A New Look for 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 Minnehaha Academy 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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