Jan. 15 2010 12:00 AM

Could a vacant and historical Old Town property be in for a new owner?


This story was corrected on January 15, 2010 to identify the  North Lansing Community Association.

The Comfort Station in Lansing’s Old Town is a mere 17 feet wide, but it was the subject of an outsized fight almost a decade ago when the city of Lansing tried to sell it after it had served for decades as the headquarters of a neighborhood association and an unofficial community center.

Now the city is looking at selling it again, and there are indications that once again the North Lansing Community Association is going to put up a fight.

Association President Tom Powers is mum about the association’s plans, citing the advice of legal counsel. But an unsigned statement in the Comfort Station’s file at the Lansing Planning Department says, “The city of Lansing over all these years has not put one dime in the place nor have they had to…NLCA should be compensated if the building is sold.” The association pegged those maintenance expenses at $50,000 or more eight years ago.

The association retained the pro bono services of the Dykema Gossett law firm in the earlier fight to pursue reimbursement. Former President Beverly Miller is pursuing help from the firm again.

The 97-year-old, two-story brick building at 313 E. Grand River Ave. next to seldom-used railroad tracks takes its name from the public restrooms it offered back when Old Town was called North Lansing and was a bustling commercial center and warehouse district.

After years of decline, the area was rebranded Old Town. New organizations were formed — the Old Town Commercial Association and the Old Town Business and Development Association. But the old guard, many of them residents as opposed to businesspeople, largely stuck with the North Lansing Community Association.

The association operated for 22 years out of the Comfort Station, paying $1 a year rent to the city in return for saving the building from demolition and covering its expenses.

The association produced the city’s Fun Festival, and later the Heritage Festival that drew 14,000 people in a weekend at its height. It also helped attract a federal grant to repair the facades of 10 buildings, preserved the Turner-Dodge House and helped establish a historic district designation, said Dick Clark, who was president in the ‘70s. At one point the association sold another building it owned on Grand River to raise money to refurbish the station.

“The building was always in use when we had it,” Powers said.

But in 2001, the city denied the lease renewal due to what it called the association’s internal discord and the building’s disrepair. Angry association members fought their eviction but to no avail.

T-shirts emblazoned with the words “North Lansing Against the World” captured the temper of the time.

The city tried to sell the building then, bound by the proviso that it must go to a community-based group possessing a valid nonprofit classification. No group that applied met the criteria. The building has sat unoccupied and deteriorating since then.

Inquiries from potential buyers last year prompted the city’s Economic Development Corp. to set the process in motion.

Along the way, the building came under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Department, and its sale requires special hoops. The Planning Department has completed its process and removed the requirement that a buyer must be a nonprofit.

The proposal is before the City Council. The Council must approve the sale because it involves park property. Some say the City Charter requires the sale to be on the ballot. EDC President Bob Trezise said the city attorney has determined that is not the case since the Comfort Station is not “dedicated” park property — the difference being that dedicated park property was acquired as a park, versus just being a building the Parks Department administers.

If the Council approves the sale, the EDC will prepare a request for proposals and market the property, appraised a year ago at $130,000.

Trezise is anxious to get moving.

“The city has an awful lot of buildings requiring maintenance and not being used. They’re nothing but a liability to the city,” he said. Moreover, the building “could be an asset for Old Town, an important piece to their economic puzzle.”

In fact, Pablo Maldonado, owner of Pablo’s Panaderia next door, thinks it may have been his inquiries about the building that started this current effort to sell it. He would like to expand his 5-year-old restaurant. He would open an arched doorway between the Panaderia and the Comfort Station. He would remodel the Comfort Station bathrooms and remove the toilets in the restaurant, giving him room to enlarge the present kitchen.

The Comfort Station is not handicap accessible, but Maldonado has a remedy. Entry into his restaurant is accessible. He would build a ramp through the new interior entry to the space next door.

He would use the second floor for private parties or rental to community groups. The second floor overhangs the first floor, creating an 8-foot-long walkway near the railroad track. It would be a natural space for an outside eating deck, he said.

Where would he find the cash to finance the project?

“My community would help me,” he smiled. “First God, then my community,” he said.

Maldonado is Mexican-American. He came to the U. S. 23 years ago and worked in restaurants in New York City for some years before coming here. Now he is surrounded with people that do all kinds of work. They help each other.

But first he or any other potential buyer will have to weather the hurt feelings of the remaining North Lansing Community Association members. Once numbering about 30, just a handful remain, and the group’s ramrod, Thelma Osteen, has died. The building was named after her in 2002, and a bronze plaque hangs near its entry saying as much.

Plaque or not, Trezise takes a different view. The Comfort Station “would be awfully nice in private hands. It would be a real complement to Old Town,” he said.