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Wednesday, April 17,2013

The fix isn't in

The tepid response of Walnut Neighborhood residents to a proposed redo of Niowave Inc.'s pole barn has once again placed the company's request for a $550,000 tax break on hold. Niowave says there's not enough money to budget for more changes.

by Sam Inglot
Walnut Neighborhood residents see “major flaws” in a plan to fix the fašade of their corporate neighbor’s research facility because it does not go far enough in blending the building with its surroundings.

The rejection sets up another chapter in the dispute between the neighborhood and Niowave Inc. The company says there’s not enough money budgeted for additional changes than what’s been proposed.

The hesitation to the proposed fašade changes — which were made public two weeks ago — also means Niowave’s tax abatement request is again on hold with the Lansing City Council.

The Council was supposed to vote next week, but Bob Tresize, head of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, said it’s been delayed while he continues trying to find a compromise acceptable to Niowave and neighbors.

For the past week, Mary Elaine Kiener and Dale Schrader — two Walnut Neighborhood activists — have been collecting survey data from residents about their thoughts on the proposed changes. Kiener said they plan on compiling the data into a report and presenting the findings to the City Council. 

The question is: “Are the proposed fašade changes better than what is here now?”

“From the trending data, no one is saying: ‘Oh my gosh, this is perfect,’” Kiener said. “People are saying it’s a step in right direction but it has some major flaws. So, we’re not quite there yet.”

Niowave Chief Financial Officer Mark Sinila said Tuesday that the proposed fašade changes are the best Niowave can offer right now. 

“The changes that were proposed maxed out the allocated budget,” he said. “If we have funds down the road, if we can make alterations or improvements, I think we’d be up to negotiations — but not in today’s world.”

It’s been a heated battle between the Walnut Neighborhood Organization and Niowave Inc., a particle accelerator company, ever since the company erected a 14,000-square-foot pole barn in the middle of the residential neighborhood in July. Neighbors have been pushing the company to “fix the fašade” — with yard signs and through media attention — for over 10 months. 

Earlier this month, residents were presented with a design from the Lansing Economic Area Partnership to address the fašade issue. LEAP hired local architecture firm C2AE to draw up the designs after negotiations between Niowave and the neighbors became stuck.

Schrader and Kiener have concerns about the proposed changes to the roof. The plan that was presented to the neighborhood featured a green painted roof, but Trezise, president and CEO of LEAP, said Niowave has not agreed to that yet. Neighbors have said all along that the white steel roof is one of their biggest concerns, as it tends to create a glare that is a nuisance to nearby homeowners. Neighbors believe shingles would help remedy the glare.

Paint isn’t even an option for the roof at this point, Sinila said. If Niowave makes any changes to the roof, the 25-year warranty on the building would be void, he said. 

Trezise said he hoped to have negotiations finalized by the end of the week. However, on Tuesday, he said negotiations would take more time. He couldn’t say when an agreement would be reached or when the six-year, $550,000 personal property tax exemption would be brought back before the City Council. 

Along with the roof issues, Schrader and Kiener believe the fake windows the plan calls for won’t look right if they’re simply tacked onto the painted metal siding. They’d prefer to have the windows installed into siding like regular windows. 

Schrader and Kiener are worried that the proposed fašade fix may look all right on paper, but it won’t make the building blend in with the neighborhood at all.

The proposal that Niowave agreed to includes covering the two lower halves of the south and east sides of the building — which face the street — with brick; fake windows on the upper portion of the siding; and painting the building to look more like Niowave’s headquarters in the adjacent Walnut Street school. The company would pay $100,000 for the fašade improvements. 

The proposal also includes $100,000 worth of landscaping and parking lot improvements, which would be paid for with money from the city’s Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund. 

The tax break is the linchpin of the controversy. The Council has continually tabled it in committee until the company and neighbors reach an agreement. 

Most Council members have remained mum on how they plan to vote when it comes time. Councilwoman Jody Washington said she has an idea of how she’ll vote, but she wasn’t willing to share. Most of the other members either refused to comment or said they were waiting to hear more from the neighbors. 

However, Council President Carol Wood said she is leaning against it. 

“If I’m judging on what I know today, my vote would be no,” she said. “(The proposal) doesn’t meet what the neighborhood was looking for when they were talking about making a difference as far as the aesthetics. (The proposed changes) may look fine if you’re driving by, but if you live there, it’s a different story.”

One of Wood’s concerns is using the Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund money to pay for landscape and parking lot improvements. The fund is paid for by capturing taxes from developers on brownfield projects and is used on other eligible Brownfield project improvements. 

“The developers that paid into that ... they didn’t create this mess,” Wood said. “Niowave put this in the neighborhood without consideration of how it would affect the neighbors. I believe it should be the responsibility of Niowave to take care of it.”

Karl Dorshimer, director of economic development at LEAP, said the money could be used on landscaping because the old Walnut Street School property is a brownfield site, which includes contaminated, functionally obsolete or blighted properties. 

“It fits the circumstance,” Dorshimer said. “We can’t do things like modification to the building but we can do things like landscaping, site prep and dirt work.”

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