March 22 2017 02:31 PM

$24.5 million 'family housing' complex gains momentum at School for the Blind

An Indianapolis-based developer plans to convert the long-vacant, century-old "Abigail" (right) and high school (left) buildings on Lansing's former Michigan School for the Blind campus to 60 units of housing for people 55 and older, if the project is approved for federal low-income housing and historic tax credits.The developer also proposes a new 72-unit family-housing complex called Walnut Park for the property.
Courtesy Image

The grand old maids at the heart of the 40-acre former Michigan School for the Blind campus may finally see new development this summer to the tune of $24.5 million.

Since 2000, limited rehab work and selective demolition have nibbled at the fringes of the long-derelict campus on Lansing’s near west side, but the campus’ century-old, hulking centerpieces, the 1916 Abigail building and a 1910 high school, have remained stubbornly vacant.

Elizabeth Whitsett, development director of Indianapolis-based developer TWG, said the 1950s-era auditorium behind the Abigail will be demolished this summer to make room for Walnut Park, a four-story, 72-unit “family housing” complex. It will cost an estimated $12 million.

The project was approved for federal low-income housing tax credits this spring.

More significantly, TWG is awaiting approval in July for similar credits to finance a long-awaited renovation of the Abigail itself into 42 units of housing for people 55 and older. The high school would be converted into 18 units of the same. Together, they will cost an estimated $14.5 million.

TWG has rehabbed about a dozen school buildings, mostly in the Indianapolis area, and turned them into senior or low-income housing.

“The plan is to save them and convert them,” Whitsett said.

“We think the Lansing project could be really great. The campus itself is an amenity.”

But the Abigail, named after School for the Blind co-founder Abigail Rogers, has endured more than its share of heartbreak over the years. With its neoclassical façade and colossal Doric columns, the Abigail stood watch over the campus as its administration building until the school was phased out in the 1990s and is still one of the most significant, and endangered, structures in Lansing.

Eric Schertzing, Ingham County treasurer and director of the county’s Land Bank, which owns the west side of the campus, is cautiously optimistic about he latest announcement, but he is worried that the clock is running out on the building.

“We have lost many beautiful structures in this community, and you can’t save them all,” Schertzing said. “We’ve tried like hell with the Abigail. How much longer is its integrity going to hold together? We’re working with all the parties involved to get the next round of funding approved.”

The long-empty campus enjoyed a piecemeal revival beginning in 2010, when the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition bought a library building on the southeast corner and refurbished it into the Neighborhood Empowerment Center, a home for the Coalition and other nonprofits. That same year, the third early-20th-century building on campus, the 1914 superintendent’s residence, was refurbished into offices.

In 2015, the “cottages,” a ring of 1950sera housing on the west end of campus, were demolished, along with a service building and a maintenance building behind the Abigail, using a state blight removal grant, to make the rest of the property more attractive to developers.

But the improvements did little to bring suitors to the Abigail and the high school, both of which have sat idle since serving briefly as a training center for the state Corrections Department in the mid-1990s.

After the 2008 housing crash, a plan to convert the two buildings to senior housing failed and the buildings went to a creditor, the Great Lakes Capital Fund.

In 2013, the campus’ two chief owners, the Land Bank and Cinnaire (the new name of the Capital Fund) jointly sent out a request for proposal to 90 developers in the Midwest. Only two developers expressed interest.

One of them was Indianapolis-based TWG, a senior housing specialist that has rehabbed dozens of old school buildings, mostly in the Indianapolis area.

“TWG is a bright spot and a tremendous asset in this process,” Schertzing said.

Cinnaire’s vice president, Tom Edmiston, said there was “no way” the financing would have been possible without the credits.

The Walnut project will get $1.087 million in federal tax credits a year for 10 years, for a total of $10.8 million.

Rehab costs are high for century-old hulks like the Abigail, not only because of the repairs needed, but because of the need to remove asbestos and lead-based paint.

“The tax credits give us the ability to get investors to step in as part of the ownership of the development,” Edmiston said. “You look at the rents that can be supported in the area, maybe $500 to $1,000 a month — how much debt can you actually support with that? You just can’t get to the number you need to do the necessary improvements, and that’s why the tax credits have been critical for this.”

The new projects would bring this secluded, sylvan campus into the latest of several phases of service.

The campus was first developed in the 1850s as the Michigan Female College, founded by Abigail and Delia Rogers, with backing from Lansing pioneer and merchant James Turner. (Turner also named his daughter, Abigail, after Rogers.) When state colleges started admitting women in 1869, the Female College was closed. After a brief interlude as an Oddfellows hall, the Lansing campus became the Michigan School for the Blind in 1879, serving students from preschool to their mid-20s. (Its most famous alumnus is music icon Stevie Wonder.)

A blond brick high school went up in 1912, making it the oldest building on the site. Lansing architect Edwin Bowd designed the high school, the 1914 superintendent’s house and a new “Old Main” building, also called the Abigail. Bowd designed dozens of Lansing-area landmarks, from Christ Community Church to the Ottawa Power Station.

“This is a historic investment area for the city of Lansing going back decades,” Schertzing said. “The Land Bank looked at that 10 years ago and knew this was an area to invest heavily in.” The Land Bank owns the western side of the campus and has invested in rehabbing many homes in the immediate area.

“We have put millions and millions into the surrounding neighborhood,” Schertzing said. “This is a perfect area for both of these projects.”

But Schertzing said the housing market faces an uncertain future, especially with interest rates going up. More ominously, he worries that low-income housing tax credits may not stay in favor with the new presidential administration and Congress.

Edmiston said the tax credit program, developed under President Ronald Reagan and made permanent under President Bill Clinton, has bipartisan support. The developers are also applying to get the Abigail and the high school on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that comes with additional tax credits that could help lure investors.

Whitsett said the Abigail/high school project “requires both the low income housing tax credits and the historic tax credits to move forward.” In 2007, an application for federal historic credits for the campus’ “eastern quadrangle” was turned down, on the grounds that the campus as a whole is not intact, but Robert McKay of the State Historical Preservation Office said that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker.

“It doesn’t mean the front portion can’t be listed,” McKay said. “Those front buildings — there’s a reasonable case to be made that there’s still an intelligent story to be told."

That leaves one more “if’ in the mix. Edmiston said that if the Abigail/high school project isn’t approved for federal tax credits or historic designation, the developer can come back to the owners with another proposal or back out of the purchase agreement without penalty.

To Schertzing, that means ”don’t believe until you see it.”

“This site has been victim to some overpromising,” Schertzing said. “Until somebody has pulled the demolition permit, the equipment is actually moved on site, and they’re actually spending money, nothing is happening.”