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Wednesday, August 21,2013

Taking a bite out of blight

North Washington Avenue building to be renovated into mixed use as Old Town creeps outward

by Lawrence Cosentino
Mayor Virg Bernero (left) and Sam Saboury announce a new $3 million redevelopment project in Old Town. Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse.

Wednesday, Aug. 21 — Slowly but surely, Old Town is engulfing its environs like a giant amoeba with seven hair salons. By this time next year, another chunk of neighboring blight will get the now-familiar mixed-use rehab treatment.


The former Heeb Building property, at 1113-1119 N. Washington Ave., empty since the mid-1990s, will be turned into 24 units of low-income housing, with retail and office space on the first floor, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and property owner Sam Saboury announced today.


The $3 million project is slated to break ground in four to six weeks and be completed by next summer.


The project is a partnership among several private and public parties, including Saboury, the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition, Dart Bank, the state of Michigan and the city of Lansing.


When it’s done, the newly christened Saboury Building will crown a recent surge in rehabbed buildings on Old Town’s southwestern fringe.


“We’re going back to our roots,” city planning director Bob Johnson said. “In the 1800s, Old Town was a center of commerce.”


From the mid-1990s, a small village of ghost structures surrounded the area’s most famous landmark, Elderly Instruments. But in the past two years, the area has gotten a big spillover from Old Town renovation and business activity.


Earlier this year, a vacant building across the street from the Heeb, 1122 N. Washington, was rehabbed and occupied by Head Room Salon. The Walker Building, a century-old hulk on the southwest corner of Washington Avenue and Turner Street, was converted into office and housing units two years ago.


The Heeb Building property will be the last large parcel on that stretch of North Washington to be renovated. “This is the piece that was missing,” Saboury said.


Bernero and Johnson both said Old Town is expanding southward, creating a potential link to downtown.


“Old Town is beyond the immediate area of Turner,” Bernero said.


The success of the Walker Building, a similar public-private partnership on a similar structure, convinced Saboury that this project was viable. The Walker Building’s five housing units and commercial spaces are full.


“Removing blight has a synergistic effect on the surrounding area,” Bernero said. “It creates a new feeling of energy and security. Looks and aesthetics matter.”


But Bernero acknowledged that it usually costs more to rehab an old building than to build a new one. “That’s why we offer brownfield incentives to people who are willing to invest their own capital and assume the risks of the investment,” he said. “It helps to level the playing field for blighted properties compared to new builds.”


There is no date on the building, but Saboury said it dates from about 1910.


There are two buildings on the site now. Architect Kim deStigter said the southernmost building, the Heeb, will be renovated and expanded. An addition to the north will rise to four stories, an anomaly in Old Town, to accommodate the 24 housing units. The smaller of the two existing buildings will be razed to make room for the addition.


DeStigter said the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, or MSHDA, required 24 housing units to fund the project. The only way to fit them all on the site, he said, was to build up to four stories.


Before starting work on the design, DeStigter walked around Old Town to see “what it likes.” He decided to set the Saboury project’s fourth story back from street level and paint it in a darker color, to harmonize it with Old Town’s predominant three-story buildings.


“The brighter colors pull out, so you have the perception of scale that’s similar to what Old Town has now,” he said.


DeStigter’s plans call for a community room, a roof deck and garden on the fourth floor, but some details may not survive nitty-gritty cost analysis.


“The brick face is a challenge because it’s pretty much not supported and falling down,” he said. One of his first phone calls, he said, will be to a structural engineer.


Katherine Draper, director of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition, said the financing package was “almost finished.” A bundle of state, city and private money will bankroll the $3 million project, with details to be announced soon.


Draper said the key piece in the puzzle was a deal with the city. The Lansing Brownfield Redevelopment Authority will pay for environmental assessment on the site, which once contained a dry cleaning shop. For the next seven years, the brownfield authority will kick back about $300,000 in property taxes the development generates to reimburse him for the cleanup. After seven years, the development will pay a full property tax rate. The brownfield credits require City Council approval. The Council is expected to take up the matter at its regular meeting Monday night.

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