City Hall: 'Ugly, utilitarian'

After reading the recent article “Red flag sale” (City Pulse, Aug. 2), I think it is important for readers to get a different perspective on the potential sale and redevelopment of Lansing City Hall.

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, facts still matter and the fact is that City Hall is well past its prime. Lansing taxpayers are forced to throw good money after bad to maintain the building, which is failing in almost every meaningful respect. The roof and windows leak, the HVAC system is ancient and abominable, the structure fails to meet modern standards for fire safety and ADA accessibility, and the list goes on.

Could it be fixed? Certainly. But after an exhaustive technical review by some of the top experts in the field, the projected cost of bringing the building up to modern standards could be as high as $60 million. This figure does not include the cost of relocating city government operations to a different facility during a multi-year renovation process, which would add millions of dollars to the project. More than a dozen years ago, former Lansing mayor David Hollister also considered renovation to be a prohibitively expensive option. The building has not aged well since that time.

Nonetheless, some of the proposals we receive from prospective developers may in fact be based on saving, rather than demolishing, the existing City Hall. Rest assured we will give all proposals the same fair and thorough consideration.

The land upon which City Hall sits is perhaps the most strategically important parcel in downtown Lansing. Valued at more than $4 million according to a recent appraisal, this key corner in the heart of the capital city’s government district could be repurposed for a development project that would have a transformational impact on our city, perhaps as a much-needed new hotel, or a mixed-use complex that could include ground floor retail, commercial office space, residential dwellings and a restaurant on the top floor with panoramic views of the State Capitol Building.

And, despite the ridiculous assertion by Preservation Lansing that the current location of City Hall is the best location, city government’s customers would beg to differ. Parking near the building is nearly impossible and sometimes results in the indignity of receiving a parking ticket when a person comes to 54-A District Court to pay…a parking ticket.

Weighed against potential alternatives, including the Lake Trust building on the southern edge of downtown, where an entire city block is ripe for new development, there are vastly superior locations for a new City Hall, which could involve refurbishing an existing structure at a much lower cost than saving the current City Hall. A new City Hall, whether built from the ground up or a rehab, would also serve as a synergistic spark for new development in its immediate vicinity, just as the Board of Water and Light’s new REO Town Headquarters and Co-generation Plant has had a dramatic impact on the revitalization of REO Town.

As for the argument set forth by an MSU professor that City Hall is a classic, historically significant example of Mid Century Modern architecture, let me say this about that: In the same way that a geologist finds an ordinary rock to be an object of beauty and fascination, art historians are prone to find deep meaning and value in a period of architecture that produced any number of ugly, utilitarian structures, including Lansing City Hall.

Concerning the process that has been underway for several years, and which I have publicly discussed on countless occasions, I can assure Lansing residents that we are engaging in a thoroughly professional process of evaluation, consideration and decision making that I hope will result in securing both a new home for city government that will stand the test of time for the next fifty years, and create tremendous economic activity, new jobs both during and after construction, and new tax revenues to support vital municipal services like police and fire protection.

I could easily leave office at the end of this year having done nothing to advance this project. It is always an easier path to maintain the status quo. But I wasn’t elected a dozen years ago to be the city’s chief maintainer. I was elected to bring vision and drive positive change in the city I love, and that’s what I will continue to do with every ounce of my energy until my last day in office. For that, I apologize to no one.

(Virg Bernero is the mayor of Lansing.)