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The site of a proposed school for children with autism on the northwest corner of 10th and Boone avenues.

A vacant industrial property at the northwest corner of Boone and 10th Avenue has been redesignated “institutional” to allow for a K-12 specialty school for students with autism. The Academy of Whole Learning is currently leasing property near the Minnetonka Community Center, and pending Metropolitan Council and environmental reviews will begin construction in November 2021.

The Golden Valley City Council voted unanimously to redesignate the property at its Nov. 17 meeting. Mayor Shep Harris recused himself from the vote and discussion of the issue, as he lobbies for an organization with leadership from the academy.

Former chemical manufacturing site

The property is on the northwest corner of Boone and 10th Avenue, previously the headquarters of McLaughlin Gormley King Company before the company moved to Chaska.

Golden Valley Planner Myles Campbell said that the property already had a “campus feel” to it and that neighboring properties were used for offices and services, though there was a possibility they could become purchased for more heavy industrial use in the future.

The building housed the company’s research and development department, and also manufactured insecticides. Academy Director Wyayn Rasmussen said the school’s planning team would know more about any residual effects of the chemical manufacturing when they received the first phase of the environmental review.

The rezoning will require approval by the Metropolitan Council because it requires modification of the city’s comprehensive plan.

Commission reservations

The Golden Valley Planning Commission had some reservations when it considered the issue in October, though it ultimately recommended approval to the city council on a 5-2 vote. The members who voted to recommend denial were concerned about the school’s proximity to potential industrial properties and of the impact an institutional designation would have on the area if the school were to leave.

Campbell reviewed those concerns to the City Council but added that the land designation could be reconsidered if the school were to move or cease operation.

Looking for a ‘permanent home’

Rasmussen said the school was particularly interested in the property’s central location.

“We would love to be located in Golden Valley,” she said. “We are currently leasing, and I know our parents will be very happy if we can have a permanent home. There is always the fear that we will keep moving as we grow.”

The school opened in 2012 with 15 autistic or neurodiverse students. Since then, Rasmussen said growth has been “exponential,” with 72 students enrolled this year.

She said the school incorporates teaching social skills into its curriculum and offers in-house behavior, psychotherapy and speech therapy services so students and parents don’t need to commute to appointments after school.

Rasmussen attributed the growth to the wealth of services the state offers for those on the autism spectrum. It’s the reason why Minnesota has the highest rate of people diagnosed with autism (about one in 36) in the country. As a result, “people move from around the country to come to our school,” she said.

Capacity plans

Rasmussen also mentioned steps the school is taking to ensure quality education for its rapidly growing student body. The academy plans to close enrollment after it reaches a capacity of 115 to 125 students, making the proposed building “the perfect size.”

The academy signed a purchase agreement on the property, but will not go through with the sale unless it receives environmental and government approvals. The school’s lease in Minnetonka will conclude in June 2022. To be open by the fall of 2022, the academy plans to begin a five-month interior remodel in November 2021.

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