Back in the day, the Genesee Street School brought the neighborhood together.
“All the kids lived in the neighborhood,” said David Brower, 71, who attended the school from 1952 to 1957. “We lived so close, we’d go home for lunch.”
Brower remembers the community culture more than his academic tutelage. Kids played kickball and baseball on an old backstop. A neighborhood store thrived across the street, and children would turn in pop bottles for deposit and leave with candy. “I have a lot of good memories of that school.”
The Genesee Street School may never be the vibrant heart of the neighborhood again, but the structure has a new lease on life. By this time next year, the classrooms should be filling up with as many as three dozen small studio and loft apartments.
The neighborhood declined in the 1970s as middle-class families moved out for newer homes in the suburbs, and the old houses were subdivided into duplexes. Then the school closed in 1984 and in recent years, the old school has become more of an eyesore, an attractive target for teenagers to lob rocks.
Developer Mike Markey shared plans for units as small as 280 square feet for tidy efficiency living to as large as 754 square feet for a spacious loft on the top floor.
The 1912 school building is listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. The listing helps preserve the old school as one of the last remaining examples from prominent local architect Edwyn A. Boyd, who designed many of Lansing’s public buildings between 1890 and 1940.
The Genesee Street School has been mostly underutilized since by a series of nonprofits, and much of the interior has been allowed to crumble. Thieves ripped out the boiler to cash it in for scrap metal. City code violations and vandalism had increased on the property in the past few years, causing a hue and cry from the neighborhood a year ago for a change to the Genesee neighborhood centerpiece.
Council President Carol Wood, who lives in the neighborhood, warned that the city could order the building be torn down if its owners, New World Flood, headed by former star MSU Spartan football player T.J. Duckett, did not improve the situation. But his nonprofit owed $15,000 in back taxes and had little other funding to do anything, let alone overhaul the structure.
New World Flood sold it to a new investment group, Genesee LLC in March, and Markey, one of Genesee’s investors, has laid out an ambitious timeline to have apartments ready to lease by June 2020.
“The city of Lansing has not done a good job of repurposing old buildings,” Markey said.
The City Council gave approval to change the zoning to multi-family residential in August, but work has not yet begun. The building needs extensive roof work as well as the replacement of a number of windows. Markey wants to restore as many of those as he can to their original condition and reopen the delightful old stairway at the center of the building facing Genesee Street.
Additionally, about $15,000 will be put into each apartment so that each has a bathroom, kitchenette and heating unit, totaling more than $500,000.
Despite the renovations, Markey said you could not build 36 apartments from the ground up for the price of the repairs. “Good solid housing stock is hard to come by anymore,” he said.
A lot of state workers park their cars on the streets surrounding the school, and Markey expected it would be an attractive distance for people who want to walk downtown for work or entertainment. The rehabbed classrooms could also be attractive for Baby Boomers wishing to downsize and live simply in their golden years.
Markey said the noncomforming 1950s gymnasium hitched unattractively to the east side of the historic structure will be reopened and donated as a recreational facility for the community. “We thought it was a good gesture. They had been using it for years,” he said.
The blacktop on the south side of the building will be given a top or seal coat to fill in the cracks and weeds poking up. A small apple orchard out back along with two acres of greenspace will be given over to the community, and the playground behind the building will be cleaned-up and remain for neighborhood children.
Markey and Brower had similar paths in childhood. Markey attended Pleasant Grove school through third grade before moving to Okemos.
Brower worked his way upstairs as he proceeded through his education, with kindergarten at the garden level, and fifth and sixth grade on the top floor. His family left for Okemos when he was in fifth grade.
His father made good wages at Oldsmobile and wanted a bigger house that would allow for more children — Brower’s two younger brothers. “It was pretty traumatic when we moved. We moved out in the boonies,” Brower said.
Brower said it was wonderful that building was being repurposed, and if the price is right, some seniors might like the neighborhood living not far from downtown. “I think we’ve lost too many of our old buildings,” he said.
He worried, though, that bus service on the west side wasn’t great and the building is far from a grocery. He also prefers to have more space for guests than these small apartments would provide, and nostalgia alone wouldn’t be enough to take him back to the old neighborhood.
“Maybe that would reinvigorate the area. Maybe there’s seniors who want simple, lower-cost living,” Brower said. “It’s not what I would want.”