Answer: The building is well-maintained and in good shape, although its heating system is at the end of its useful life. The building itself was constructed in 1922—a very different era with very different needs. Educational best practices have evolved significantly since then, but the school’s facilities have not received a substantial upgrade since 1966, when the combined gymnasium-cafeteria-auditorium was built. Now, fifty years later, the school needs major upgrades to meet students’ needs and to conform to a wide variety of standards and guidelines for educational practices, accessibility, and educational equity. The needs are substantial enough that when St. Paul Public Schools undertook a two-year planning process to evaluate the more than 70 properties that it owns, applying a rigorous set of criteria, it identified both buildings of Linwood Monroe Arts Plus (LMAP)—a dual campus, Pre-K through 8 school—as among those in most immediate need of upgrades. We are happy to facilitate a tour of the facilities for anyone who is interested in getting a sense of the school’s condition and needs. Just contact us at AdvocatesforLMAP@gmail.com.
Question: The school district owns a lot of properties. Why does the school need to stay where it is?
Answer: Moving would cause substantial disruption, which would be bad both for the school and its students, and create significant unnecessary expense. The district recently completed an intensive two-year long process—the Facilities Master Plan—that assessed all of its 70+ properties. Completed with active engagement by over a thousand stakeholders, including teachers, students, parents, and neighborhood associations, the process fostered strategic and holistic thinking about how to bring all of SPPS’s many facilities and school programs into the 21st century. Moving schools around is incredibly disruptive, and in this case moving a thriving area arts magnet that has been in this building for over twenty years makes little sense. Some properties, such as the one at Albion, are so unsuitable for a school that SPPS determined the best course of action is to sell the property. Because the district’s facilities are utilized at 95% capacity, (Slide 12) moving the Lower campus would cause a domino effect for other schools, which would also have to be relocated to new facilities (which would require expensive remodeling) to make way for LMAP. Other concerns, such as bussing boundaries and the dramatically higher costs of building from scratch versus remodeling, further militate against a move. Finally, relocating LMAP would not resolve the problems with the Lower campus building that upset critics. It would still need a new, separate cafeteria, ADA upgrades, and larger classrooms to be usable as a 21st-century school. In short, system-wide strategic planning, the best interests of the school, and the best interests of its students make a move unwise.
Question: In a period of declining enrollments and budget shortfalls, why is the school district investing so much money in a building renovation like this?
Answer: This isn’t a question about this project specifically, since LMAP’s renovations aren’t occurring in isolation. They’re part of the Facilities Master Planning (FMP) process, a two-year long planning process involving over a thousand stakeholders, which assessed the needs and potential of the district’s 70+ facilities from a holistic perspective. This process is guiding the district’s plans to reinvestment in its aging school buildings to bring them into the 21st century. If you are worried about declining enrollments and families opting out of the district, reinvesting in school facilities should be among your top priorities. Not only must the district repair crumbling infrastructure, but it must also aspire to ensuring that it has an entire system of thoughtfully designed, well-equipped facilities that provide ample opportunities for our city’s students to do well. Facilities are where students learn and grow, where teachers educate, and where school communities thrive. If SPPS wants to attract and retain students and teachers, it cannot provide inadequate school facilities. It cannot assign students to overcrowded buildings with undersized classrooms, or confine them to buildings that are ill-equipped to perform their educational functions. Luckily, Minnesota requires school systems by law to have facilities budgets that cannot be used for anything but facilities. In an era of “declining enrollments,” the wisest possible use of that money is to ensure that the district’s facilities will attract and retain families and teachers. This is something for those who are worried about attrition from the district to celebrate, support, and engage—not to criticize.
Question: Could the school get most of what it needs without two variances?
Answer: Unfortunately, no. Schools must accommodate a whole host of external standards, expectations, and best practices regarding things like classroom size, the sorts of programming that should be located on the main floor, federal accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and meeting the needs of children with learning disabilities who require individualized instruction. As an institution, the school must also adhere to different building codes for things like ventilation and mechanicals that are very different from those that apply to private homes. All of these external forces together create, in zoning-speak, what is called the “plight of the landowner,” and explain why the school needs the lot coverage and height variances that it has requested. Some of the issues include:
• Classroom size: According to the metrics established by both SPPS and the Minnesota Department of Education, not a single classroom in the Lower campus building meets size standards, and some Upper campus rooms are only half of the minimum recommended size. In practical terms, bringing all classrooms on both campuses up to minimum accepted size within their existing structures will displace two full grades at each campus. Since there is no room to add new classrooms at Monroe, two grades from Monroe will move to the new classroom wing at Linwood, enabling all of the school’s existing students to have adequately sized classrooms. (Note: Despite all the new space being built at Linwood, the project will not expand the school’s enrollments; its purpose is to alleviate the significant overcrowding experienced by its current study body.)
• Alignment: Although enlarging all classrooms to meet state size guidelines will displace two grades from Monroe, this creates an opportunity to move the 4-year-old Pre-K students and 9-year-old 4th graders from the middle school building into the elementary school building. This has huge benefits for the students involved, since research studies underscore the benefits of grouping younger children together. Bringing the 4th graders to the elementary school campus has additional equity benefits, since 4th grade is a crucial point when the achievement gap starts to widen. Keeping the school’s 4th graders in familiar surroundings where they have established relationships with trusted teachers will provide valuable stability at a crucial point in their lives. Although this conforms to best practices and will provide clear benefits to the students involved, it is not the driving reason for the work at either of the school’s two campuses.
• The gym-cafe-torium: Minnesota Department of Education guidelines for school buildings state that “If there is only one gymnasium in the elementary school, it should not be a multipurpose gymnasium/cafeteria because of the difficulty of scheduling physical education classes around lunch periods” (84). The Linwood campus’s only gym is a combined gym-cafeteria-auditorium, which means that the gym is not available to students for indoor recess on any of Minnesota’s numerous bad-weather days. In addition, the space functions inefficiently as a cafeteria, which means that some students must eat too early and others must eat too late. As a result, many students spend significant portions of the day hungry.
• Federal laws: Both campuses need extensive work to meet federal accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and to create appropriate spaces for federally mandated 1:1 instruction for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for diagnosed disabilities. Only one accessible bathroom exists on the Linwood campus, and both individualized instruction and breakout instruction for English Language Learners currently must take place in hallways because no other classroom spaces exist.
• First floor programming: Fire safety and building security largely determine which programming needs to go on the first floor. Everything that doesn’t have to be on the first floor is on an upper floor.
Question: Why does the school need a 38.5% lot coverage variance? Shouldn’t the school just be able to shrink the footprint a little and stay within 35%?
Answer: Unfortunately, no. The footprint of the building has been squeezed as small as it can be after three major revisions to the plan, two of which included cutting programming at the Lower campus. External expectations for schools govern what must go on the main floor. Fire safety, for example, demands that the school’s littlest kids be on the first floor, including classrooms for Pre-K, Kindergarten, ECSE, and the K-2nd DCD classroom. Standards also stipulate that the school offices be located adjacent to the secure front entry, and the only place for the cafeteria is on the first floor. It is impossible to shrink the footprint any further and still meet all of the various educational guidelines and standards in play, such as minimum classroom size. The good news is that because the lot is small and coverage variances are calculated as a percentage of the lot size, the extra square footage that SPPS has requested is actually quite small—just 2,849 sf more than what is allowed without a variance on a lot measuring 81,288 sf. This extra space will allow the school to have adequately sized classrooms, a functional cafeteria, and offices adjacent to a secure entry, while still complying with ADA regulations and fire safety needs.
Question: Why does the school need a height variance? Shouldn’t the school be able to get most of what it needs with a shorter addition?
Answer: Unfortunately, no. Unlike Minneapolis, which has separate requirements for institutions like schools located in residential neighborhoods, St. Paul’s process depends on variance requests to accommodate institutional needs. At 30 feet, the zoning height limit would not accommodate even a two-story addition without a height variance. That means that the school could meet one of its needs by building a one-story cafeteria, but would have to leave its classrooms as they are: significantly smaller than the Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) size guidelines, with no break-out rooms for English language learners or students needing individualized instruction. Worse, even if the school ignored MDE guidelines and did not build a separate cafeteria, leaving its poorly functioning combined gym-cafeteria-auditorium alone, height limits are such that it could only build a single-story addition, which means it could not come close to making all of its existing classrooms large enough to meet guidelines. Even if the school did not relocate fourth grade from the Upper campus to the Lower campus, giving students adequately sized classrooms and a new cafeteria would still require a three story addition and the same 17-foot height variance that it is requesting now.
Question: Are there precedents for allowing schools to exceed the 35% lot coverage limit?
Answer: Yes, many. Unlike Minneapolis, which has separate requirements for institutions like schools located in residential neighborhoods, St. Paul’s process depends on variance requests to accommodate institutional needs, which frequently surpass the 35% limit. The fact is LMAP’s request for 38.5% is substantially less than recent variances approved for other schools located in similarly zoned neighborhoods, including Saint Anthony Park’s 2017 variance allowing 42.25% lot coverage, Community of Peace Academy’s 2006 variance allowing 48% lot coverage, and St. Agnes School’s 2014 variance allowing 41.3% lot coverage. In terms of precedent, Advocates for LMAP has been unable to find a single instance of St. Paul denying a lot coverage variance to a school.
Question: Are there precedents for allowing schools to exceed the 30-foot height limit? Will a 47-foot building be in character with the rest of the neighborhood?
Answer: Yes, there are ample precedents, and yes, it will be in character with the rest of the neighborhood. As with lot coverage variances, the city has an established history of approving height variances for educational institutions, such as the 50.1 ft variance that it granted in 2014 to Saint Paul Academy’s Randolph campus, which is located in an identically zoned “R4 Residential” area. In addition, the city has no history of denying height variances to schools. As for fitting into the neighborhood, the variance request is to match the height of the existing 3-story school, which has been there since 1922. The fact is that tall schools are the norm rather than the exception in historic areas of the city, including Summit Hill, which hosts the identically tall 3-story St. Paul Academy Lower School just two blocks from LMAP. Further, the rule that “nonconforming” buildings—the label that is applied to structures built before St. Paul had its first zoning code—must get a variance to match their existing height is relatively new. (The school built a 3-story addition in 1995, for example, that didn’t require a variance.) Most importantly, though, the school hardly stands alone as a large structure: it shares the block with four large multi-unit buildings, two of which are four-story multi-unit condominiums, and is two blocks away from another 3-story elementary school. These tall, “nonconforming” buildings are sprinkled liberally through the neighborhood, and are a big part of what make it distinctive.
Question: Are there precedents for such a big 3-story school in a residential neighborhood? Is allowing such a building consistent with the spirit of the zoning code?
Answer: Yes. St. Paul’s zoning code in neighborhoods like this is designed for private residences. Unlike Minneapolis, which has separate requirements for institutions like schools located in residential neighborhoods, St. Paul’s process depends on variance requests to accommodate institutional needs. As for precedents for a 3-story elementary school with this sort of square footage in a residential neighborhood, one must look no farther than Saint Paul Academy’s Lower School, located just two blocks away. Located in the same Summit Hill neighborhood and subject to identical zoning codes, SPA stands at exactly the same height and has almost exactly the same footprint as the building that LMAP is proposing (though SPA serves ~125 fewer students). Granting LMAP’s requested variances will not create a new precedent; rather, it will conform to established precedents and to long-standing practice. Advocates for LMAP has been unable to find a single instance of St. Paul denying height or lot coverage variances to a school.
Question: What have SPPS and the architects done to ensure that the building will be a good fit with its surroundings?
Answer: Aesthetic judgments are fundamentally personal and it is hard to imagine that any new building will satisfy everyone’s taste. But SPPS has worked hard to solicit and act on input from a variety of sources. Twice it introduced major changes to its plans based on feedback from neighbors, and recently it changed the exterior cladding of the building from painted metal panels to brick in response to feedback from the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office. The one thing that is clear is that there is a huge contrast between the existing building and what is planned. Most obviously, the current building has long blank stretches of wall, much of it topped with barbed wire, and a huge smokestack. The new addition has large windows, a unified facade, and design endorsements from both the St. Paul Heritage Commission and the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office.
Question: The new building will accommodate ~125 students more than it does now. Can SPPS shrink the building by deciding to keep enrollments as they are?
Answer: Although critics have asserted that the purpose of the “expansion” at the Linwood campus is to increase the school’s enrollments, they are misinformed. Although Linwood Monroe Arts Plus is a thriving dual-campus school with a waiting list, the purpose of the renovations is to alleviate significant overcrowding on both campuses and bring both buildings up to 21st-century standards for educational institutions, not to create space for expanded enrollments. It is impossible to enlarge all classrooms on both campuses within existing buildings and get anywhere near meeting the Minnesota Department of Education’s guidelines for minimum classroom size. In fact, so many classrooms are so small that enlarging them to meet size minimums within existing buildings will displace two full grades at each campus. Since there is no room to add new classrooms at Monroe, SPPS has decided to move the two grades displaced from Monroe (Pre-K and 4th grade) to Linwood, where it must already build a new classroom addition. This new classroom wing and cafeteria would still require both height and lot coverage variances even if it did not include room for the two additional grades from Monroe. The purpose of the new space is to serve existing students, not to make room for new students.
Question: How will a bigger building and more students affect traffic in the neighborhood?
Answer: The traffic study conducted as part of the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (p. 27) predicts 197 extra daily trips to and from the school by car. (For a sense of relative scale, compare this to the traffic volume of 15,800 cars two blocks west along Lexington, or the traffic volume of 8,900 two blocks south on St. Clair, as reported on Mn/DOT’s traffic count map.) More importantly, the plan dramatically decreases the most visible and emissions-heavy form of school traffic: school buses. Through the 2015-16 school year, LMAP’s Lower and Upper campuses shared the same buses—19 total (14 regular, 5 small special education). Every bus made two stops: first at the Upper campus, then at the Lower campus. In preparation for the expansion, the school has moved this year (2016-17) to a system of separate buses for each campus. Lower campus buses now serve only the Lower campus; separate Upper campus buses serve the Upper campus, reducing the number of Lower campus buses from 19 to just 9 (6 regular, 3 small). With so much less bus traffic—and a new, functional parking lot that creates a safe place for deliveries—the total impact of traffic will be significantly smaller as a result of the expansion.
Question: Will the larger building affect the amount of sun that nearby neighbors get?
Answer: No. Although it is logical to worry that a larger building might deprive nearby neighbors of sunlight, fears in this case are unfounded: the building is set so far behind the legal setback line on the Fairmount side that the shadows from a 50-foot building are smaller, relative to neighbors, than those that a 30-foot building would cast if constructed on the actual setback line (which would not require a variance). In addition, sun studies conducted by the architects show that neighbors on the east and west will not get any more shade than they already get from the existing building.
Question: How will the plan affect play space for students? How about for people in the neighborhood who use the playgrounds?
Answer: Total dedicated play space for students will increase by 2.9%, since the new cafeteria gives the school use of its 3,395 sf gym for recess on bad-weather days. The new outdoor play spaces will be 10.2% smaller, but will be much better configured and have more equipment for a larger range of ages and abilities. The vast majority of space replaced by the addition is landscaping. Kids are more important than landscaping! For additional information about how the plan allocates the school’s outdoor space, see our page on Green Space Facts.
Question: What has SPPS done to solicit and react to feedback about the project, especially from those who are most critical of its plans?
Answer: SPPS has engaged stakeholders through every step of the process and responded to criticisms with significant changes:
• SPPS’s two-year-long Facilities Master Planning process engaged a thousand different participants, including outreach to neighborhood associations and other local stakeholders.
• The LMAP PTA engaged parents with announcements, including mail to parents/guardians with meeting dates, robocalls home with the same information, and information posted on the PTA website.
• The PTA held an open meeting with the architects to discuss the initial plans.
• When a group of critics expressed concerns about the loss of play space in the initial plans for the school, SPPS pulled the variances to allow discussion and revision.
• During this period, the co-chairs of Linwood Neighborhood Friends, Jeanine Holden and Nancy O’Brien Wagner, and a member of its Steering Committee, David Wagner, had a private meeting with Jackie Turner (SPPS Chief of Family Engagement), LMAP Principal Bryan Bass, and U+B Architects to see and discuss working plans.
• After this extended period of airing concerns, the architects revised the initial plans.
• At an open meeting on April 21, the architects unveiled these revised plans, sun studies, and a long list of improvements responding directly to expressed concerns. Nancy Wagner, co-chair of LNF, summarized the extensive changes shortly after the meeting:
• The architects continued to rework the plans, and on May 6, Tom Parent, SPPS Director of Facilities, contacted LNF to announce "a fairly significant evolution of the design since the last presentation on 4/21.Through analysis of the design and with sensitivity to the largest concern of the adjacent neighborhood, we have been able to shift the northern edge of the building 6' - 12' to the south (final location is dependent upon cafeteria layout), creating more contiguous outdoor play space." This new version of the plan (May 9) shifted the addition forward toward the front of the building, removed ECFE from the Lower campus, and ultimately brought the back wall in 10 more feet—much more than the “additional refinements” that LNF asked for after the 4/21 meeting. The changes went even farther than the 4/21 plan to address LNF’s expressed concerns about the “massing, placement, and preservation of the green space,” as well as the traffic that hosting ECFE would bring.
• As part of the required Environmental Assessment Worksheet process, the architects have continued to solicit and respond to input. Working with the city’s Heritage Planning Commission and the state’s Historic Preservation Office, for example, has resulted in substantive changes to the building’s exterior cladding and overall look.
• In a final change for its Jan. 9, 2017 variance, SPPS eliminated one section of Pre-K, shrinking its coverage request from 39.5% to 38.5%.
Critics have continued to complain that they aren’t being listened to and have no input into the process, but not getting everything you want isn’t the same thing as being ignored, dismissed, or discounted. As SPPS has addressed their concerns, the loudest critics have shifted their focus, changed their list of demands, and denied that SPPS has listened. With the sole exception of Nancy Wagner’s Facebook post on April 21, they have refused to acknowledge any of the major changes in programming, building design, the allocation of exterior play spaces, or aesthetics that SPPS has made expressly to accommodate their concerns, and have continued to base critiques of the plans on factually incorrect information.
Question: How will the work affect the amount of green space available to people in the neighborhood?
Answer: Since the school is shrinking its total outdoor play area by 10.2%, not eliminating it, the neighborhood will continue to have wonderful outdoor play spaces, including the school's second new playground. (For more details about how the project reallocates outdoor spaces, see Green Space Facts.) But the neighborhood is also well-supplied with other options: it’s just a 9-minute walk to Linwood Rec Center from LMAP Lower, and a 7-minute walk to SPA (open Sat/Sun and 6:30-8:30 weekdays).
Question: What role has the LMAP playground traditionally played in this neighborhood?
The area in question in 2010... ...and in 2012, when the school planted grass.
Answer: Although LMAP’s playground has long served as a play space for the surrounding community, it became a “green space” only very recently. Before 2012, when the school planted grass, the entire area adjacent to the playground was a continuous sheet of asphalt. Even with a bigger building, both green space and play space will be significantly larger than before 2012.
Question: Will the playgrounds meet Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) guidelines for exterior play areas?
Recommended dimensions from p. 84.
Answer: The MDE guidelines (available here) suggest that the typical elementary school should be located on a 10-15 acre site, with 6.84 acres devoted to outdoor recreation, but in bold text (on p. 50) they note that these size standards seldom make sense in urban districts (p. 50):
Although the school’s site is less than two acres, its plan nevertheless follows MDE recommendations closely. Those recommendations include:
• In bold text: the guideline that small urban sites build multiple stories to maximize outdoor space (p. 50)
• In bold text: the guideline that schools should not have an indoor gym that does double duty as a cafeteria (p. 84)
• The guideline that schools provide a total of 9,000 sf of playground equipment (p. 84)
• The guideline that schools provide separate playgrounds for pre-school/primary students and older elementary school students (p. 85)
The plan for LMAP follows every single one of these guidelines: building upward to maximize outdoor play space, separating the gym from the cafeteria, allocating over 9,000 sf to playground equipment, and creating separate playgrounds for big and little kids.