Dec. 16 2009 12:00 AM

Some movement on the Oliver Towers property as a longtime interested party is allowed to inspect the building

The leader of a faith-based group has been granted permission by the Lansing Housing Commission to inspect the abandoned Oliver Towers building in downtown Lansing.

Justin Sleight, leader of the Capital Area Faith Based Coalition, received a letter from Lansing Housing Commission Executive Director Patricia Baines-Lake at the end of November informing him that he would have a chance to inspect Oliver Towers after the commission announces its intent to sell it.

Sleight has been asking the LHC’s board of commissioners for permission to inspect the building since the beginning of the summer. Commissioners had told him that he could not inspect the building until the Housing Commission’s insurance company gave the OK. Oliver Towers was damaged by fire at the beginning of the decade and has been uninhabited since.

According to Sleight’s letter, the Housing Commission is following federal Housing and Urban Development guidelines for possibly resale of the property.

The commission would have to obtain an assessment of the building, and then it could seek permission from HUD to dispose of Oliver Towers, which could mean rehabbing it or demolishing it in favor of a new development.

Sleight and the Capital Area Faith Based Coalition have been campaigning to turn Oliver Towers into housing for the transitionally homeless since 2007. Sleight said that once he is allowed to inspect the building, he would bring in experts to determine whether the building could be rehabbed. If it is cost prohibitive, he said, the coalition would drop the idea of doing anything with Oliver Towers.

“We want to have experts go in and see how it has to be done to get it (renovated for housing),” Sleight said. “We have to ask, is it really a useful building for our intended purposes?”

Baines-Lake said in October that she was preparing to solicit an appraisal of all properties owned by the commission, which would include Oliver Towers. Baines-Lake did not return a call seeking comment on the letter.

Housing Commission board president Vince Villegas said that the letter sent to Sleight means that he will be allowed to inspect the property once a real estate broker is obtained to market the property. Villegas said he did not know whether an agency had been selected to appraise the LHC’s properties.

“This is one of the stages that we need to work through,” Villegas said. “We also need to have the property appraised. We’ll have those figures submitted to HUD for approval.”

Villegas said that, at this point, Sleight is the only person who has been sent a letter. He said that other parties — whom he would not name but said included developers and nonprofit groups — have expressed interest in the Oliver Towers property but have not formally asked to inspect the building recently, as Sleight has done.

The LHC’s offices are located in the first floor of Oliver Towers. Villegas said that the commission has been having a “conversations” about possible options for the LHC’s offices. The nonprofit arm of the LHC owns several buildings at the School for the Blind, but Villegas said those properties are not being looked at as a possible new office for the commission.

Options that have been discussed, he said, include demolishing Oliver Towers and building a new office on the site, or partnering with a developer to possibly build a mixed-use building on the site that would include low- to moderate-income apartments and some market-rate apartments. Another of HUD’s requirements is that the LHC provide a number of housing units that would be displaced if Oliver Towers is torn down.

“Our desire is certainly to do something with the space we have available with that building,” Villegas said. “We certainly don’t want to keep an empty building here any longer.”

Who owns Oliver Towers is also still an issue. The Lansing City Council has asked the City Attorney’s Office for a formal opinion on whether HUD, the Housing Commission, the city or a combination own Oliver Towers.

Villegas said previously that the commission owned Oliver Towers. However, he now says that a formal opinion on the matter must be made in case the city or another entity has an interest in the property.

At a recent Council Committee of the Whole meeting, Chief Deputy City Attorney Jack Roberts told the Council that the opinion was still being worked on.

City Attorney Brig Smith says that he hopes the opinion will be done before Christmas, at which point it will be given to the Council.

He said the opinion will spell out the history of property, the ownership of property and the disposition of the property,” Smith said. “There are a number of issues as to disposition (of Oliver Towers), not the least of which is HUD’s involvement in it.”