well before most neighbors chose to live there, and will likely still be there after they are gone. The school is looking beyond the structure that once served students well toward a new building that will meet student needs into the future. Likewise, the city is pushing land use priorities with a more human-centered vision of the future, sacrificing less space to automobiles. As a parent deeply invested in both my community and the school, I’m excited for the opportunities these forward-looking changes will bring.

Serafina Scheel

About Serafina Scheel

Serafina studies election administration at the University of Minnesota and German at the Germanic-American Institute. She's a horrible driver and tries to spare the rest of humanity by biking or using transit as often as possible. She lives in Prospect Park in Minneapolis with her husband and son, just a block away from St. Paul.

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11 thoughts on “A New Look for Minnehaha Academy

  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Parking is free? Heck, we didn’t have free parking at my suburban high school in the ’90s.

    Nonetheless, I wish people would realize that the additional parking they want causes the traffic they are also complaining about.

  2. Monte Castleman

    I was there from 86-92 and my sister was from 86-96 after it became increasingly clear that public schools were problematic for us, for among other reasons bullying by staff and teachers to how little they had to offer us to a desire for more personal attentions. The buildings were charming, quirky, and frustrating. The main reason they stood for so long is that they were still somewhat serviceable and there were either a shortage of funds or other priorities then replacing them. After my time they eventually started embracing the dignified, historic nature of them from the outside, to the point of building a new structure and cladding a 1970s addition to look old. But they never felt their identity were the buildings. I asked a staff member if they would recreate it if it burned down sometime, and they said definately no, they’d start over with a fresh paradigm.

  3. Monte Castleman

    A history of the buildings:

    The original classroom was built in 1912 and also hosted a vocational school. The second, more impressive building, which was then primarily a gymnasium, was built in 1922. Later the 1922 building was used for offices, a chapel that then became a library, the lunch room, and a few classroom.

    Sometime later a connecting hallway was built with the boiler room being in the basement, and then the the hallway structure was widened with a few classrooms. The two connecting structures were totally obliterated by the explosion, with major chunks taken out of the 1912 and 1922 buildings, with the structural components damaged beyond repair.

    A new gym was built in 1949, and then not much happened for a while. In 1977 there was a plan to build a new chapel / auditorium in the front lawn along with a music room, but short of funds they just put movable bleachers, built a better stage, and bricked up the windows in a gym so it could serve as a makeshift chapel. Meanwhile the original buildings continued to age.

    Faced with buildings packed to the gills thanks to the addition of a Middle school and aging buildings, they considered moving the whole thing to the suburbs, but rejected it because they wanted to be centrally located since they had students from all over the metro. They then considered razing the 1912 structure, but in the early 1980s some disgruntled students burned down the chapel at Breck school. Breck decided they wanted out of Dodge, so decamped to the former Golden Valley School. Minnehaha then bought the old Breck campus, moved the Middle School there to relieve pressure on the old campus, and started the lower school.

    At the same time, the interiors were still crumbling, so they started gradually remodeling. They had already done the 3rd floor, and during my time the 2nd floor was done- most of the old dark wood, wood floors, transom windows, and cast iron radiators were removed with only the windows suggesting an old building.

    Having a combined gym and auditorium never satisfied anyone, and in the 2000s the 1949 gym had developed foundation problems. So they built a new gym on the north end of the classroom buildings, then razed a gym and built an auditorium and chapel. Sometime after my time the lower level, which had been remodeled piecemeal over the years, was redone too.

  4. Serafina ScheelSerafina

    That’s a fascinating history, Monte. I didn’t know the lower school used to be Breck. I love the location, and the new building will be ever so much nicer for a broader range of learning needs.

  5. Monte Castleman

    As far as the transportation, I won’t go into how I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect students to bicycle to school when it’s zero degrees and snowing out. Instead I’ll make a few comments about how things were:

    * Minnehaha is a closed campus, which means students aren’t allowed to leave to go get lunch someplace (not that there’s a lot in the area). This is done to try to be good neighbors, as was explained to two classmates of mine when they tried to leave one day and squealed their tires (and at the time the Dean of Student’s office overlooked the parking lot. The driver got a days out of school suspension, and a girl that was with her got in-school suspension.

    * With a student body so sprawled out transportation is a challenge (and not to mention socializing with other kids out of school, although I think the internet has solved the later). Unless you had a lot of influence at the school you didn’t get a bus stop in front of your door in the suburbs. Although we weren’t on scholarships we couldn’t afford to donate a lot of money to the school, neither nor did we have friends on the faculty, so our bus stop was over a mile away. In Minneapolis the public schools took care of busing and it worked better, so suburban kids were given dibs on parking permits.

    * Probably the ultimate was one rich guy in Bloomington simply didn’t want his kids going into Minneapolis, so he donated something like $1 million to the school so they could open the (destined to be temporary) Bloomington campus. The school would much rather have used the money to help build the auditorium but it was take it and open a Bloomington campus or leave it

  6. Monte Castleman

    Also of note, there’s not that much traffic between the campuses except for sports, with the South Campus having the ice arena, wrestling room, soccer, and ball fields, and the North Campus having the soccer field and tennis courts. When I started Minnehaha owned and operated their own school buses. My driver was the high school chemistry teacher who’d take the bus out, drop us kids off, and then park the bus for the night at his house before starting out in the morning.

    At the time the South Campus had much better science rooms, so Upper school chemistry students would take a bus south, and Middle School students would take a bus north to go to foreign language classes- French, Spanish, German, or Swedish. Eventually skyrocketing insurance costs made owning their buses unfeasible, and it was too expensive to charter buses in the middle of the day every day, so they hired a Spanish teacher for the South Campus and remodeled the science rooms on the North Campus.

    If you were in a sport on the other campus, the buses would start at the South Campus and then go north to pick up the students there, and you’d board any bus, then get off at the North Campus. Then one designated buses would stop at the South Campus again to drop off the southbound Upper School sports players.

  7. Aesthetic

    There’s a reason why high schoolers often joke that their schools look like prisons. This is no exception, it just has larger windows. This design looks only marginally better than the “modern” Central High School facade.

    Why is it so tough to build something that actually looks nice?

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      A prison with large windows is not a prison.

      Also, some of the Victorian Era prisons – like St. Cloud – or even slightly newer – like Stillwater – feature a lot of stone and brick that actually can look like schools or colleges of the same era, as long as you ignore the walls and fences. This looks nothing like those.

    2. Monte Castleman

      In my opinion it looks pretty nice

      Given the parameters that schools need to limit entrances for security reasons and they’re basically a bunch of square classrooms, how would you design schools?

  8. Kristi

    I don’t understand the neighbors parking complaints. From the last community meeting MA stated the city parking lot limit was to be 198 stalls for the size of building and the projected student body numbers. However with the history of the building and complaints of neighbors about MA parking on the street they were able to increase the parking lot to 234 (20 for the Northwest Conference office). Why? At the Mendota Campus high school parks 160 cars total (student and staff). If they are so concerned about bird glass, clean run off, saving 100 year old oak trees why push to have larger parking lots and more asphalt?

  9. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Minnehaha is a great asset to the local and metro community. My son went to MA and then I filled in to run the theatre for a couple of years. Working with the students (and staff) there was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

    Many students and staff do live within walking/bicycling distance and it would be good to see more of them doing so. Making the area directly adjacent to the campus more bicycle and walking friendly will help but this needs to extend out farther in to the community before students and parents will be comfortable.

    Finally, from an aesthetic standpoint I’m quite disappointed in the architecture. Like many others I would have much preferred a bit more traditional aesthetic and yes, brick. I think the proposed architecture will not fit well in to the neighborhood and will become dated rather quickly. I think the functional and other goals could have been achieved with a much more appealing design.

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