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Wednesday, December 5,2012

Changing strategy

Residents reject Niowave's landscaping plan. And they have a message: Fix the pole barn or we're coming to your neighborhoods with picket signs.

by Sam Inglot
For five months, residents of the Walnut Neighborhood have been pushing a mantra on Niowave officials regarding the white, 14,000-square-foot pole barn they built on the property: “Fix the fašade.” 

A plan surfaced recently to address the neighborhood’s desire. Neighbors rejected it because the entirely landscape-based plan would not do enough to either hide the building or blend it in with the surrounding neighborhood, residents say. A tax break worth more than $200,000 for the particle accelerator company hinges on neighborhood approval of improvements. 

Now residents are planning to picket the neighborhoods of Niowave head honchos if the situation doesn’t improve.

At a Walnut Neighborhood Organization meeting on Thursday, 11 people were in attendance — including City Council President Brian Jeffries and Council members Carol Wood and Jessica Yorko — to discuss next steps with the company. The message was undeniable: If Niowave officials don’t do something about the pole barn soon, it’s going to get personal. 

“I’m amazed at how this happened,” said WNO President Rina Risper. Niowave has shown an “inability to meet with neighbors and an inability to discuss this with transparency. The disregard for our quality of life is mindboggling.”

The group distributed two fliers at the meeting. One contained the addresses of Niowave officials Terry and Beth Grimm, Mark Sinila and Jerry Hollister. The other was a draft list of “Asks” — essentially what the group wants to be done about the pole barn, which was built earlier this year as an addition to Niowave’s Walnut School headquarters. 

The list went as follows: Remove all chain link fencing around the property; remove signs on the building and property; eliminate the need for on-street employee parking; create a landscaped berm at the corner of Kilborn Street and Seymour Avenue; plant mature trees on the property; create a rain garden at the south storm drain; eliminate glare from the roof; improve the landscaping; and the kicker — replace the current fašade to better blend with the original school building.

The list and plans to protest came after a landscaping proposal shown to three residents on Nov. 16 was rejected by the neighborhood after a series of discussion sessions over Thanksgiving weekend. Niowave retained Lansing-based landscape architect Bob Ford to come up with ideas to help address the neighborhood’s concerns. Niowave asked that the neighborhood sign off on the landscaping and send a letter of agreement to the City Council. 

A request for a $230,000 personal property tax exemption has been “postponed” until Niowave “makes amends with the neighborhood,” Niowave Chief Financial Officer Mark Sinila said recently.

“There was a general consensus that landscaping alone — as nice as Bob’s plans were — are not going to cut it,” said Mary Elaine Kiener, a Walnut Neighborhood resident. In an email to Niowave on Nov. 26, Kiener wrote: “There is an overwhelming LACK of support for a landscaping ONLY approach to ‘fix the facade.’” She received no response. In the email, she invited Niowave to the WNO meeting on Thursday to discuss the issue. Behind a paper Niowave placard, there was an empty chair: No one showed. 

Kiener said the neighborhood has sent a letter to Niowave with the denial and the list of “Asks.” She said they have continually invited Niowave to the table to discuss the issue but officials never joined the conversation. She also said Niowave is hesitant to meet with any more than three residents at a time. Kiener has said the relationship is at an “all time low.” 

If Niowave continues to do nothing about the pole barn, residents plan to picket officials’ neighborhoods. City Council members who attended Friday’s meeting voiced their support for the group. 

At-Large Councilwoman Wood said the wishes of the group have been “clear” from the beginning and that picketing can “make a difference” when all else has failed. Fourth Ward Councilwoman Yorko, who represents the Walnut Neighborhood, said residents shouldn’t worry about potential costs as a barrier to what they want: “Shoot for the moon,” she said. 

The community is at a point where “they have to do what they have to in order to protect their interests,” said Jeffries. “What I’ve seen … is a relationship that is deteriorating. They can’t get Niowave to the table. They’ve got to have an understanding. Months have been lost for that to happen because Niowave has not been at the table. There is a greater level of frustration … they feel the need to get (Niowave’s) attention another way.”

“We’ve been very gracious,” said Risper. “We need to change strategy” and let Niowave know “we are dead serious about changes.” 

Residents plan to attend a City Council Planning and Development Committee meeting today to talk with Council members about their struggle and to find out more about some draft legislation that seeks to prevent problems like this in the future. 

Jeffries said a previous draft of the ordinance was “wholly inadequate” and would need revision because it only stipulated that the City Council be notified when special land use construction, like that of the Niowave pole barn, is being planned. It needs stronger enforcement language, he said.

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