Sept. 23 2009 12:00 AM

A local group’s inquiry to inspect Oliver Towers prompts news questions about the former senior living facility


Before the start of last week’s Lansing Housing Commission board meeting, Justin Sleight, the spearhead of a group of churches that wants to buy Oliver Towers and turn it into low income housing, was engaged in a somewhat strained conversation with board President Vince Villegas.

“All you do is stall,” Sleight, of the Capital Area Faith Based Coalition, whispered harshly to Villegas.

“None of the commission has a desire to see a vacant building downtown,” Villegas responded. “It is something that we’re working towards.”

The two were talking about a recent request made by Sleight and his group, including the Lansing chapter of Michigan People’s Action, a homeless advocacy group, to be allowed to enter Oliver Towers to inspect the entire building. The private groups want to see what condition the building is in so they can determine how much the building might be worth, and the cost of renovations.

Oliver Towers has been vacant since a fire in 2000. Since 2007, Sleight and his group have been pushing a plan to buy Oliver Towers — offering as much as $3 million for the property — to turn it into housing for the homeless.

Villegas says that the board did not receive Sleight’s group’s “formal” request until Aug. 31, though the group had been asking before that. At issue now, Villegas said, is whether the housing commission’s insurance policy would allow a private group to go in and inspect the building.

“We need to make sure we’re not violating the insurance policy,” Villegas said.

By city ordinance, the commission is supposed to keep it on file with the city clerk. However the clerk’s office, during a recent check, did not have the policy. The insurance policy on hand at the commission’s main office on Seymour Street expired Sept. 1.

Commission attorney Alan Wallace said that he does not know for a fact that there’s an insurance policy in place and is waiting on a certified copy of a current policy before making a determination on whether Sleight’s group can enter Oliver Towers. Villegas, however, confirmed that the commission had renewed its policy for three years and that there was no lapse in insurance. The commission’s insurer, Housing Authority Insurance Group, would not comment.

At its meeting Tuesday, the board would not commit to a timeline on a verdict for Sleight. The board is deferring to Wallace to inspect the insurance policy and make a determination. At last check, Wallace had not heard “definitively” from HOIG.

Sleight says that if he is allowed to inspect Oliver Towers, he has a group of specialists, including an electrician and an engineer, ready to give their expertise. Sleight has been inside Oliver Towers twice before with the permission of Chris Stuchell, the commission executive director who resigned in May. On one occasion, Sleight traveled to the upper floors of the building, but on another occasion was only allowed on the first floor, where most of the fire damage occurred.

“We’ve lined up enough expertise to evaluate the building,” Sleight said. “We went through it two years ago and could find nothing wrong structurally with the building.”

Mike Evans, head of the Lansing chapter of Michigan People’s Action, said that the group wants to create a “pro forma” — basically a plan for what could be done with Oliver Towers.

“Certainly we want to turn it into housing — permanent affordable housing,” Evans said. “I don’t think every unit should be turned over to the homeless. It could be a mix of seniors, (Lansing Community College) students and homeless people.”

However, the saga of Oliver Towers is more complicated than an inspection. The building occupies valuable land in downtown Lansing, and both past and present mayors have wished to develop it. In 2008, a millage failed that would have funded a new Capital Area District Library/Impression 5 Science Center on the site.

The owner of Oliver Tower — whether the city or the commission — was once in question, but the parties agree that the commission owns it. However Louis Berra, the Grand Rapids field office director of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, says HUD would have a say in what happens to it.

HUD has what is called a “deed of trust” on Oliver Towers, which means that before the building could be sold or demolished, the federal agency must approve. Included in the approval is the plan for the site and a recent (within 90 days) appraisal of the property.

“The city has taken the position that it thinks it can get (Oliver Towers) for $1. HUD’s position is that you would have to pay fair market value,” Berra said.

At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries, who served on the commission’s board between 1993 and 2002, said that the commission at one time appraised the property and recalled its being valued at $2 million to $3 million. According to HUD documents, the agency approved disposition of the property in 2001, which means that it was approved to be sold at that time. Jeffries said that, at the time, the commission had determined that senior living was the best use for the property, but that new senior living developments in the area that offered more amenities made Oliver Towers almost obsolete in that field.

Also at last Tuesday’s commission meeting, Patricia Baines-Lake was hired as executive director to replace Stuchell. Villegas said one of her main orders of business would be to find the commission a new main office, which is located in a building attached to Oliver Towers. Baines-Lake, when asked, said she was not familiar with the Oliver Towers situation outside of what had been in local newspapers.

At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood was at a Michigan People’s Action meeting last week, where she suggested to Sleight and others to contact Mayor Virg Bernero, who Mike Evans said told the group at a July candidate forum that he would try to allow an inspection of Oliver Towers. Bernero appoints the commission board, which also includes Vice President Mary Welch, Gina Nelson and Tony Baltimore. The board is advisory.

At Monday’s Lansing City Council meeting, Fourth Ward Councilman Tim Kaltenbach said that he would soon introduce a resolution to urge the commission to turn Oliver Towers into a place for the homeless, even though he’s against such a move, because Sleight and his group have been advocating for it for so long.

“Let’s put the votes on the table,” he said.