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School district, community activists disagree on future for Lincoln building

It has stood as a fixture of downtown Brainerd for 80 years--first constructed in 1938, once Lincoln Elementary School, now the Lincoln Education Center.

Brainerd School District officials have stated the Lincoln building would require $8.8 million for much-needed maintenance -- to say nothing of updating the facilities or bringing it up to code. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Brainerd School District officials have stated the Lincoln building would require $8.8 million for much-needed maintenance -- to say nothing of updating the facilities or bringing it up to code. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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It has stood as a fixture of downtown Brainerd for 80 years-first constructed in 1938, once Lincoln Elementary School, now the Lincoln Education Center.

During its lifetime, it's served thousands upon thousands of area students, deeply embedded in the fabric of the community since the day it first opened its doors.

And, if the April 10 referendum passes, the Brainerd School District will set aside half a million dollars for the demolition of the old building. The lot is proposed to be converted into a parking area, with a capacity for 200 vehicles, to serve nearby Brainerd High School and a potential performing arts center-a move, Superintendent Laine Larson said, representing efforts to keep students off dangerous streets and intersections in favor of safer transportation arrangements.

There are detractors to the current proposal. Former Brainerd City Council member and one-time teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, Mary Koep, has been vocal about her opposition to the demolition and wrote an email to the Dispatch describing her position on the matter.

"It is a beautiful, classic building and a significant part of Brainerd's history. If walls could talk! What a wealth of history they would share," Koep wrote Thursday. "History is who we are and who we were. Lincoln school-I still hear the sound of children laughing, friends being made, teachers and parents working together, PTA meetings and sloppy Joe suppers, families together with teachers and parents and children. Acceptance. Belonging. This is us. This is Brainerd, not a piece of junk to be replaced with a parking lot."

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And Chuck Marohn, a professional engineer and the founder of nonprofit advocacy group Strong Towns, opposed the potential demolition of the school and formed a Facebook group protesting its destruction. As of Friday, the group "Saving Historic Lincoln School" had nearly 300 followers.

"I was surprised, yes, and I was surprised, no," Marohn said of the turnout in support. "I was surprised that so many people had a passion for this in the community. I'm not surprised there's a disconnect between the people making policy and the broader sentiment of the community."

The Facebook group, he added, is indicative of a community that has expressed disappointment with the loss of longtime area landmarks-including three hotels, the Twin Theater and the old train depot building, among others-that have detracted from the historic pride of the downtown area.

"I think people are starting to realize how valuable downtown Brainerd is, what an asset it is, how valuable not just to the school but to the community," Marohn said. "Lincoln school is part of that fabric. The idea that we would just tear it down for a parking lot is really hard to fathom in that context. It feels rather disrespectful to the history of the area and it feels disrespectful to the city."

The building, which serves as the central hub for all special education services in the Brainerd School District (including some students outside its borders), is to be replaced with a new facility, Larson said. The new facility would feature double the square footage of Lincoln, as well as amenities and specialized features to meet the needs of students with disabilities the old building lacks.

"We have no space," said Lincoln Principal Nancy Anderson. "The space you need for serving kids with disabilities, calming spaces, we don't have that."

As it is now, the building would require $8.8 million for basic maintenance-not including any costs to upgrade its facilities or bring it up to code. There are widespread foundation issues, extensive water damage, as well as space needs in almost every capacity, security concerns and a faulty heating system.

"It's not the adorable elementary school people remember, revere and are promoting," said Cori Reynolds, director of community education for the Brainerd School District. "This building is not (wheelchair) accessible. You can't have public buildings that the public can't get into. It just doesn't sound like a good investment of taxpayer dollars to put money into a building that's small, that needs all that work in addition to whatever it would take to bring it up to a modern, viable instructional space."

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Reynolds added, while the building has a long history in the area, it is not registered officially as a historic building and does not fall under those protections.

Larson said a new parking lot would have "green space," or visually appealing, natural features, because of its position as the front entrance and face of the high school. Marohn disputed that outlook, describing the lot as a "blank, empty space" that would be unused for the majority of the day, except for drop-off and pick-up times.

Marohn added while the practical drawbacks of using an aging, outdated facility and the unrealistic costs of refurbishing it are understandable, converting the building into a parking lot is an idea that's "hard to swallow." He described the demolition of the Lincoln Education Center as an "unnecessary waste."

He added these initiatives are indicative of a cultural misconception, where people make a problem out of a non-issue regarding parking needs, because modern societies function well with fewer parking spaces and Brainerd faces relatively little traffic congestion, contrary to local sentiment.

"Brainerd never has, and never has in my life, had a parking problem," Marohn said. "We might have a parking perception problem. But, if you actually count empty spaces, if you count usage or what's available, you do not have a parking problem."

Marohn said Brainerd High School in particular has ample room to find alternative spaces for parking-citing, as an example, the lower lots next to the football fields, currently used for bus transfers. He said they are empty for the majority of the day and are being wasted by the district.

Marohn pointed to similar situations for other obsolete facilities like the old Franklin Junior High building, Washington High School and the Whittier school-which have been converted into an arts center, school district administration building and a charter school, respectively.

As an alternative use of the site, Marohn said there is the potential for low-rate affordable housing to meet the city's chronic housing shortages, an incubator for local businesses and offices for startups in downtown Brainerd, or a community center run by a nonprofit organization.

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Reynolds noted "no one has presented a check" for the Lincoln Education Center. The Brainerd School District would not have the mandate, nor the wherewithal, to convert the building into the any of the functions Marohn proposed.

Marohn said older structures, such as the Lincoln building, reflect a different and superior philosophy of architecture that more modern buildings do not often feature.

"Lincoln school faces the street. Its doors open up to the street, its architectural grandeur faces the street in a way that says, 'I value you, I'm interacting with you,'" he said. "If you look across the street at the YMCA, what the YMCA has done architecturally is turned its back on the street. The key to a successful downtown is walkability. People do not like to walk past buildings that shun the street."

Anderson said the building poses a number of security risks for its users based on its proximity to busy South Sixth Street-an issue that looks only to grow worse with the roadway expansion to take place this summer, which would expand the right of way farther into the front of the property.

Marohn said, while he supports the district in their referendum, he would find it difficult to vote "yes" with the demolition of the Lincoln building included in the proposals. He added this may be the case for any one of the nearly 300 followers of the Facebook group "Save Historic Lincoln School."

Reynolds noted the referendum would pass with "50 percent, plus one" or more votes, and while 300 votes may tip the referendum, technically one may do so as well.

The Lincoln building, first constructed in 1938, served as an elementary school for most of its existence. Since 2008, it's been the Lincoln Education Center -- the central hub of special education in the Brainerd lakes area and beyond. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
The Lincoln building, first constructed in 1938, served as an elementary school for most of its existence. Since 2008, it's been the Lincoln Education Center -- the central hub of special education in the Brainerd lakes area and beyond. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

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