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Wednesday, August 31,2011

The saga of Oliver Towers

A look at the 11-year history of the nearly deserted building

by Nyssa Rabinowitz

Eleven years is a long time to have a
nearly empty building. Here’s a look at some of the delays that
prevented development at Oliver Towers.


Built in 1968, the eight-story high-rise
building served as subsidized housing for about 100 apartments for
low-income senior citizens, but a fire on Feb. 6, 2000, badly damaged
the facility and created numerous problems for the city.


The fire gutted the first floor and
destroyed the fire and elevator systems, causing $250,000 worth of
damages. After repairs, the Lansing Housing Commission was able to move
into the first floor, but the apartments have remained vacant. The
Housing Commission planned on selling the property to the city, but when
it moved forward with a proposal in 2001 that would have replaced the
building with a parking ramp for LCC, the city discovered it might
already own the land. After years of attorney reviews, City Pulse
reported in 2009 that both parties agreed the Housing Commission
actually owned the site. However, current City Attorney Brig Smith said
Tuesday that the city owns the land through the Housing Commission.


The federal government also has a stake
in the property since the Housing of Urban Development Department
contributed money to build the structure. The department holds a “deed
of trust” for the property, meaning it had to agree on any plans for the
building. HUD’s involvement also added the stipulation that the
property had to be sold at market value, meaning it had to be appraised. 


Before the fire, the building was
assessed at about $2.4 million. When the commission assessed it again in
2001, its value had dropped to $2 million. The commission wanted to
create a senior citizen facility, but other area facilities offered more
services, making the project obsolete.


Former Lansing Mayor David Hollister
envisioned razing Oliver Towers and building a new, $22 million City
Hall. City Hall would be sold to the state, becoming the site of a new
Senate building comparable to the House of Representatives building a
block north, but a lack of funds kept the project from starting.


In 2004, local developer Pat Gillespie
wanted to develop the Towers into townhouses aimed at middle-to-high
income professionals, but delays and rising costs made the venture too
pricey.


In 2008, the Capital Area District
Library proposed a new 0.96 mill tax levy to expand its library system.
The project proposed building a new downtown library, as well as
relocating the Impression 5 Science Center, to Oliver Towers, but the
millage failed and neither entity had enough money to pursue the project
further.


This prompted a collection of churches,
lead by Justin Sleight of the Capital Area Faith Based Coalition, to
push the city to use the building to house the homeless. Sleight
proposed offering the city $3 million for the property, but he wanted to
inspect it first to see how much renovation it would take to re-open
the apartments. His request was not granted until December 2009 after a
misplacement of the building’s insurance policy held up approval from
the Housing Commission. The commission wasn’t sure if a private group
could inspect the building. The proposal faded away.


Then, in May 2011, City Pulse reported
that Councilman Brian Jeffries suggested selling the property to help
“offset losses in police, fire and code enforcement officers.” The
proposal was part of a package of budgetary ideas that Mayor Virg
Bernero described as “gum drops, lollipops and pipe dreams.” The Council
rejected them.





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