Nov. 16 2017 11:26 AM

New city hall and downtown hotel, but no jail and courts


The Bernero Administration’s plan for a new City Hall is a complicated land deal that faces a series of obstacles that include a skeptical City Council and undetermined locations for the 54-A District Court and the city’s jail.

Outgoing Mayor Virg Bernero is pushing the City Council to approve a development agreement that would turn the current City Hall into a five-star hotel and relocate city government to the former Lansing State Journal building on Lenawee Street.

The developer, Beitler Real Estate Services, of Chicago, was one of four to submit plans but the only non-local one. Its president, J. Paul Beitler, is an alumnus of Michigan State University. His company’s plan was the only one that called for saving the City Hall plaza.

Under the proposal, which requires a 30-day review period, Beitler would buy the LSJ building from the Eyde Co. Then it would refurbish the LSJ building and sell it to the city for a cost not to exceed $50 million.

The city would then consolidate all city government operations into the new building, including an estimated 800 employees. Departments such as Parks and Recreation and Planning and Neighborhood Development would be under one roof with the current City Hall offices.

The city also looked at the old Lake Trust Building on Capitol, but Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said it chose the LSJ building “because, frankly, we got a better deal on it.” He said both offer flexible floor plans.

Once that move is done, Beitler would take possession of the current City Hall. Under the terms of a 99-year land lease agreement, the firm would pay the city $225,000 a year and property taxes. The payments would cover the costs of bonds to pay off the new city hall, Bernero said Monday.

Bernero wants the City Council to approve the development agreement with Beitler before the end of the year. But such a move would require six Council votes and at least one special meeting.

“I have no intention of calling a special meeting,” said President Patricia Spitzley. The last scheduled meeting is Dec. 11. The development agreement, which was filed on Thursday, must undergo a public hearing. Council would then have to wait seven days before it could approve the plan.

The city charter allows the mayor or two sitting Council members to call a special meeting. Even with that, Spitzley said she is uncertain such a meeting could happen in time because of the holidays.

The incomplete nature of the proposal, specifically the lack of planning for the district court and city jail, could hamper swift approval, said Councilwoman At-Large Carol Wood. She called the issue a key sticking point.

Bernero dismissed concerns that the plans were incomplete, calling the project “essentially a blank canvas” for city officials and the community to shape and craft a useable city hall. He and Schor, who expressed “90 percent” support for the plan, contend that the move of the center of city government to the southern end of downtown could spur some economic development and strengthen a connection with the resurgent REO Town area a few blocks more south.

Connecting the downtown to REO Town, however, faces a major hurdle, Schor said in an interview. The two areas are separated by I496. “It’s hard to span something like that. It can be done, but it will take creativity.”

In a joint press event with Schor on Monday following his cabinet meeting, Bernero said he was eager to see the county sheriff take over the city lockup. Under his vision, the city would pay the county for maintaining a lockup, likely in a location like the Grady Porter/Veteran’s Memorial Courthouse, which already has a small lockup.

The facility already has a jail to temporarily house inmates facing court appearances. The facility would need upgrades and likely an expansion to handle the number of arrestees.

Such a move would shift the dicey legal issues involved with housing those accused of a crime away from the city and onto the county’s shoulders. For Bernero that’s a key proposition in supporting a joint venture.

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said he is not opposed to exploring a joint lockup operation staffed by county deputies. Under such a deal, however, the city would have to cover the costs of any improvements to the current loc- up on Kalamazoo Street and pay for the deputies who would oversee the facility. He said any deal would have to be cost neutral for the county.

The city shoulders all the expenses of running the lockup, which includes staff, insurance and assurance that the lock-up is maintained and secure. Bernero said that the lockup facility has one of the highest employee turnover rates, which adds to the human resources costs.

A heavily redacted space-use assessment report dated June 6, 2016, and provided to the city by DLZ, a local engineering, architectural and construction firm, found significant deficiencies in the current lockup facility. City Pulse obtained the report through a Freedom of Information Act request.

While Bernero is moving to make the city hall relocation and redevelopment a jewel in his achievements after 12 years as mayor, he recognizes there is work to be done to meet the city and county needs.

“No one ever said it is going to be easy,” he said. “If it were easy it would be done. It is just the right thing to do.”