The August 2, 2017 explosion at the Minnehaha Academy campus was felt by the students, staff, and families at the school, but also by the local neighborhood and surrounding Longfellow neighborhood community.
Within months of the explosion, plans to rebuild were set into action, some of which provoked strong opposition from neighbors. “Rebuild Responsibly” is a group of neighbors who organized over their desire to influence the reconstruction of the school following the explosion. Their primary complaints from “Rebuild Responsibility” regarded the environmental impact of the newly planned school, changes to the neighborhood and a general frustration with not being consulted about the plans earlier in the rebuilding and designing process.
Now that the school has been rebuilt, the Minnehaha Academy Upper School has received numerous awards for its design and construction, including the Design Build Institute of America’s 2020 Upper Midwest Region Project of the Year Award and the American Institute of Architects’ Minnesota Honor Award.
Neighbors in the “Rebuild Responsibly” organization still harbor hard feelings toward the school and the rebuild process.
I was able to interview Leykn Schmatz who was largely frustrated about the rebuild process due to the increase in traffic and noises due to the construction. I talked to David Patz, a Minnehaha alumnus and seven year resident of the neighborhood who was “more of an impartial observer.” I also interviewed Douglas Braithwaite, an alumnus who was concerned with the construction of a fence near his house and went through the process of appealing it’s build. Finally, I interviewed Britta Hirsch who was excited to have the school back in session.
“The explosion was for us (as for you, I’m sure) pretty traumatic because we’re very close,” said Leykn Schmatz, a resident of the neighborhood for seven years. “My partner was home and the explosion actually slammed her up against the building. We felt terrible about the school’s loss at the time and had all good wishes for the school and students. But the rebuild process was, truthfully, kind of awful. The expansive plans, the high building being planned right across the street, the trees cut down and the effect on the flyway.”
The school reacted by increasing the neighboring community’s involvement in the rebuilding process by holding meetings and open mics that allowed members of the community to come and voice opinions and concerns to the architects and school staff.
“Not to say that we didn’t have the opportunity, but there were so many things happening that we did not engage the neighbors early in the process of our planning and design,” said Jason Wenschlag, Upper School principal. “We just had to get moving and Mendota and just a lot of things were happening. And so I think when we did reach out to them, they were initially upset that it took so long…That was their first concern, then it became the features of the building. And mostly it had to do with a design in fear that it would really change the neighborhood and it was just different.”
Additionally, many members of the group were concerned about the new plans for the school’s location, which was closer to the river and closer to a part of land coined “critical corridor” by the Minnesota Parks and Rec Board.
“The proximity to the river [was a concern], another was that it would intrude on the viewpoint and everyone’s view of the River Road and that it would interrupt the bird migration path,” continued Wenschlag. “Trees were another concern. There were quite a few of those things related to the building, the design, how it would fit in the neighborhood, how it would impact birds, how many trees would be destroyed and if we would be planting any more trees.”
Neighborhood and alumni response
“You can’t open yourself up to everybody’s little whims and different angers and whatnot, but I think they could have handled it because they squandered an incredible amount of goodwill towards a school because of the explosion,” said Braithwaite whose family has lived in the neighborhood since 1944. He was primarily frustrated about having to get involved with the appeal process and with the speed of the rebuilding in general.
Many were interested in the environmental impact of the school. There were hopes for solar paneling and green energy, many of which were not fulfilled in the new building.
“I would have liked to have seen some environmentally friendly changes,” said Patz. “I think it’s still the same internal apparatus. I would like to have seen some geothermal heating. I don’t know how that’s done. It might take longer or cost more. As the building stands now, I don’t think you can retrofit that.”
However, not all neighbors were equally frustrated with the school throughout the process.
“Well, I’m in the neighborhood so I was just kind of curious about the whole process,” said Patz. “So I was more of an observer, sort of impartial observer. I know other people had a lot of issues with it. But I attended here, so to see it leveled, was fairly shocking.”
In order to meet these demands the school changed some aspects of its original design to satisfy the neighbors and the community. Overall, members of the school have expressed their satisfaction with the rebuild process and with the final result of the new building.
“I think we were able to really meet a lot of the concerns they had,” said Wenschlag. “We put in bird-safe class for the birds, we planted way more trees than we ever [had] in this property, we used the no-left-turn signs and we got the city to allow a certain number of parking spots in the back to meet the help with the parking demand.”
The rebuilding process affected all members of the Minnehaha community and did so in different ways. Now that Minnehaha students have repopulated the halls once more, the school’s over century long history carries on — now in a new building.
“I would say I hope we have shown that we are a good neighbor,” said Sara Jacobson Executive Director of Institutional Advancement. “And that even though we’ve been established in the neighborhood for over 100 years, we care about our current neighbors. We took their thoughts into consideration as we finalized our plans and I hope they’d be pleased with the outcome that the value of being in the neighborhood has increased because of our beautiful facility.”