June 27 2012 12:00 AM

Landscaping, historical architecture — and when one trumps the other: Inside the mind of LCC President Brent Knight


Brent Knight owns 20 pairs of historic cuff links. He’s restored a 1955 Thunderbird, a 1946 Lincoln and a 1946 Ford. He’s subscribed to the publication Michigan History for 30 years, and several copies are in his office next to issues of V8 Times, a magazine devoted to Ford enthusiasts. A hand-sewn American, 45-star flag from 1896 to 1908 hangs on his office wall. He’s moving into the Herrmann house, built in 1893, on Lansing Community College’s campus after it’s renovated in September. At his last college presidency job in Illinois, he orchestrated several passive-learning classrooms (think Civil War history painted on the walls of an algebra classroom) and a museum.

Anyone who says this LCC president doesn’t give a damn about history is inaccurate at best. 

But don’t the aforementioned characteristics contradict Knight’s latest plan to acquire three houses — built in 1888, 1898 and 1902 — across the street from his North Capitol Avenue office and get rid of them to build a park-like entrance? On the surface, don’t his latest actions conflict with his historical values?

Five weeks ago, LCC bought three parcels zoned professional office district at Capitol and Saginaw Street for $400,000. The college initially planned to demolish the three homes at 617 N. Capitol and 205 and 211 W. Saginaw St. to make way for a “park-like” entrance. After an outcry from the preservation community that demolition would be irresponsible, the college instead agreed to sell them to interested buyers to be relocated — some think as a public relations move with no real expectation anyone will do so. The homes’ exteriors may no longer shout “historic,” but the insides and back-stories do. The Capitol home, built in 1888, has lost most of its Victorian look over the years; 205 W. Saginaw was built in 1902 on Townsend Street in the neo-classical style for  F.N. Arbaugh, of local department store fame. It was moved to its present location in 1949 to make room for I-496. The home at 211 W. Saginaw was built in 1898 and is divided into six apartments.

Yet if a “serious buyer” doesn’t emerge by August 2, it will proceed with its initial demolition plans. Knight said he was interested in the properties because they are adjacent to the campus’ “core,” which is bounded by Capitol, Saginaw, Grand Avenue and Shiawassee Street. He’s “dreamed” of buying them up, but followed through recently because they were offered as a package.

For the 65-year-old Knight, none of the three pass historical muster. He points to the “mansion” next door to 617 N. Capitol, the Hermann House across the street and the Rogers Carrier House nearby as legitimate historical buildings. Simply put, in Knight’s opinion, the houses at Capitol and Saginaw aren’t worth preserving and LCC would have no practical use for them if they were. It’s not clear how much LCC is going to spend on the entrance project, as a design hasn’t been selected. But eight proposals from different landscape architects sit on Knight’s desk.

“Just a different opinion,” Knight said Thursday at the end of a nearly two-hour interview, when asked if the demolition plans contradict his sense of history. “Not every old structure in greater Lansing is of historical or architectural significance — not every one of them. And I would be assertive of that.”

Knight prefaced our interview by noting that he has served as chairman of the board for Fredrick Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, lending to his horticultural credence. For Knight, the ultimate goal is improving the Saginaw corridor. He had fears that the parcels would become commercialized in the ugliest of ways, since the former owner was looking to sell. He says the properties could have been turned into a liquor store under a “worse case scenario” if bought by someone else.  But he’s wrong:  The city’s zoning maps show they’re zoned professional office district disallowing such development.

Knight assured us he has “no interest” in turning any portion of the property into a parking lot. He was responding to understandable fears voiced at public LCC board meetings: The school demolished a block of houses on Saginaw starting last year for a surface lot (albeit an environmentally advanced one); it has turned green space on Capitol into another one.  “I’m against it,” he said of yet another lot where the trio of houses stand.

When it was initially pitched to the trustees, Knight said he held to the idea about saving the corridor with a park-like entrance. The board approved the purchase at its March 19 meeting, 4-2. Trustees Deborah Canja and Robert Proctor voted against the resolution. Proctor could not recall in an interview why he voted against acquiring the properties in March. Canja declined to be interviewed and referred questions to Chairman Larry Meyer. Meyer also declined to be interviewed and referred questions to the administration. 

But at the board’s June 18 meeting, the body voted unanimously to sell the properties for relocation.

Trustee Thomas Rasmusson has a perhaps more conflicted position than Knight’s. Rasmusson co-authored a book in 1983 called “Barnes’ Castle 1877-1957.” The Barnes mansion, built in 1878 on four acres near Malcolm X Street and Washington Avenue, “was one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the Midwest,” the state Department of Natural Resource’s website says. It was torn down in the mid-1950s because the costs to renovate it were too high. A plan surfaced in 1948 to use it as the governor’s mansion, but it never came to fruition. Rasmusson summarized his book as “how shameful it was for the city to tear down the Barnes mansion. It’s a shame.”

But how can you defend the preservation of one home but not another? After all, the Barnes mansion was only 10 years older than 617 N. Capitol.

“Every classic example should be saved, but we can’t save everything.” Rasmusson said. He turns philosophical. “All great policies are paradoxes, contradictions. Take freedom: If I’m really free, I’m free to beat you up. All good policies are a balancing act.”

Not on board

Under Knight’s plan, those living and working in the houses are being forced to move. After a walk around LCC’s campus with Knight, I’m flagged down by Willy Williams from his third floor balcony at 211 W. Saginaw. Williams is a familiar face at City Council meetings, notably for his public candidate picks during election season. He also teaches chess to Lansing area youths.

“That is a picture,” he said, pointing south where you can clearly see the Capitol building, Boji Tower and St. Mary Cathedral. “That’s what I’m getting ripped off of. That’s why I haven’t moved for 11 years.” When asked if he has any places to move, Williams says he has “a few in mind.”

Michael Faraone, whose law offices are in 617 N. Capitol, criticized LCC’s plans at the June 18 Board of Trustees meeting.

“You say you’re doing a favor for neighbors, but you haven’t produced one neighbor” who supports the plan, he said. When LCC demolished the homes to build a parking lot at the northwest corner of Saginaw and Capitol — across the street from the three houses — Faraone said, “I don’t believe you added anything to downtown.”

Nathalie Winans, of the local group Preservation Lansing and chairwoman of the city’s Historic District Commission, said LCC’s plan would have larger implications than simply losing a few old houses. “If they are removed, the integrity of the block will be compromised, stripping the remaining houses of their historical context and making them more vulnerable to disinvestment.” 

Knight disagrees, and argues that LCC’s landscaping efforts increase surrounding property values. But at the end of the day, Knight and Preservation Lansing just fundamentally disagree on whether the houses are actually historic.

What is historic? Who says?

“What we’re really talking about is establishing the criteria for what is historically worthy,” Knight said. “That’s a worthy debate. What is of historic importance? It’s kind of a community issue. Everyone can voice their perspective, but not all properties are historic.” The three houses “did not rise to that level in my opinion, but I respect the opinion of others,” he added.

The Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, a division of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority established in the late 1960s, helps local communities identify and designate historical structures or districts. It also oversees grants and tax incentives for rehabilitation of such properties or districts.

The Office’s website says historical value can be “achieved either through association with significant historical events; through association with the lives of persons significant in our past; by embodying a particular style, type of method of construction; by possessing high artistic values; or by yielding, or being likely to yield, information important to history or prehistory.” While historical structures or districts are typically at least 50 years old, they don’t have to be.

Winans — in her comments before the LCC board — noted that Bob Christensen, a coordinator with the State Historic Preservation Office, thinks 205 W. Saginaw and 617 N. Capitol would likely qualify for historic designation “because of their distinctive features, finishes, and history.” While 211 W. Saginaw has “fewer intact historical features,” she added, it still contributes to the “visual cohesiveness of the block” and provides affordable housing downtown.

“One of the constant arguments in preservation is whether you do it or not,” said Valerie Marvin, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. “What kind of disappoints me is: I know they want to have a dramatic entrance, but LCC in the past has preserved historical buildings and redeveloped them as office spaces — kept them more in that context. Unfortunately, that’s not something we see here.” 

As for repurposing the properties, suggestions from the public include using them for office space; student apartments; a museum; guest housing for LCC guests; or part of a restoration partnership with the Ingham County Land Bank. Knight shot the ideas down one by one. He said office space doesn’t typically work for residential buildings and repurposing them as such would damage the architectural value; the college is not interested in getting in the business of housing students; and a museum would be a huge expense that wouldn’t recoup costs.

Marvin said the idea of restoring such properties as a labor of love is, unfortunately, lost on the community.

“As a community, if we’re going to care for houses like these and care for other properties in the future, we need people who want to live in these homes and be part of the community and be in the heart of Lansing, instead of living in the suburbs,” she said. “By keeping them in good condition, we don’t have issues like this. It all depends on if we look at historical properties as an asset or a liability.

“Unfortunately I think a great deal of Lansing citizens and businesses and LCC looks at it being a liability.”

Moving: No small task

When Knight emphasizes the point that LCC’s looking for a “serious buyer,” he’s referring to one with the “wherewithal” to actually move the homes — like money, plans, footings and a foundation at a different location. LCC doesn’t want to risk getting fleeced by a buyer who says he’ll move it but never does. 

And it’s no small task to move it. While the college is open to using funds “earmarked for demolition” to help with the relocation costs, “I’ll be quick to add that it does not amount to very much money,” Knight said. (If the college was planning for it to cost $15,000 to demolish, he said, that would amount to $5,000 for each house to relocate.)

Wolfe House & Building Movers, which has offices in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Georgia, specializes in moving historic structures. The company outlines the need for possible tree trimming, traffic control or possibly moving overhead power lines in order to move a structure, the last of which “can be very expensive and time consuming,” its website says.

Peter Brubaker, a salesman for Wolfe, estimated that moving a typical house a few blocks or a mile would likely fall in the $25,000 to $50,000 range. However, it’s difficult to even ballpark a figure, he said, and being historic and in an urban setting “raises a lot of costs for people doing the move.” For instance, if the customer is billed the cost of moving power lines from the utility, “that can exceed the cost of the actual move.”

Eric Schertzing, Ingham Co. treasurer and chairman of the Ingham Co. Land Bank, said the Land Bank moved a house one block in 2006 to save it from demolition and fill in a vacant corner lot. “It’s not something I’m interested in repeating. I’m not opposed, it’s just very costly,” he said. The Land Bank invested more than $100,000 in the house and it sold for half that much. The Land Bank “saved the house from a landfill and filled a corner,” he said, though ending up in the red is something it “can’t do too often. … I don’t regret the experience. I’m an experiential person.”

He added: “As a society, we don’t do a good job valuing that house that didn’t go in a landfill.”

What can we expect?

If LCC sticks to its plan, the southwest corner of Saginaw and Capitol will soon no longer have three houses there. Whether they end up in a landfill or in a different location is up in the air.

With eight landscape proposals sitting on Knight’s desk Thursday, the final design and cost of the “park-like” entrance to LCC is unknown. Knight imagines a low, vertical masonry entrance sign similar to what Michigan State University has in the medians on Trowbridge Road and Michigan Avenue. It won’t be electric, like other brick entrances at LCC, and “I take exception to the giant sign notion,” he said. Knight also hopes to secure “private monies” to pay for fountains at the new entrance.

Across North Capitol from the houses, Knight wants to eliminate several parking spaces in the Administration Building parking lot and narrow the one-way Schoolcraft Drive to create “bookends” — two green, park-lake entryways across the street from each other. Some, like Winans of Preservation Lansing, have suggested just putting the whole plan on the southeast side of Capitol, leaving the houses.  

But Knight says his critics are looking at the same goal — enhancing the Saginaw Avenue corridor — through a different “prism.”

“My interest is on the Saginaw corridor and so is theirs — we’re just coming at it from a different point of view. I respect their point of view,” he said. “My comments about commitment to and enthusiasm for the Saginaw corridor are not idle. I’m just not saying words.”

In his four years as LCC president, Knight says, “The campus is different today than it was four years ago.” Knight’s bachelor’s degree is in business administration. He’s served as president at three other colleges across the country; vice chancellor at a community college in Louisiana; an interim president at a community college in Texas; president of a private investment firm; and a vice president at Meijer, Inc.

What’s with all of this landscaping business? Why isn’t there the same amount of effort in saving as many 100-year-old homes as possible?

“I’m not suggesting I’m an expert in historic” preservation “or horticulture,” he said. “But I am saying that I value both and I have worked at both for my entire adult life. If you think that the appreciation of art is a good thing, and you teach it, you should exemplify that. And the same thing with landscaping. If we want the community, the public, the students to think well and value that, then you need to reflect that.

“Drive down Saginaw and ask yourself: Can you observe any other property owner who’s working on their Saginaw corridor frontage like Lansing Community College? And if you find somebody, give me a call.”

(Staff writer Sam Inglot contributed reporting to this story.)