Minnehaha Academy building heights update

In mid-May, the Minneapolis city council's zoning and planning committee voted unanimously in favor of lowering the height of Minnehaha Academy's proposed campus expansion on West River Parkway.

After the city's planning commission approved the project last month, a group of neighbors appealed that decision to the city council, where committee members listened to concerns raised by dozens of neighbors, FMR and Sierra Club.

The zoning and planning committee's recommendation to reduce the height of the school addition from 54 to 46 feet will go a long way towards lessening the scenic impacts to the Mississippi Gorge Regional Park.

Next, the decision goes to the full city council, which is accepting comments until their final vote May 25.

Proposed expansion

The private school has been located along West River Road in Minneapolis for more than 100 years. After a 2017 explosion killed two people and destroyed some of their buildings, the academy is seeking city approvals to replace and expand their high school.

The proposed building expansion would be 54 feet tall, feature a 64-foot steeple, and would fill space now occupied by a parking lot and tennis courts, bringing the high school much closer to the river than the previous location.

Zoning for both the river corridor and the residential neighborhood requires buildings not exceed 35 feet in height, but if not stopped by the council, Minnehaha Academy's conditional use permit allows them to build nearly twice as tall.

Community concerns

Prior to gaining approval from the planning commission, Minnehaha Academy heard from many community members unhappy with the planned expansion's design and angry about being left out of the planning process until the last minute.

FMR pointed out that the visual impact of the new building will affect scenic views within the Mississippi River Gorge Regional Park, and we pointed out the project would be out of step with new state rules to protect our river corridor.

The new rules, which go into effect within two years, call for a maximum height of 35 feet. Approving heights from 54 to 64 feet now would set a bad precedent.

Many neighbors and community members also raised concerns about migratory birds, and neighborhood issues related to parking, traffic and idling buses.

A neighborhood task force was organized and met with Minnehaha Academy staff and board members in an effort to negotiate changes or compromises.

Neighbors appeal to the city council

Although the school committed to move the parking further away from the river, reduce the number of mature trees to be removed, and lower the height of the steeple, neighbors continued to push for additional changes. When the planning commission didn't listen, a formal appeal was filed to overturn the decision.

After more than two hours of testimony on May 17, Councilmember Cam Gordon, who represents the area, offered a motion to deny the neighbor's appeal but add more conditions to the school's expansion.

The committee supported such modifications as reducing the building height by 8 feet, changing to a darker exterior (the school agreed to brick), utilizing bird-safe glass on all windows and planting additional vegetative screening on adjacent parkland.

You can help

Support the neighbors' appeal by contacting the Minneapolis City Council before their final vote, May 25.

For more information or to find out how to get involved, contact Irene Jones at ijones@fmr.org.