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Wednesday, March 13,2013

Genesee plans

Movement in the Genesee Neighborhood as new owners look to redevelop Ottawa/Butler block and Genesee School

by Andy Balaskovitz

Editor's note: The Downtown Neighborhood Association is hosting a public meeting on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the former Genesee School to discuss these two projects.

A prominent five-acre block of green space near downtown Lansing, for years a target for residential and commercial use by at least three Lansing developers, has been purchased by a Lansing-based trade association looking to build its new headquarters there.

The Michigan Association of Broadcasters paid $157,900 in cash about two weeks ago for the property known as the Ottawa/Butler block, association President Karole White said. The property, three blocks west of the Capitol, is bounded by Ottawa, Sycamore and Ionia streets and Butler Boulevard.

The broadcasters’ move comes as another prominent Genesee Neighborhood property — the century-old, crumbling Genesee School — is being eyed by a nonprofit that wants to buy it from the Lansing School District. Tentative plans call for using the school for veterans’ services. The Lansing School Board will meet in the coming weeks to discuss the transaction.

Ottawa/Butler

The ink is still drying on the Ottawa/Butler purchase. Details of the deal, which was finalized about two weeks ago, have not been posted to public property records.

White said the association’s board of directors agreed to buy the property but that “every option imaginable” is still on the table about what it will do with the entirety of it. It’s an awkwardly shaped parcel: The broadcasters association is one of eight owners on the entire Ottawa/Butler block. The rest are owners of vacant or occupied homes, except for 217 N. Sycamore St., which is for offices of MLive Media Group.

White said it’d be “great” for the broadcasters to build a new headquarters at the southeast corner of the property, at Ottawa and Sycamore, though first the association is concerned with selling its office space at 819 N. Washington Ave. White didn’t rule out the possibility of a developer’s coming along with a different idea for that corner piece or the remaining acreage, or both, she said. The green space serves basically as a big park.

“We would certainly want to work with the community and we would want something that melds nicely with the rest of the surroundings,” White said. “At this point in time, we’re just going to be mowing the lawn and trying to keep it up.”

White said she’s heard from some neighbors about the desire for single-family housing. It’s an option, she said, but not set in stone. 

“It depends on who contacts us when it comes to what we’ll do with the rest of the property,” she said. “I would not be interested in building some monstrosity, some several-level apartment building. … MAB is not in the development business. We would partner with someone. Who that is, I don’t know.”

Since 2004, three developers have eyed the Ottawa/Butler block for redevelopment. None of them broke ground on their concepts. Developer Gene Townsend proposed in 2008 a $20 million vision for condominiums, lofts and retail space. Townsend’s firm, Sycamore Street Partners, lost the property in a bank foreclosure in fall 2010. More recently, Scott Gillespie had an option to buy the property from Wolverine Bank for about $160,000 as he worked out a $7 million concept with the neighborhood for rental apartments. That project never made it to a City Council committee for discussion before Gillespie’s option expired.

As Gillespie’s plans lingered, some Genesee residents wanted the land for relocating three houses owned by Lansing Community College at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Saginaw Street. The houses were at risk of being demolished unless someone presented a viable plan to LCC to save them. 

Those plans are off the table, said Genesee resident Chris McCarus. As he tells it, the broadcasters “came out of nowhere” to buy the property.

White said she has been approached to sell a portion of the Ottawa/Butler block for that purpose, but she balked at what she called “schemes.” “I can’t say ‘no, we absolutely won’t do that.’ But I’m not going to break it apart until I have a master plan” for the property, she said.

“I didn’t see the color of anyone’s money,” she said, denying the idea that the association came out of nowhere to buy the land. The association worked with a Realtor to find a spot closer to the Capitol Ottawa/Butler was presented. “He found this, said ‘here it is, it’s for sale now.’ I went to the board, they said, ‘Bam, bam, right price, right property.’”

Genesee School

Two blocks north of the Ottawa/Butler property, there’s also a glimmer of hope for the crumbling Genesee School, built in 1912.

A nonprofit organization called Zero Day, which specializes in finding housing and employment for veterans, is scheduled to present the Lansing School District a plan for the property at a committee meeting this week. The district owns the property.

Jeff Towns, Zero Day board chairman, declined to give much specifics about the group’s plan for the building until after it’s been approved by the school board, which could be another three weeks.

“In a nutshell, the site would potentially be a location for veteran housing as well as training facilities,” Towns said. “We plan to be really good neighbors if we’re lucky enough to get the facility.”

Last summer, the Black Child and Family Institute moved out of the Genesee School after it could no longer afford the rising maintenance costs, which were turned over to BCFI as the school district tightened its own budget belt. A representative from Closing the Digital Gap, which stayed in the building after BCFI left, could not be reached for comment. Towns said Zero Down hasn’t had a chance to talk with Genesee School tenants about the plan yet.

Lansing School Board President Guillermo Lopez said the board would first receive details on the plan at its work session on Thursday. Sam Sinicropi, assistant superintendent for operations with the district, declined to discuss the issue until after the board’s meeting Thursday.

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