Concerns presented about St. Louis Park School District building

A photo presented to the St. Louis Park School Board shows an antiquated elevator still in use at Central Community Center. (Submitted photo) A photo provided to the St. Louis Park School Board shows a corroded pipe at Central Community Center. (Submitted photo)
A photo presented to the St. Louis Park School Board shows an antiquated elevator still in use at Central Community Center. (Submitted photo)

A presentation on problems with the building housing Central Community Center and Park Spanish Immersion School provided bleak pictures for St. Louis Park School Board members.

The board is considering the fate of the building while reviewing options for district facilities in light of a potential referendum in November.

During a Feb. 27 meeting, board members focused on the future of Central Community Center, a building originally built in 1937 as a high school. The district added on to the building in 1945, 1952, 1963 and 1967, with a small vestibule entry added in 2001.

Facilities Manager Thomas Bravo provided a picture of an old-fashioned, cage elevator on the building’s exterior that he said is one of the oldest in operation in the country. Bravo also showed photos of missing tiles, water pooled on floors, corroded pipes, a corridor he said could be dark and scary for some people and the remnants of pipes sticking out of floorboards from past steam radiators.

“The pipe is very hot, and we’re trying to find as many as we can so people don’t get burned on them,” Bravo said.

He also said multiple interior doors through the building “are not operating property and are unsafe for the students, again because of the age and the deterioration of the mortar and the bricks and so forth.”

The presentation left Boardmember Joe Tatalovich with a momentary loss of words.

“We just went through kind of a haunted house type feel to this, and I don’t want to leave the impression. …,” Tatalovich said before his voice trailed off. “I think the point you’re trying to make is there are a lot of things that need to be fixed. There’s a lot of room for improvement. What I don’t want to convey is we have something that’s unsafe.”

Supt. Rob Metz stepped in to note that the district is providing programming in the building every day.

“The intent is not to say the building is not functional now because we’re obviously using it, and it’s functioning,” Metz said.

If the district continues to use the building, though, it will require work, Metz said.

“To show the extent of the work that’s going to be required I think is important so we all understand that,” he said. “I don’t want to leave people with the impression that it’s not usable because we’re obviously using it, and kids are thriving there. This is more of a behind-the-scenes look that a lot of people don’t get to see because we know that the board members have a lot of important decisions to make in the next month or two and you need to see the whole picture to make the best decisions.”

Bravo said the district has sought to maintain the building.

“We’re not letting that building just go down,” he said. “Every time we see an issue, we try to address it.”

However, he warned that the district would need to continue to spend money to keep the building operating.

Boardmember Nancy Gores said she has always felt the building was safe.

“Yet I hear from teachers there about the cold and the heat and the (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system and how challenging it is,” Gores said.

In response to a question from Gores, Bravo said the elevator that is one of the oldest in the country is a service elevator. Another elevator, which Director of Community Education Lisa Greene called “quite slow,” is available for Central Community Center users.

Both elevators passed inspection, but Bravo said the inspector advised district personnel that he would like to see the service elevator replaced.

A center boiler dates back about 60 years and is inefficient, Bravo said. He added that the boiler is so low in the building that it often floods.

Because of the boiler’s age and the age of district maintenance staff who are approaching retirement, Bravo said, “We’re going to have troubles finding people to take care of our buildings that are qualified.”

In 2015, the board approved plans to borrow $2.3 million to improve its three swimming pools, including the pool at the center.

“We put a lot into that pool area,” Bravo said.

Metz said the district has put money into the building’s gymnasiums as well.

Metz also outlined a variety of problems in the building.

Accessibility is in an issue, he said, noting that a student in a wheelchair has to enter a music room from the back instead of through the main entrance.

On the Park Spanish Immersion School side of the building, at least eight classrooms reportedly have issues with water leaks.

“When it rains, they’re cleaning up water at PSI,” Metz said.

The offices at PSI are small and constrained, he said. Although the center houses early childhood education programs, counters and sinks are a size better suited to high school students.

To reach the PSI cafeteria from the playground, students have to walk the entire length of the school through a lower level of the building.

“It’s a little creepy down there sometimes,” Metz said.

The lunchroom is “not the most aesthetically pleasing place” and the HVAC systems “are pretty goofy, also,” Metz said.

“Some rooms are super hot; some are super cold (even though) they’re right next to each other,” Metz said. “There’s really no way to get it to work properly.”

Security is also an issue given the multitude of uses in the building, Metz said.

“We’ve tried over the years to do better with security at Central, but that building never sleeps,” he said.

After Greene outlined her concerns about the building, she said, “I don’t want to sound like we’re really complaining because we do appreciate that we have lots of space we can use there, but there are some issues. We often say we have to program twice as well as anybody else to overcome the deficiencies sometimes of the space that we have.”

Many board questions

Metz responded to numerous questions board members had submitted before the meeting in writing as well as questions presented during the meeting.

Board members considered the potential impact of moving PSI to Cedar Manor Community Center, which currently houses tenants like the French American School of Minneapolis and the Academy of Whole Learning, which plans to move to Minnetonka.

The current tenants generate about $730,000 a year in income for the district, said real estate consultant Garfield Clark.

Metz said moving PSI to Cedar Manor and moving early childhood learning programs to the space currently housing PSI might not solve concerns with PSI’s current building.

“The west side, even though it’s a little newer, has more exterior wall issues than the east side and has greater maintenance needs,” Metz said.

Board members also considered the possibility of closing or demolishing a section of the building.

If the board decide to move in that direction, district officials recommended keeping the original part of the building, the swimming pool and the gymnasiums.

If the district did close the pool, Boardmember Bruce Richardson warned that board members could receive negative feedback. He pointed out that synchronized swimmers filled a board meeting audience previously when board members considered closing one of the district pools.

“Nobody cares about how much money it saves,” Richardson said of the reaction to the idea of closing a pool. “What matters is that fact that we have pools and we have champion swimmers, and they do not want our pools shut down.”

The other pools at the middle and high schools are not available to community education users during the school day since students are using the locker rooms, Greene said.

However, Yarosh surmised that the middle and high school pools must not be used continually by students for district officials to consider broader use by the community an option. Metz said Yarosh’s assumption was correct.

The district would also need to consider what to do about the Central Clinic. Park Nicollet doctors staff the free clinic for children and youth at Central Community Center.

“I’ve reassured them and they know we’ll never abandon the clinic,” Metz said of Park Nicollet officials who contacted him. “They know that’s a perfect spot, too, so they’re keeping their eye on that.”

Gores said she would like the district to consider building an addition at the high school that could contain the clinic, a weight room and district offices.

The board also learned of possible locations to move early childhood programming if it left Central Community Center. Clark said a vacant office building on Gamble Drive could provide the 55,000 square feet needed at a cost of about $25,000 per month.

Given all the options available to board members, Yarosh warned that the board may run out of time to make a decision before they would need to approve a referendum in June.

“These are long-term decisions and a lot of money, and it may take some time,” Yarosh said.

Metz said he would prepare potential time lines for scenarios that could develop over a period of years.

“Obviously, there’s a lot there,” Yarosh said. “There’s no right answer. There’s a lot of options. We still have a lot of fact-gathering to do.”

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]