June 14 2018 09:16 AM

City reopens bidding for historic home

The historic Cooley-Haze House is looking for a new lease on life, but the city of Lansing is having a difficult time finding a new owner.

A request for proposals to purchase the building expired April 26 without a single submission.The new process ends at 2 p.m. Aug. 22. The Colonial Revival house sits between Cooley Gardens and the new Central Substation that the Lansing Board of Water & Light is building on the southwest corner of Washington Avenue and Malcolm X Street along I-496.

City parks director Brett Kaschinske, whose department maintains the house, said the city is working to get the word out about the availability of the property.

“Mayor Schor has sent letters to Preservation Lansing, Historical Society of Greater Lansing, State Historic Preservation Office and Michigan Historic Preservation Network letting them know the steps we have taken so far and our need for help getting this information to their members,” Kaschinske said be email Monday. “There will also be a longer timeline for receiving proposals.”

The longer timeline, he said, was responding to concerns he heard from some who had expressed interest but did not submit proposals for the property.

“Of the ones I knew and called back it was not having enough time to put together a proposal and fully investigate the costs associated with renovations,” he said.

The Cooley-Haze House is on a different path than its former neighbor, the Scott House. Built in 1918, the Scott House was also owned by the city, but it was torn down last year to make room for the Central Substation.

That leaves the 115-year-old Cooley-Haze House nestled between the deed-restricted Cooley Gardens to the west and south, Scott Park to the east and Malcolm X Street (formerly known as Main Street) to the north.

When Eugene Cooley ordered the construction of the three-story home, the city was booming. The home was for his son, Frank, and sat among rows of palatial estates on Main Street in a neighborhood that was home to the city’s wealthiest and most elite addresses. Dr. Harry Haze was a later owner. Its most famous tenant was Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams, who rented the five-bedroom home for $285 a month in 1950.

Cooley-Haze has survived because the city of Lansing acquired it in 1978 after it had served as headquarters for the Michigan Baptist Convention for 22 years. The Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame leased it from the city from 1980 till last year, when it moved to Meridian Mall.

With the approval of city voters last year, the city is moving forward with plans to sell the home and the postage stamp-sized lot on which it stands.

“Very selfishly, I’d love to see it be a dining or event space, for my own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of the community,” said Veronica Gracia-Wing, who chairs the Parks Board. “I love the concept of the Whitney in Detroit, and think that model would suit the space and community well.”

The Whitney mansion, on Woodward Avenue, is the former home of lumber baron David Whitney Jr. that has been turned into a restaurant. It’s also about four times the size of the Cooley-Haze House, which is 4,188 square feet.

And costs are going to be an issue for this property, experts noted. Bill Castanier, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, said his group went over the property with a fine tooth comb about three years ago. They’d been asked by former Mayor Virg Bernero to investigate purchasing the property to turn it into a museum celebrating Lansing history.

“It was cost prohibitive,” he said. “We estimated, on the low end, $300,000 and on the higher end $500,000 to renovate it. Ultimately, the cost, plus the fact the property was simply not appropriate for a museum in terms of its layout, made us pass on it.”

He said among the many issues the historical society identified were the lead paint abatement on the outside of the house, replacing or renovating the lead glass windows, replacing doors, fixing part or all of the roof and making the facility accessible for those with mobility issues. He also expressed concern about parking and the location.

“It’s a really rotten location for a business to locate on,” he said, noting it sits on a one-way street among a sea of one-way streets in downtown Lansing which in turn would require extra navigation for folks unfamiliar with the location to find it.

Kaschinske said some of the parking concerns would be alleviated when the Scott Park and Central Substation projects are completed next year. The park will have “plenty of parking” for use by any business or homeowner that might take over the 1903 building, Another catch on the sale of the property?

Any new owner will be restricted by a deed for 30 years to maintain the historic outside of the building.

Brent Forsberg, a local developer, said he and his team also reviewed the property, but ultimately passed on it. He said he is too busy juggling other development projects including one a block away at the site of the former Deluxe Inn, on the southeast corner of Washington anMalcolm X.

“A spitball we determined on costs was about $300,000,” he said. He looked at it as a possible wedding and party venue connected with and working in partnership with the Cooley Gardens to the south and east of the house.

Ultimately, both Castanier and Forsberg said the city may have to tap the brakes on the project and host community gatherings to help imagine what the future of the house could be.

“I think this is going to take and require the city putting out ideas about what sorts of creative and transformative things can happen on that property,” said Castanier. “That could spur more interest.”