DeLaSalle field flap to end in August?

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The DeLaSalle football field controversy might be coming to an end soon.

At least the city’s part might; it will likely be decided in August. The lawsuits, however–which could stretch out until the end of the year–are another story.

DeLaSalle High School, a 100-plus year old school on Nicollet Island, has been seeking city and park board permission to build a regulation-size football field behind its school building with seating, concessions, rest rooms, outdoor lighting and a sound system. The idea has been in the works for about four years. A year ago, architects redesigned the plan to make it less intrusive on the historic island and more environmentally friendly, according to Michael O’Keefe, DeLaSalle’s vice president for planning.

“Seating is no longer raised up above the field. We depressed the field three to five feet and will build a berm nine feet high. The seating will be in the berm, and the back side of it will be planted with trees and flowers. The views will be dramatically improved.”

But some residents and community members have sought to block the field plan, saying that the island is a designated historic district that should be preserved. They object to DeLaSalle’s request to close one of the island’s streets, Grove Street, and include the land (that the street sits on) in the school’s project.

They also say it is not right for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to let the private, parochial school expand its project onto public park land. The project involves a lease and land swap, to relocate the Park Board’s tennis courts and accommodate the football field.

Several organizations oppose the project, including Friends of the Riverfront, headed by Nicollet Island resident Chris Stellar.

On July 16, the City Planning Commission rejected DeLaSalle’s application for site plan and conditional use permit approvals. DeLaSalle appealed, and the issue goes before the Minneapolis City Council’s Zoning and Planning (Z & P) committee Thursday, Aug. 9. If Z & P overturns the City Planning Commission’s ruling and passes it on to the Minneapolis City Council, it will probably be added to the council’s Aug. 17 agenda.

The school’s view

O’Keefe said it has been interesting to go through the whole series of public hearings. “It has come before the city council three times, and each time the council has voted for the project. Public works, the police, the fire department, traffic and parking control have all checked off on [in favor of] the project. We keep going to advisory commissions; sometimes we’ve won the vote and they’ve [the opponents] appealed. Sometimes they’ve won the vote and we’ve appealed. This should be the final step, pending litigation.

“Some of it is on us,” he added. “We redid the plan with a better design, and we’re okay with that. This will be unique among high school plans. The changes include better delineation of walking paths, and an adjustment to where the storage, bathrooms and concessions will be. It will be less disruptive in its effect on the environment. I don’t think there’s a single person who wouldn’t say it’s a much better design.

“From the school’s perspective, the number one priority is running the school,” O’Keefe said. “Enrollment is up between 3 and 5 percent probably, this year, and a lot of good things are happening here. This plan, in fact, is an outgrowth of all the good things. We’re in a better position to need this. Our planning started in 2003 to 2004; since then we’ve seen more families come to the school with more needs. Their wants are more extensive. Our programming for our kids is geared toward supporting families and family life.”

DeLaSalle has a small field behind the school that is used for athletic practice and informal sports. It has never had a football field of its own. Student athletes and fans are bussed to other high schools’ fields or to Fort Snelling in St. Paul.

“What brought the project home for me recently,” O’Keefe added, “was overhearing some freshman girls talking in the hall. They wanted to cheer on a friend who was playing in a soccer game after school. They thought they were just going to go out the back door and see the game. I felt bad, having to tell them she wouldn’t be playing here. She’d be playing at Fort Snelling.

“The school community is formed around what happens in class, but support for the school community is often formed around bringing people from different neighborhoods together in one place where they can support each other. That soccer conversation is what keeps me going. It’s [the field] in the best interest of the kids and families. We’re in it to the final days. It’s the right thing to do.”

O’Keefe also cited a 1983 city document, written by staff of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (now known as CPED, Community Planning and Economic Development), that pledged to construct an athletic facility for DeLaSalle. “That 1983 Nicollet Island Agreement showed foresight; it recognized the three components of the island–residences, commercial and education–that are important to the center of the city.”

The opposition

Stellar said the new plan does not change the environmental impact on a historic district. “There are lights and speakers and whatever goes along with a high school football stadium. They didn’t look at alternative sites, or even better, consider a ‘no build’ alternative. We don’t want them just to fiddle with the design. They’ve played many years at other places; we don’t know why they suddenly need another field. North High, for instance, doesn’t have one nearby.”

Stellar said that he and other Friends of the Riverfront strongly object to closing Grove Street. “The neighborhood has been here since 1866. That’s 30-odd years longer than the school. It’s had its ups and downs, but that street is part of the original plat. It’s intact. They laid it out and started building houses along it. This would be the first change to it.”

Stellar said that the Friends of the Riverfront formed about a year ago. “It is a handful of people with lots of supporters. There is no official membership structure, just a few people in a non-profit organization. Judith Martin, the former City Planning Commission president, lives on the street that would be vacated. She was on the planning commission for 15 years; the mayor did not reappoint her.”

Stellar said another person who will be missing when DeLaSalle’s project goes to Z & P is former city staff member Tara Beard, who wrote the staff report and recommended that the city oppose the project. (According to Beard’s voice mail, her last day on the job was Aug. 2.) Stellar said he doesn’t know why she left, but added, “It’s unfortunate that as soon as it’s appealed, she’s gone.”

Last year, The Friends of the Riverfront joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota in bringing two lawsuits over the DeLaSalle project. One suit appeals the city council’s decision to overrule the city’s Historic Preservation Commission’s recommendations. Another, filed under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, is “against a developer who is going to destroy natural resources without looking at options,” Stellar said.

The suits, soon to be heard before the state Court of Appeals, name DeLaSalle, the Park Board, and city council president Barbara Johnson as defendants. Stellar said the court recently announced that debate could begin Sept. 17, and a decision would be made by Dec. 18.

He said, “For whatever reason, this is obviously a favored project among politically powerful people. But this is regional open space parkland. I have little kids. If I asked the park board to put playground equipment here, they would say it’s not that kind of park. This plan will reduce the regional park. We can’t call it park land anymore, if it has a football stadium on it.

“A street vacation is permanent,” Stellar added. “They can’t take it back. What is happening is that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will control half of a city street, and the park board gets the other half. What if the court says they can’t build the stadium? Then you’d have two property owners owning a street they’d have to keep open. They’ve have to plow it and maintain it.

“We think the court will tell them they should have looked at alternatives, rather than destroy a natural resource [Grove street] in a national historic district,” Stellar said. “We think this is the first case where preservation of part of the cultural landscape, in this case the street, is in question. This is the first case that’s gone to court.”

The city

Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff, of the Ninth Ward in South Minneapolis, said that he wants to make it clear that the issue coming before Z & P Aug. 9 is not a historic preservation issue. “It’s lights, a site plan, that sort of thing. This is from the City Planning Commission, not the Heritage Preservation Commission.”

He said he has some concerns about how DeLaSalle and the city will handle traffic, parking, and the street vacation. “The planning commission brought forward some serious questions about traffic management on the island. I think DeLaSalle needs to respond to the island’s residents about how they’re going to handle traffic. Traffic studies show that the site is deficient 100 parking spaces. Where are those going to come from?

“Also, residents have said there is a lack of parking law enforcement during major events at the school. Double parking is tolerated, for instance. The city’s inspections department needs to answer that one. They are responsible for traffic control,” Schiff added.

Schiff said he has asked the city attorney for an opinion on what happens if the street is vacated and the football field, “for whatever reason,” doesn’t get built. “I have asked the city attorney to address that during the public hearing.”

Schiff said that he also questions Grove Street’s so-called historic status. “Grove Street was completely rebuilt in the 1980s, using all new materials. We debated that eight months ago.”

Jason Wittenberg, planning supervisor in Minneapolis’ planning department, said that planner Shanna Sether will take over the DeLaSalle project now that Beard has left.

“The staff’s position on this, and the biggest concern, is the impact of the vacation of Grove Street. The activity of the street network and combination of the new facility, with the loss of that street, could cause significant parking and traffic issues. We’re dealing with a unique geographic area here. Ordinarily, a plan like this wouldn’t raise eyebrows, but this is different. To a large degree, the site plan review and conditional use permits are about the street vacation.”

DeLaSalle’s O’Keefe said that the plan has received a lot of publicity from the beginning. “This all started when we met with a handful of neighbors at Tarracino [a Northeast coffee shop]. Before we knew it, it was in the Star Tribune. It seems like there’s never a final word with regard to this.

“This certainly has reconnected a lot of people to our school. Thirty-five percent of our enrollment is single parent households. Our students come from every neighborhood in the Twin Cities, all the public and parochial schools have kids here. We represent the fabric of the city in the heart of the city. We want our kids to participate and be connected, after school. This plan, coupled with the partnership of the park board, would be a win-win.”

For information on the city process for the DeLaSalle project, contact Shannon Sether, 612-673-2307. The Friends of the River’s web site is www.ourbeautifulriver.org. Gary Schiff’s office number is 612-673-2209. DeLaSalle’s numbers are 612-379-4671 and 612-676-7600.