Lansing Community College and the city of Lansing sound like two ships passing in the night when it comes to the disposition of Oliver Towers.
Interviews with officials on both sides suggest that opportunities were missed to negotiate a sale of the property to the college.
As a result, Davenport University was able to pull off a coup of sorts when it proposed a trade of its Lansing property for Oliver Towers. The Bernero administration announced the deal Aug. 31.
LCC protested the deal loudly, saying it had been told it would be able to bid on the property after the city issued a request for proposals.
Interviews with city and LCC officials over the last two days revealed different recollections of what transpired since 2008, when voters rejected a millage to construct a new headquarters for the Capital Area District Library and a new home for the Impression 5 Science Center on the land where the shuttered senior citizens home stands. The building has been empty since a 2000 fire except for the first floor, which the Lansing Housing Commission occupies.
“There was general conversation that now that (the millage) failed, are you guys interested?” recalled Bob Johnson, director of the city’s Planning and Neighborhood Development Office. “Nope, no interest. … Engaging LCC is something I personally did on a regular basis.”
Patricia Baines-Lake, executive director of the Lansing Housing Commission, recalled a conversation last year with Webb Sharpe and Chris Strugar-Fritsch, LCC’s executive director of administrative services, about the Oliver Towers property.
“They did not express any interest in taking over the property or purchasing the property,” said Baines-Lake.
All parties and others agree that the city’s intent was to offer a request for proposals for the property. Randy Hannan, special assistant to Mayor Virg Bernero, said Davenport’s proposed swap was a “game changer.”
LCC Vice President Lisa Webb Sharpe said Monday in an interview that she was “taken by surprise” to find out about the land swap deal announced Aug. 31. She said she was informed of it the day before, which was after some media organizations learned of it on an embargoed basis. She said LCC was still under the assumption that the city would issue a public request for proposals for the property.
“We had no reason to distrust that they were not going to go down that path they repeatedly told us they were going to go down, so we trusted that an RFP was coming,” said Sharpe, LCC’s senior vice president for finance administration and advancement. “We were taken by surprise that we were not even given the courtesy of a phone call to say, ‘We’ve changed our mind;’ ‘We’re not going forward;’ ‘LCC, you have a new neighbor;’ or ‘We started down this path but we’re not going there anymore.”
Johnson said his conversation was with Strugar-Fritsch, who said Monday: “I don’t have any recollection of talking to the city about acquiring the Oliver Towers site,” referring specifically to the same time frame as Johnson.
When Davenport came to the city this spring about exploring downtown properties to acquire, Johnson said Oliver Towers was a natural fit.
“We were thinking about the proximity to LCC and LCC has not expressed an interest in this piece of property and not a word has been said (about acquiring it). We’ve even asked LCC if they’re interested in the property and they respectfully declined and it was a green light,” Johnson said.
Webb Sharpe said LCC did want the property but “ideally .... without the building on it.” She suggested to Baines-Lake in August 2010 that the Housing Commission pursue federal funding to clean it up. However, “I always keep my options open,” and obtaining the land wasn’t contingent upon demolishing Oliver Towers, Webb Sharpe said Monday, adding that this was an expression of interest in the property.
Baines-Lake didn’t see it as such, and is now surprised by LCC’s reaction to the Davenport proposal: “I was surprised that they’re expressing interest after clearly not expressing interest in the past.”
On Tuesday, Ellen E. Jones, LCC’s director of public affairs, reiterated by e-mail that Stugar-Fritsch did not recall the post-2008 millage election conversation with Johnson and added:
“It is puzzling to us that Bob would be unaware of LCC’s interest in the property, since it was discussed at regular quarterly meetings between the city and LCC in April and June of this year. In fact, Bob assured us during the April meeting that an RFP would be issued by the end of April. At the June meeting, Bob said the RFP would be out within a few weeks. He also discussed this with Lisa Webb-Sharpe in the Mayor’s office in January, when she shared details of her conversation with Pat Baines-Lake including her suggestion to Ms. Baines-Lake that she pursue demolition/disposition funds from HUD, and possibly request assistance from our congressional delegation to accomplish this.”
Concerning Webb Sharpe’s conversation with Haines-Lake, she wrote:
“Last September, Pat Baines-Lake, Lisa Webb Sharpe and Chris Strugar-Fritsch met to discuss the Oliver Towers property. Lisa informed Pat that ideally LCC could get the property without the building and suggested Ms. Baines-Lake pursue demolition/disposition funds from HUD. Ms. Baines-Lake provided Lisa and Chris with the Hazardous Materials survey for the property along with the warranty deed. During the same meeting, the three also discussed possible office space for Ms. Baines-Lake on LCC’s campus. This clearly shows that LCC was interested (and continues to be interested) in pursuing the purchase of the property.”
Under a proposed development agreement between the city and Davenport University, the city would trade 3.01 acres worth $2.26 million on the block surrounded by Seymour and Capitol avenues and Shiawassee and Ionia streets downtown for Davenport’s campus at the corner of Kalamazoo and Cherry streets, 2.73 acres worth nearly $2.34 million. The city’s property includes a parking lot on the corner of Shiawassee and Capitol that LCC leases for $175,000 a year.
Davenport says it will build a 60,000- square-foot building on the Oliver Towers block, along with 250 parking spaces to be used only by Davenport, “its staff, faculty, students, and business invitees.” The proposed agreement stipulates Oliver Towers be demolished no later than June 2012.
Strugar-Fritsch and Webb Sharpe are still asking the city for a public RFP process so LCC can have a chance to offer cash for the property downtown. Short-term plans for the site include surface parking, Webb Sharpe said, but long-term plans are not conclusive.
Johnson said he is “perplexed” about why LCC would even want an RFP instead of outright asking for the property.
“I’m perplexed, that’s all. … I think if they were as interested as they are now, they would have been highly opposed to an RFP,” Johnson said.
Webb Sharpe said an RFP process was expected: “Frankly, the fact that they wanted to come out with an RFP said they wanted some kind of public process. We just trusted them.”
As for Davenport potentially moving in across the street from LCC’s new University Center: “I have heard some concern about an institution that is going to come and compete with an investment the state has made and we have made in our University Center without our even having an opportunity to say anything about that,” Webb Sharpe said.
Davenport officials were contacted for a response to that claim, but Davenport spokesman Rick Jensen replied in an e-mail: “Unfortunately, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time.”
Webb Sharpe said LCC is still interested in being part of the process. The proposed development agreement needs approval from at least six Lansing City Council members, based on City Charter rules for disposing of city property. At least one, Brian Jeffries, said he supports opening up the property to an RFP process.
Johnson, of the city’s Planning and Neighborhood Development Office, said if LCC was ever interested in the Oliver Towers property, officials should have come forward. Instead, Davenport came to the table with an offer first.
“We’re gonna actively pursue this thing,” Johnson recalls about the time between 2008 and Davenport coming forward earlier this year. “Then someone comes knocking on our doors and it’s a very real someone. I hold (Davenport) in the same light and capable of follow-through as LCC — they set their sights on something and get it done. We would have treated LCC the same doggone way.”