Nov. 5 2008 12:00 AM

A Council-killed plan to let LCC buy a city ramp rears its head again. Is this really about a ramp anymore?


From his house on Seymour Avenue, Bob Morris can see a large, grassy field that up until a few weeks ago was empty.

Then, brightly colored construction markers started popping up.

Morris is disappointed, he says, because it looks like the field will soon be the site of a new Lansing Community College’s parking structure.

“We can hope it isn’t hideous, but (parking structures) tend to be,” Morris said.

The construction would not be moving forward, some say, had the City Council voted to approve the sale of the city-owned North Capitol Avenue ramp. The Council, at its Sept. 25 Committee of the Whole meeting, came to a 4-4 stalemate vote on selling the ramp to LCC.

In the proposed deal, LCC would have bought the North Capitol ramp for $2.7 million from the deficit-troubled city and invested $5.3 million in rehabbing the faade and interior, which includes Gibson’s Bookstore and city offices. The top floor would have included a restaurant for the school’s culinary arts program.

Additionally, the purchase would have freed up the lot where LCC now plans to build a ramp for other, more inviting projects, such as a center for the performing arts, which has been discussed between the school and the city administration.

Some on the Council — the four that voted against, At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood, President Brian Jeffries, Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson and First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt — felt that the $2.7 million sale price was too low, and were angling for LCC make an offer closer to the $3.7 million.

Chris Strugar-Fritsch, executive director of administrative services for LCC, confirmed that the school is proceeding with plans to build its own structure on the land with a tentative summer 2009 groundbreaking date. The site is bordered by Capitol, Seymour, Shiawassee and Genesee streets, near LCC’s new University Center and its rehabbed Carnegie Library.

Mayor Virg Bernero entirely blames the Council for the failed deal. In an interview Friday he said that the nay-voters on the Council acted with “hubris” and were “dealing cavalierly” with one of the city’s best downtown allies.

“It was completely nonsensical and counterproductive,” he said. “You have four City Council members who feel free to second guess the financial decisions of our economic advisers. Kudos to the four who voted for progress, partnership and good common sense.”

However, hinting that this may be about more than a parking ramp, a frustrated Bernero invoked the F-word: Frances Park. He referred to the decision by the same members of the Council earlier this year to disapprove making a state grant application for improvements to the park, which some see as a good metaphor for a Council divided evenly between pro and con-Bernero.

“You look at what happened with Frances Park. And lord knows they tried to kill the City Market deal. The micromanagement by the Council, namely Carol (Wood), is going to cost this city investment and money. (The Council) ought to just vote yes or no,” he said.

Jeffries bristled at the mention of Frances Park.

“I have not seen an issue yet that is based on pure, petty politics. These are substantive differences. Council members have very real concerns,” he said. “The administration should go back, renegotiate and raise the sale price.”

Jeffries said the Council is effectively handcuffed in these matters.

“Look, everyone wants to blame the Council for everything. We can’t negotiate. We don’t have a seat at the table. We need to have a resolution (approving the sale) presented to us by the administration. Again, it was an up or down vote,” he said, noting that the Council was not permitted to amend the resolution to include the price for the ramp some on the Council would have wanted.

Jeffries said that the vote would have played out differently had the Council been able to set parameters for a sale price before the deal came up for vote.

The Council has seen several controversial appraisals before it this year, such as the $1.6 million appraisal of the City Market, which led the Council to question the accuracy of this appraisal.

In the case of the LCC ramp, an independent appraiser gave two appraisals: One for $3.7 million for a tax-exempt buyer (such as LCC) and another for $3 million for a for-profit business. The $2.7 million sale price was negotiated by the school and administration officials based upon LCC’s “break-even” point, which took into consideration the age and maintenance costs of the North Capitol ramp.

Hewitt said Thursday he doesn’t believe the $1 million difference between LCC’s offer and the highest appraisal price was a real deal-breaker because building a new ramp would purportedly cost the college over $40 million. Current estimates, however, show that LCC can build a new ramp the same size as the North Capitol structure for nearly the same amount of money it
would have taken to purchase and rehabilitate the old ramp.

Hewitt also
wasn’t buying the idea that the city would see a revenue drop after a
new ramp opens, which has been predicted by Department of Planning and
Neighborhood Development Director Bob Johnson.

“I’m not
concerned about losing money after LCC builds. The North Grand
expansion ramp has 640 leases; none of those leases are being
transferred to the new ramp
Accident Fund is building — we can transfer those leases to the North
Capitol ramp,” Hewitt said. The North Grand Expansion ramp which will
be demolished as part of the Ottawa Power Station re-do by the Accident

Johnson said that the
city and LCC are both losers in what should have been a winning deal:
The city lost the potential to unload a crumbling, mostly empty parking
structure and the $200,000 annual maintenance cost; LCC lost the
opportunity to quickly resolve its parking problems and will now have
to use land that might have become a performing arts center for the city.

were going to put $5 million into this old parking garage,” Johnson
said. “The neighborhood loses. LCC loses. We all lose in this. It’s
unfortunate that we missed this opportunity.”

The Downtown Neighborhood Association
echoed Johnson’s sentiment.

“I cannot word strongly enough how
disappointed we are with the Council’s decision,” Monica Zuchowski,
president of the association, said. The association represents neighbors who live in the area of where the new LCC ramp will be built.

added that her organization would urge the Council to again take up the
issue of selling LCC the ramp.

With a coalition of support for the
reconsideration of the parking ramp deal still in place,
Strugar-Fritsch said LCC is still open to purchasing the North Capitol

“If the City Council wanted to reconsider our offer and agreed to
sell for $2.7 million, we would absolutely move forward with plans to
buy their ramp. We’d be delighted,” he said.

For his part, Bernero
seems exasperated.

“Some on the Council — Brian and Carol —
see themselves as my co-CEOs. That’s clearly counter to the charter,”
Bernero said. He added that the Council’s involvements in negotiations
are attempts to “erode” the power of the mayor by trying to “trample on
executive prerogative.”

“There’s only one CEO of the city: the mayor,” he added.