A Downtown School?

ALTHOUGH SCHOOL INTEGRATION has become politically passe in the 1990s, backers of a proposed downtown Minneapolis school are hoping to push the issue to the fore once again. And while metro-area students are the presumed beneficiaries, a proposed partner in the project may reap considerable dividends too.

The project is spearheaded by West Metro Education Program (WMEP), a cooperative venture between the Minneapolis school district and eight contiguous suburban districts. The program, formerly known as Cooperating Interdistrict Integration Project, was formed in 1989 at the behest of parents concerned about unchecked segregation patterns. WMEP's most prominent goal is its proposal for three integrated schools--one in downtown Minneapolis, another in Robbinsdale, and a third in a southwest suburb such as Hopkins or Richfield.

No downtown site has been confirmed, but the odds-on favorite is the block bordered by 10th and 11th Streets and LaSalle and Nicollet. The block in question--which is currently home to a number of restaurants and small shops and a parking lot--faces Nicollet Mall, and is on a prominent busline. The land is currently owned by three private entities: the Mickauley company; a partnership between Dayton-Hudson Corporation and Carlson Companies; and Garold Nyberg, one of the partners of the Smiley architectural firm housed on the targeted block. Although the land has been considered for urban projects in the past, such as a downtown library, no recent land use proposals had been advanced until WMEP's magnet school.

WMEP appears to be forging a partnership in its efforts with the University of St. Thomas. According to St. Thomas representative Doug Hennes, the school was originally approached by WMEP to share parking space. "As the project was discussed, we felt that there might be a role for St. Thomas to be involved in other ways," says Hennes--specifically in conjunction with the university's graduate school of education. Overcrowding is a problem for the university; the school's 1,257 graduate students of education are forced to share space with psychology and social work grad students in a former elementary school. With grad students paying between $321 and $422 per credit hour, a separate, state-of-the-art facility allied with the WMEP school could attract new students, and help the current ones justify the cost of a St. Thomas education. The university would also use the proposed magnet school as a laboratory where St. Thomas faculty and grad students could conduct research and take part in teaching practicums and internships.

The St. Paul-based university first ventured across the river in 1987, when it set up temporary quarters in the old downtown Powers building. According to Hennes, the move was an experiment to test the viability of a Minneapolis branch. When the university realized it could successfully expand its base, it approached the city for help.

Keith Ford of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) says the city was willing to give land to St. Thomas to further downtown development. "The business community had been talking about improved MBA programs, and across the country in other major cities, at least one campus is known as an urban university," says Ford. The city's price tag was fairly steep at $9.2 million, but Ford says Minneapolis made out well. In return for the land, St. Thomas is required to supply eight full scholarships to Minneapolis students each year for 20 years.

The city is not underwriting this latest venture; the state has committed $10 million for WMEP's facility, but conditions attached to the funding stipulate that its partner must be housed separately. But then there is the matter of the land. While the MCDA maintains that the city, WMEP, and its partner each could be allocated a portion of land costs, St. Thomas clearly wants to own the parcel. "We are involved in trying to acquire the land," confirms Hennes. "We are taking the lead." Should St. Thomas get its way, the acquisition will expand its already considerable holdings. In addition to the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses, the university owns parcels of land on 11th and 12th between LaSalle and Harmon as well as a building on that block that they lease to Minneapolis Community College; a parking lot on 11th and Hennepin; a facility in Chaska; and a convention center in Owatonna.

While the school is slated to open in the fall of 1997, the details are far from complete. St. Thomas has not been formally named as a partner, the final site has yet to be acquired, and the selection process for students is still up in the air. Whatever its eventual shape, the plan looks to generate some controversy before it's done. Since schools are tax-exempt entities, some critics question the wisdom of letting them supplant tax-generating businesses downtown. But Ford insists it's an even trade. "Downtown is a mixture of all kinds of uses, and the right mix will strengthen downtown. All kinds of forces are pulling away, and this refocuses efforts to keep people downtown." He also maintains that Minneapolis has long-range planning efforts to make that part of town an "education corridor."