Benilde-St. Margaret’s building project in St. Louis Park approved despite objections

A project at Benilde-St. Margaret’s would add a glassy section to the school, prompting objections from some neighbors. (Submitted art)

A plan to create more space for students within Benilde-St. Margaret’s faced complaints from some neighbors related to lighting and glass, but a city attorney advised council members that they could not add special conditions to an approval.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s, a private school at 2501 Hwy. 100 S. in St. Louis Park, plans to convert a courtyard into about 2,200 square feet of flexible space and remodel about 4,700 square feet of storage space into science labs.

The plans would not expand the footprint of the building, but 34 neighbors signed letters of support for a resident who sought to prompt school officials to use a type of glass designed to prevent birds from flying into it.

“The detrimental consequences of added light compounded with the damage to the wetland life is not something either the city of St. Louis Park or the school can take pride in,” said Elisabeth Shapiro, who lives near the school. “Require Benilde-St. Margaret’s high school to build a science wing that is state-of-the-art using bird-safe, non-reflecting and zero-light-emission glass.”

Due to neighbor concerns about light, Benilde-St. Margaret’s dropped a plan to backlight a planned cross. School officials also plan to tint windows to lower the amount of light that spills outside the renovated space.

The Planning Commission directed staff to review the lighting in the school’s parking lot, but Assistant Zoning Administrator Gary Morrison said at a May 1 council meeting that city staff found the level of lighting in the lot to be “well under the maximum levels allowed by city code.”

Councilmember Sue Sanger said, “Over the years, I have gotten quite a few, frankly, complaints from Benilde’s neighbors about the spillover lighting from Benilde to the neighborhood, so I know there’s a fair amount of sensitivity about this issue.”

Sanger also said she had been asked by some residents regarding whether the school could use glass designed to prevent birds from flying into it.

Natalie Ramier, chief financial officer of Benilde-St. Margaret’s, said school officials had studied fritted glass and anti-reflective glass.

“At this time we feel that the tinting is enough to address the concerns of the neighbors,” Ramier said.

Architects and construction personnel working with the school do not believe that the glass that would be added to Benilde-St. Margaret’s would create enough reflection to significantly impact nearby residents, Ramier said.

“We’ve studied both the glass that we’re putting in and the effect on what would go back to the neighborhood, and really it’s very negligible and doesn’t appear from our calculations to get back to the neighbors’ area of the grounds,” she said.

Fritting the glass and anti-reflective glass are somewhat opposed to each other, Ramier added.

“The anti-reflective glass makes it more likely that birds will fly into the space; the fritting makes it less likely,” Ramier said. “So we’re kind of at the juxtaposition where the tinting that we had proposed we’d like to keep.”

Sanger noted she was not a glass expert.

“I think it will be up to you to make that call as to what’s the best kind of glass,” Sanger said.

Shapiro asserted that the glass planned would intensify existing light pollution.

“The school’s parking lights and the high-intensity field lights, which as far as we’re concerned are too bright to begin with, will be reflected back to us in our direction,” Shapiro said. “Reflective and tinted glass windows kill wildlife, particularly birds, and have a negative impact on all the life of the surrounding ecosystem, human life included.”

She said a professor had advised her that bird-safe glass could be modified so that it doesn’t reflect light from the exterior and so internal light doesn’t spill out.

To Ramier, Shapiro said, “Whoever advised you doesn’t know the current science.”

Shapiro said of the plans: “The design for Benilde-St. Margaret’s new science wing ignores scientific evidence on the impact of glass and light pollution on the environment. The design gets an F in terms of a grade.”

Another neighbor of the school, Gregg Kubera, said that he loves Benilde-St. Margaret’s but that he has observed a decline in waterfowl at a nearby pond. As a media production and cinema professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College for about 20 years, Kubera said: “I know the dynamics of light and I’m very concerned that we not pollute the backyards or any more of the wetlands with (light pollution). We’re looking for a win-win here. Let’s do it.”

Unlike other speakers, Linda Goldberg, executive director of neighboring Beth El Synagogue, said she supported Benilde-St. Margaret’s plans.

After listing a number of collaborative efforts between the Catholic school and the synagogue, Goldberg said: “We completely support BSM for this project. They have been great neighbors and friends.”

Sanger asked if the council had the authority to mandate that Benilde-St. Margaret’s not backlight the cross and use glass designed to prevent bird strikes.

Soren Mattick, city attorney for St. Louis Park, said the city does not have any related performance standards that it could enforce regarding the project. While the city could add conditions to a planned unit development, the Benilde-St. Margaret’s request instead related to amending a special permit.

City Manager Tom Harmening agreed: “I don’t see that we can require them to install some type of special glass to repel birds. That would be a path that we have not gone down before from a regulatory perspective. Benilde meets all of our code requirements when it comes to lighting and lighting spillover. My understanding is they’re not really in a position to do the reflective glass to repel birds.

“We can certainly work with them and talk with them about possibilities, but I don’t see that it makes any sense to delay this because we really don’t have the regulatory authority to require them to do it.”

Mayor Jake Spano also noted that the surface area of glass in question is small compared to other buildings constructed in the city.

“If we were to require it here, where wouldn’t we require it?” Spano asked. “I think it’s a bigger discussion that we need to have.”

Because he lives next to Methodist Hospital, Spano said he understands living next to lighting can be difficult, but he said, “It seems to me the playing field lights are much more the issue than this small piece of interior light.”

The council approved the special permit amendment 6-0.

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]