Manitou Fund submits plans for Zephyr Theatre in Stillwater

The foundation that purchased the Zephyr Theatre building in downtown Stillwater for River Grove Elementary School is asking the city to fast track its permit application so the school can open this fall.

Manitou Fund officials are planning a complete remodel of the building’s interior, including the addition of windows along the east wall and the addition of a second stairwell in the southeast corner of the building. Anticipated completion date is Sept. 1.

Once operating, River Grove plans on having around 180 students and 40 to 50 staff on site each day, according to a 25-page conditional use permit application filed for the property at 601 N. Main St.

Manitou Fund officials also may lease the building to the Zephyr Theatre for use outside of school hours, according to the application.

City staff noted two main concerns – parking and traffic – in a memo to the Stillwater City Council, which will meet Tuesday to provide direction on the process for review.

A traffic study is underway and is expected to be completed by May 24, the tentative date set for planning commission review, said Community Development Director Tim Gladhill.

There are currently 52 parking stalls that are available; code would require 39 stalls for a school, Gladhill said. “We’re still evaluating what that means if the theater continues using that space,” he said. “They are reconfiguring the floor plan, so we would have to evaluate the parking requirements based on use, the new floor plan, square footage, number of classrooms, number of theater spaces.”

The exterior design changes proposed by the Manitou Fund require approval from the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission, Gladhill said. While the former site of the Minnesota Zephyr train depot is not a historic building, the site is within the Downtown Design Review District, he said.

Accelerated timeline

Manitou Fund officials hope to have the HPC review the plans on May 17 and appear before the city’s planning commission on May 24 – an accelerated timeline considering Manitou Fund officials haven’t actually closed on the building. Manitou Fund and Zephyr Theatre officials announced April 12 they had executed a purchase agreement for the property. The deed transfer had not taken place as of Monday, according to Washington County property tax records.

Manitou Fund’s “project schedule is more accelerated than a standard project and will require thinking about our process slightly differently,” Community Development Director Tim Gladhill wrote in the memo, adding that staff must do its due diligence and are “concerned about the feasibility of the timeframe.”

“Staff will make every reasonable effort to accommodate the schedule,” he wrote. “However, if the desired time frame is not met, it should not be attributed to the city process.”

Additionally, Gladhill wrote, the Manitou Fund “is going to have to take certain steps/application at risk, meaning submittal of building plans for plan review before planning commission action.”

“This may result in plan revisions (additional cost) or acknowledgement that the city may still deny the project (lost cost in design and review),” he wrote. “Additionally, the applicant is requesting consideration to begin interior demolition prior to planning commission approval. Staff is still evaluating this request, but is hereby noted that this would be at risk to the applicant (no guarantee that the ultimate project gets approved).”

City staff are proposing that city officials consider an interim use permit – rather than a conditional use permit for the property, Gladhill said.

“That gives us time to see how this works and not make a long-term commitment,” Gladhill said.

The letter of intent between River Grove and the Manitou fund anticipates that River Grove’s lease will be for a period of two years, with the option to extend the lease for an additional two years, according to the permit application. The reason for the “relatively short commercial lease (is) because River Grove would like to find a more long-term and nature-centered setting for its place-based environmental education,” the permit application states.

At closing, Manitou Fund officials anticipate granting Zephyr Theatre officials an option to repurchase the property after four years, the permit application states.

“Nevertheless, unforeseen events could cause River Grove to need to stay at the property for longer,” according to the application. “Or River Grove may consider opening a second arts school. Having a CUP would ensure River Grove has the flexibility it needs to plan.”

Manitou Fund officials said Monday that it was too early to comment on the permit-application process. River Grove Elementary School, a K-6 charter school, is located in Wilder Forest in May Township; its lease expires in June.

The future of the school, which focuses on outdoor education, had been unclear since last fall when officials with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation announced they had approved an agreement with the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership to purchase the 600 acres of Wilder Forest land for an overnight summer camp and winter retreat center.

‘Good for Stillwater’

Stillwater City Council member Dave Junker, who represents the area where the building is located, said he is excited about the possibility of having a school in downtown Stillwater.  Because school officials plan to only be on site for a few years, an interim-use permit would make the most sense, he said.

“I’m concerned about a conditional use permit because that goes with the land,” he said. “If it’s for three to four years, I think it’s a great fit.”

A complete remodel of the building and surrounding landscaping, which “badly needs some TLC,” would also be good for Stillwater, he said.

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