A review of the subjectively selected 10 most significant St. Louis Park events of 2012

St. Louis Park provided a venue for joyous reunions, protests and plans for progress in 2012.

The Sun-Sailor compiled a subjective list of 10 of the most notable St. Louis Park news topics covered during the year. The list includes good news, like the success of an All School Reunion, and bad news, such as the death of a St. Louis Park senior. Other news, such as controversy over proposed bee regulations and rail plans, is more difficult to classify.

Whether good or bad, what follows is a set of some of the most momentous St. Louis Park news items of the year.

All School Reunion

Enthusiasm for St. Louis Park’s All School Reunion Aug. 25 exceeded organizers’ expectations.

The St. Louis Park Public Schools Foundation went through about 1,500 wristbands for alumni, said Peter Levy, the foundation’s president. Since volunteers did not pass out the wristbands to friends and family, the best guess organizers have is that about 2,500 people attended.

“We thought if 400-500 people attended, it’d be great – and it just grew and grew and grew, due to social networks and everything else,” Levy said. “People just had a great time.”

The foundation planned the All School Reunion to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

“There’s something about Park that is so special and people talk about it all the time, this feeling of being from Park,” said Joan Brinkman, a foundation board member. “And there’s a spark or magic about it, and we wanted to bring all that together in one place.”

St. Louis Park alum Sharon Isbin, a classical guitarist who has won multiple Grammy awards, was among performers at the reunion.

The primary goal of the event was to raise awareness for the foundation, which provides grants to St. Louis Park schools to provide educational programming that could otherwise not take place due to district funding constraints, Levy said.

Although fundraising did not drive plans for the reunion, organizers said they raised about $11,000. After paying for costs to put on the reunion, about $8,000-$9,000 of that will go toward St. Louis Park school grants next spring, said Jake Spano, a member of the St. Louis Park City Council and a foundation board member.

“We just hoped to cover our costs,” Spano said. “We were really fortunate.”

A preview article about the All School Reunion became the second-most viewed story on the Sun-Sailor’s website in 2012.

Eliot School proposals

The St. Louis Park School District rebounded from a failed offer for Eliot School, finding a new buyer little more than a month after calling it off with the former suitor.

Following a legal dispute, the School Board terminated a $2 million purchase agreement with Eliot Park Partners in April. At its May 29 meeting, the board approved a purchase agreement with developer Dan Hunt of Hunt Associates.

Hunt plans to demolish the existing building and construct two apartment buildings and three single-family homes. The new purchase agreement was for $2.05 million.

The St. Louis Park City Council voted 5-2 Dec. 17 to change the city’s comprehensive plan, thus allowing Hunt’s proposal to proceed in the city approvals process. Hunt is seeking to tear down the abandoned school, 6800 Cedar Lake Road S., and build apartment buildings and single-family houses on the site.

The vote constituted a reversal for the council, which had previously rejected the plan for Eliot Park Apartments in a 3-3 vote in October. The council voted to reconsider the concept at a November meeting.

Residents who protested the plan for apartments in October argued the city should heed guidelines developed with neighborhood input that called for a medium-density residential designation. Most speakers, though, said they would prefer a development consisting entirely of single-family homes.

However, council members supporting the comprehensive plan change Dec. 17 to a mix of high-density residential and low-density residential designations said the housing market currently does not support a site made up of all single-family houses.

A story about Hunt’s proposal became one of the 100 most-read articles on the Sun-Sailor website.

Buzz about bees

A plan to regulate bees in St. Louis Park prompted protests before ultimately failing on tie votes.

After months of buzz, the St. Louis Park City Council deadlocked on whether to regulate beekeeping.

The council voted 3-3 Nov. 5 on a motion by Councilmember Anne Mavity to reject a city staff proposal to institute regulations on beekeeping. Councilmember Susan Sanger then made a motion to approve the staff proposal, a move that also met with a 3-3 tie vote.

“As a practical matter, we haven’t done anything at all,” Mayor Jeff Jacobs remarked after the votes.

Director of Inspections Brian Hoffman raised the issue of beekeeping in June after he said the city received complaints about bees. City code does not clearly state whether beekeeping is allowed. Bee enthusiasts protested the idea, though, prompting the council to study the issue further during work sessions.

Staff presented a proposal Nov. 5 that would have permitted beekeeping on single-family lots, school district property and on city-owned properties with certain restrictions. Beehives would have had to be kept at least 20 feet away from property lines except when the property owner installed a wall or solid fence of at least 6 feet in height. In such circumstances, the proposed regulations would have allowed hives as near as 10 feet from property lines.

Beekeepers would have also needed to maintain a water source within 10 feet of each bee colony to prevent the bees from searching on other properties for water.

Mavity called the proposal “complete overreach.”

“I agree with our speakers, and I do believe this is a solution in search of a problem,” Mavity said after the council heard comments from residents opposed to bee regulation. “We do not have a problem with beehives in St. Louis Park.”

However, Sanger said, “I have come to the conclusion that we really shouldn’t have beehives in St. Louis Park, period – that we’re too dense a community, and we’re getting denser.”

Bees have the potential to create disputes between neighbors and are a public health issue for residents with allergies to bee stings, Sanger argued.

The matter prompted opinion pieces from residents published in the Sun-Sailor. An article about protests by apiarists landed in the Sun-Sailor’s most-read online posts. The council has not attempted another vote on the issue since the motions failed in November.

Artificial turf field opens

St. Louis Park High School’s artificial turf field logged more playing hours on it within two weeks of opening than the grass field did in an entire year.

Athletic Director Andy Ewald announced during an Aug. 13 School Board meeting that the field was ready for use by fall sports teams, which began practicing that day. In its first two weeks of being open, Ewald said he anticipated the artificial turf would host 80 hours of practice sessions. In contrast, the natural grass field that preceded the artificial turf field had been used a total of about 60 hours last year.

When asked about the reactions of athletes on their first day practicing on the field, Ewald said, “They were excited to get back over there … They’re very appreciative of it, to have a consistent, even playing field to practice on and that they can be on regardless of the weather.”

The St. Louis Park School Board studied the issue of artificial turf for years before ultimately voting earlier this year to go ahead with the project, which the district estimated would cost more than $1 million.

The FieldTurf surface is similar to surfaces used in other area school districts but has a look unique to St. Louis Park. For starters, the center of the field features a massive orange and black SLP logo. The district also chose to change the colors traditionally used to mark lines for high school sports using the field.

Ewald has also proposed upgrades to the stadium itself. Athletic Director Andy Ewald presented a project with an estimated price tag of $870,000 to the St. Louis Park School Board Nov. 26. The plan would provide permanent bathrooms, a larger press box, warming space for each team, a new concessions area and storage space.

Light rail line slowly chugs ahead

Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t exactly make the wishes of Southwest Light Rail Transit supporters come true but did give them a consolation prize of $2 million.

Dayton had originally requested $25 million from the Legislature for the Southwest Light Rail Line, which would run from Eden Prairie through Hopkins, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park en route to downtown Minneapolis, where it would tie into the Central Corridor line to St. Paul already under construction. The Legislature did not provide the $25 million request for the Southwest Light Rail Transit line but did appropriate money for competitive Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development grants.

A Southwest Light Rail Transit project request for $14 million from DEED tied for the lowest score the department gave for department business development grant requests. Nonetheless, Dayton awarded the $2 million out of a total of $47.5 million legislators provided for discretionary grants during the last legislative session.

The release of a planning document in October refueled controversy over a proposed freight rail reroute plan associated with the Southwest Light Rail Transit Line – a dispute some light rail supporters fear could derail the light rail line.

A Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the light rail line rejects the idea of operating freight trains alongside light rail trains in the Kenilworth Corridor, which runs east of Cedar Lake, and along the proposed light rail route in St. Louis Park immediately south of Hwy. 7. The document instead supports a plan to run the freight trains on the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern line running mainly north and south through St. Louis Park.

Advocacy group Safety in the Park and several council members have expressed concern about running more freight trains along the MNS line, which travels near St. Louis Park High School and near a number of homes and businesses. Safety in the Park has argued light rail and freight trains should be collocated in the same corridor.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement mainly rejects the collocation alternative because the document says it would require the of Cedar Lake Park property and would fail to provide a direct connection between the MNS line and Canadian Pacific’s Bass Lake Spur.

The document also asserts that collocation would lead to lengthy traffic queues that would offset the benefits of transit, diminish development potential, force freight trains to navigate a switching wye, require complex construction staging and threaten pedestrian safety at light rail stations as transit riders would need to cross freight rail tracks between the stations and park and ride facilities.

In reviewing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, St. Louis Park council members argued the document does not provide enough details for mitigation regardless of the freight rail route chosen. The official St. Louis Park response also asserts the Draft Environmental Impact Statement does not fairly compare the reroute plan with the collocation idea.

Despite arguments from Safety in the Park, the St. Louis Park council decided not to provide a threat to withhold municipal consent if planners choose to proceed with the freight rail reroute plan. In contrast, Minneapolis officials did threaten to withhold municipal consent if planners scrap the reroute idea in favor of collocation.

A Final Environmental Impact Statement is set to be released in 2013.

Major highway changes approved

St. Louis Park officials in 2012 approved major construction affecting two main highways in town.

The St. Louis Park City Council granted project approvals Dec. 3 for a $26.3 million project that will separate Hwy. 7 from Louisiana Avenue. Construction is scheduled next spring and run through November 2014.

Business owners who had criticized plans for the new interchange have praised changes designed to lessen impacts on commerce in the area while still questioning the need for the project.

Under the revised plan, all detours have been eliminated during the first year of construction.

Like a completed project at Hwy. 7 and Wooddale Avenue, Hwy. 7 entrance and exit ramps are planned. Unlike the Wooddale interchange, the project will include roundabouts, to be located at ramp endings on Louisiana Avenue and at the intersection of Louisiana and Walker Street.

The council also voted to provide municipal consent for a major project on Hwy. 100 during the Dec. 3 meeting.

The plan entails replacing bridges and reconfiguring ramps in St. Louis Park. The Minnesota Department of Transportation expanded Hwy. 100 to six lanes in St. Louis Park in 2006 but did not replace aging, relatively narrow bridges. Additionally, short entrance ramps have created safety concerns.

The actual construction would not begin until late 2014, according to a MnDOT schedule. Construction would carry on into 2016.

Bridges over Hwy. 100 along Minnetonka Blvd. and Hwy. 7 would be replaced, as would two railroad bridges south of Hwy. 7. Pavement on Hwy. 100 would be replaced. The new lanes would be 12 feet wide. The concrete median barrier on Hwy. 100 would be replaced along with a sewer line. Contaminated soil would be removed.

MnDOT estimates construction would cost slightly less than $64 million, mostly funded through state dollars.

When approving the project, the St. Louis Park City Council decided a new bridge planned for Minnetonka Boulevard should contain generous 6-foot shoulders to accommodate bicyclists. The shoulders would be in addition to two 10-foot trails.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation proposed 4-foot wide striped shoulders for on-road bicycling. MnDOT said any additional costs for a wider bridge would be the responsibility of St. Louis Park or Hennepin County.

Officials at Hennepin County agreed to pay for half of the cost to widen the shoulders to 5 feet. The St. Louis Park City Council decided Dec. 3 to go a step further and widen the shoulders to 6 feet. The city’s cost for 6-foot shoulders would be an estimated $137,000.

Musician Dan Wilson wins Grammy, SLP award

It’s been a big year for musician and St. Louis Park native Dan Wilson. First he won a Grammy for his work writing songs with Adele. He then went on to win the St. Louis Park Distinguished Alumni Award.

Wilson is perhaps best known for his work as frontman and songwriter for Semisonic. His song “Closing Time” – inspired by a visit to the 400 Bar in Minneapolis – earned Wilson his first Grammy nomination. He previously performed with Trip Shakespeare, an alternative rock band fondly remembered by many Minnesotans.

Wilson still works on his own music but spends most of his time nowadays helping well-known artists write songs. He co-wrote six songs for the Dixie Chicks’ album “Taking the Long Way,” which won five Grammys. He won the 2007 Song of the Year Grammy for co-writing “Not Ready to Make Nice.”

This year, Wilson won a Grammy for co-producing Adele’s “21” album, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year. He also co-wrote the hit “Someone Like You” with the British singer.

The St. Louis Park native lives in Los Angeles but has remained a presence on the Minnesota music scene through concerts and local radio play.

Of his Grammy wins, Wilson said, “It’s amazing. I can’t really reconcile the Grammys and record sales and radio play with my sense of myself! I’m just a guy from St. Louis Park who drew a lot of funny cartoons and played in bands.”

Collision kills St. Louis Park High senior

St. Louis Park High School students mourned the accidental death of a senior from the school in spring 2012.

Andrew Dudley, an 18-year-old St. Louis Park resident and senior at St. Louis Park High School, was killed the evening of April 25 after the bike he was riding collided with a car in Minnetonka.

Dudley was run over by a car on Shady Oak Road after he left an event at Cross of Glory Church in Hopkins.

Minnetonka Police Officer Scott Boerboom said a female resident of Shorewood driving a Mercury Sable hit and killed Dudley. Drugs and alcohol were not a factor in the crash, and the darkening conditions around dusk likely contributed to the crash, Boerboom said. Dudley was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident.

At St. Louis Park Senior High, teachers informed students of Dudley’s death in first and second hour classes the morning of April 26. After Principal Rob Metz confirmed the report, district officials drafted a statement for teachers to read and filled them in on the situation before school started. Officials also sent out an email to parents and guardians.

The school brought in extra counselors. Many students met in a large classroom to process the news. Others preferred to talk to counselors individually in private. The school informed parents of some students who were very disturbed by the incident. The school allowed some students who wanted to go home to do so.

The school had made similar accommodations for students after assistant girls basketball coach Joel Koch died unexpectedly the previous week.

By mid-morning April 26, seniors at the school had requested permission to paint the wall of an athletic building near the high school in Dudley’s honor. Over lunch periods, seniors added their handprints in paint on the wall. Flowers placed at high points on the wall paid tribute to Dudley’s life.

Metz said Dudley’s death was particularly difficult for seniors at the time as they looked forward to prom and graduation.

“It’s one of the times where they’re bonding together,” Metz said.

Minnetonka and Hopkins Community Editor Matt Hankey contributed to this portion of this report.

Aquila Elementary test security breach found

The Minnesota Department of Education placed a St. Louis Park on a list of top schools receiving federal funding in 2012 but also invalidated some of the school’s test scores.

The Minnesota Department of Education announced student 2012 reading test scores for two of three sections of third-graders at Aquila Elementary would be invalidated due to a “breach in test security,” according to a statement by Minnesota Department of Education Director of Statewide Testing Jennifer Dugan.

The St. Louis Park School District sent a letter to Aquila parents May 22 clarifying the situation.

“On day two of testing at Aquila Elementary School, one student in each of two sections of 3rd grade classes informed test monitors that they recognized a reading passage on the test from their practice materials,” the district letter states.

The district informed the Minnesota Department of Education, which directed the district to conduct an investigation.

Because different third-grade teachers compiled practice materials over several years, the investigation did not determine the source of the unauthorized practice materials, according to the district letter to parents.

The district submitted its investigation report to the Minnesota Department of Education and requested that the scores remain valid since teachers had used the practice materials without knowing they included an unreleased test passage, the letter states. However, the state denied the district’s appeal and concluded scores for the two sections would be invalidated. The students were not allowed to retake the reading test, either.

“While this is an unfortunate situation, the school district will ensure that this situation does not repeat itself,” the district letter states. “In the future, all district schools will only use practice materials provided by (the Minnesota Department of Education) for a given year.”

Despite the security breach, the state’s department of education used 2010-11 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results as the basis for designating Aquila Elementary School as a Reward school, meaning it ranked within the top 15 percent of Minnesota schools receiving Title I federal funding. Title I funds are directed to students with relatively high levels of at-risk and low-income students.

Discover St. Louis Park announces itself to world

St. Louis Park’s convention and visitors bureau held a party to announce its official launch May 17.

Officials with Discover St. Louis Park began working behind the scenes to form the framework of the marketing organization since July 2011 but did not begin its publicity efforts in full force until 2012. The bureau is funded by a 3 percent lodging tax at St. Louis Park hotels, which the City Council approved in 2010.

The May 17 launch event announced the organization and its efforts to regional attendees at the organization’s office building, Parkdale Plaza.

Among tropical plants and a water feature, about 200 attendees sampled food from St. Louis Park businesses, sipped wine from St. Louis Park’s Warehouse Winery or other beverages provided by Crave Catering and listened to a presentation emceed by FOX 9 sports anchor Jim Rich.

The emcee listed St. Louis Park’s strengths – an attractive lifestyle center with a downtown feel in The Shops at West End, proximity to downtown Minneapolis, new ballfields, the fishable Wolfe Lake, hotels in the city and developments including Ellipse on Excelsior and Excelsior and Grand.

Rich said Discover St. Louis Park’s tagline, “Comfortably Close,” works perfectly.

The staff members of the convention and visitors bureau want people to discover St. Louis Park regionally, nationally and even internationally, President and CEO John Basill said.

As part of the launch, the bureau released its official 2012 destination guide for St. Louis Park. It contains a dining guide, retail and shopping directory, arts and entertainment overview, information about lodging, events calendar, parks and trails map and guide and a relocation guide.

The organization also unveiled a new website, discoverstlouispark.com. The website proclaimed, “We have arrived! The time has finally come!”