New Brighton seminary gets approval to rent out space for K-8 school


United Theological Seminary in New Brighton has received permission from the city to lease space out to be used as a K-8 school, though as of yet UTS does not have a tenant.

Citing a reduced number of students and thus an increased amount of free space, Lewis Zeidner, president of United Theological Seminary, said the seminary wants to rent out two of its larger buildings, central on its campus, to be used as a school. The seminary was willing to make compromises with its residential neighbors, though the city council struck a few conditions to help ease restraints on the proposed school.

Seminary campuses are typically home to calm, studious adults working towards a master’s of divinity — many aiming to become church leaders. A seminary in New Brighton, however, is looking to bring some youthful faces to its property: about 300 faces, in fact. 

United Theological Seminary, a Christian school tucked away in the 3000 block of Fifth Street N.W., a residential neighborhood bordering Columbia Heights, has received permission from the New Brighton City Council to repurpose two of its buildings to function as a school with a capacity of 300 students, kindergarten through eighth grade.

Approval upon condition

Though ultimately recommending the approval of UTS’s application to the council, the city’s planning commission reviewed the request and held a lengthy public discussion on the topic at its April 18 meeting. 

About a dozen residents spoke, sharing suggestions, opinions and concerns regarding the special permit the seminary was seeking. Concerns raised included the proposed school’s hours of operation, the playground location, the new traffic the school could bring into the neighborhood, possible bussing issues, general safety concerns and increased noise. 

After a “robust conversation,” as a statement prepared for the council put it, the commission approved the application and sent the matter to council members with several conditions recommended by city staff to ease residents’ apprehensiveness. 

 

Why a school?

According to Dr. Lewis Zeidner, the seminary’s president, who was at the council’s April 25 meeting, the school needed to find a way to remain financially viable. 

Zeidner said about a decade ago, the school had approximately 200 students and now it’s down to 80, only 20 of whom live on campus.

“Through the last 10 years, as you’ve probably noticed from your local churches, attendance has diminished and the number of churches has diminished,” Zeidner said. As a result, he explained the need for ministry-focused jobs has decreased, because “people are staying in those jobs longer and the number of students needing to be trained has reduced.”

Zeidner also noted that many of the school’s students are choosing to take online classes.

“Students are spending less time on campus,” he said. “And we have more space than we need.”

Zeidner said the seminary’s leaders began to look at the school’s financial options.

“We have strong roots in those buildings and we care about those buildings,” he said, noting that selling them off — as council member Gina Bauman insinuated as an option at one point during the meeting — was not desirable for the seminary. The school has called its New Brighton campus home since the early 1960s, before many of the houses that surround it were built.

“At the same time, the cost of staying in all these buildings, with all that land, is a bit prohibitive for our size, currently,” Zeidner said. 

 

Conditions settled and struck

The special permit application that appeared before the council at its April 25 meeting carried 12 conditions that set the proposed school apart from other schools, based on compromises the seminary made with local residents. 

There are 86 houses within 350 feet of the property, and residents worried that adding a K-8 school would change the character of the neighborhood. 

One much talked-about concern was an uptick in noise, a concern that ultimately led to several of the conditions, including not allowing an exterior bell, not allowing more than 150 students — half the school — outside at a time, limiting the time students could play or learn outside during school hours, and limiting when students could be on the school campus at all.

“I know there’s a concern about noise,” Zeidner said, “but most of that noise is laughter, so the impact on the community in a negative way, we would hope, is relatively benign.”

Mayor Val Johnson agreed. 

“I have a big problem when noise of children at a school is something we have to debate,” she said at the meeting. 

In the end, all council members with the exception of Bauman, supported striking several conditions to ease the seminary’s efforts in finding a tenant. 

Striking the conditions will allow the proposed school to have occasional after-school programs such as concerts and plays; for the whole school to be outside on days that it seems fit, like Earth Day for example; and it will allow students and teachers to have more freedom to work and play outdoors during school hours. 

 

No tenant yet

Zeidner, expressing gratitude for the conditions that were struck — though also not explicitly asking for the council to do so — said, “We’re just trying to make ourselves as desirable as possible to tenants.”

United Theological Seminary does not yet have a prospective school to fill the two buildings, but once it does, the spaces will be renovated to fit the needs of a grade school, creating classrooms, a lunchroom and a gymnasium. 

“It’s not like we’ll be absentee landlords,” Zeidner assured the council, noting that whatever school does lease the space will understand the property is also home to a respectable seminary that “cares about the neighborhood.”

 

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815. 

 

 

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