Belleville zoning board denies Christian Academy’s request to use Lindenwood dorm

The Belleville Zoning Board of Appeals has denied Gateway Legacy Christian Academy’s request to move high school boarding students into a dorm on Lindenwood University-Belleville’s campus for its upcoming school year.

The decision came after several local citizens, law enforcement officials and public and private school administrators brought concerns to the board’s meeting Thursday night. Chief among the concerns were the quick timeline on which the university and private high school planned to operate, and that people did not want to see the university “piecemealing” parts of the campus out.

Gateway is a college preparatory academy for students from kindergarten to 12th grade. The dorm in question would house up to 170 high school students, both boys and girls. Gateway also wants to use Lindenwood’s cafeteria, athletic facilities and a building across the street from the dorm for classrooms and offices.

Many residents, however, did not agree, expressing their worries about what the best use of the property is.

One man spoke about how he hoped the Lindenwood campus would be kept intact, saying it could detract from the value of the property and that the campus “is best used as one entity.”

Another woman mentioned that in a town of 45,000, she was concerned about adding another high school. That question also plagued David Harris, principal of Althoff Catholic School, who said he didn’t have a problem with Gateway’s mission, but did have concerns about how it would stand in a part of the state that is overwhelmed with high schools and even “struggling to consolidate” some of those.

“This decision will affect more than just the Belleville West campus,” he said, referring to the District 201 high school.

On May 13, Lindenwood announced it would be ending daytime undergraduate academic programs at its Belleville campus following the 2019-2020 school year. Then, in July, Gateway Legacy Christian Academy, a boarding school for high school students in Granite City, applied for a zoning variance to have students live in the women’s dormitory at 100 S. 23rd St. for the upcoming academic year, which begins Sept. 3.

The zoning variance would have changed the definitions of “dorm” and “student” from its original application for a four-year college or university to include high schools.

According to Gateway’s founder, Greg Morrison, who spoke at the meeting, the academy had been searching for a place to house its student body, which has increased every year and has a large international student base, and has had its eye on Belleville “for quite a while.”

“We were born and raised in Illinois and we want to stay here,” Morrison said.

Lindenwood says no other ‘reasonable’ uses for Belleville campus

During the meeting, Gateway announced plans to have boys and girls separated by floor in the dorm, staff the dorm with at least six house “moms” or “dads” who would monitor the floors, use Lindenwood’s security system for 24/7 surveillance, and use their own buses to transport students around Belleville.

Gateway noted that its vision for the future includes expanding to almost 800 students, and that they hope Belleville would be the place to do that.

Lindenwood President John R. Porter backed the request, saying there are “no other uses reasonable” for the campus.

Belleville Police Chief Bill Clay said that when members of his department met with Lindenwood’s security team to discuss the matter, Lindenwood was “unable to provide info about its future plans” and that it did not seek feedback from the local law enforcement.

“There was no communication with Lindenwood or Gateway, no collaboration, no coordination and no dialogue,” he said, noting that he only learned about the Gateway application via local media reports.

In response to this, Porter said Lindenwood would take measures to address the matter further with local law enforcement.

The board, however, voted 6-1 to deny the request, with only Don Rockwell voting to approve the application.

The zoning board’s decision is only a recommendation and is not binding. The City Council will make a final decision on Gateway’s application at their meeting on Aug. 5 at 7 p.m.

Hana Muslic has been a public safety reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat since August 2018, covering everything from crime and courts to accidents, fires and natural disasters. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and her previous work can be found in The Lincoln Journal-Star and The Kansas City Star.