July 5 2012 12:00 AM

Niowave expansion wows public officials, ticks off neighbors


“What a surprise to wake up one morning and realize I’ll never see the sun again,” sighed Mark Hahn.

Hahn said the addition of a three-story, 14,000-square-foot pole barn to the Niowave Inc. facilities on the northwest corner of Seymour Avenue and West Kilborn Street has completely blocked out sunshine to his adjacent home to the north of 17 years. A fence, a few trees and about 10 feet of space separate his property from the new expansion. 

Niowave decided on the $10 million addition to its Walnut Street headquarters this year when executives realized they would need more room for research and development, said Jerry Hollister, Niowave’s chief operating officer. 

The company, formed in 2006, specializes in manufacturing and testing particle accelerators, devices that move electrons nearly at the speed of light that can be used in lasers and X-ray technology for the military and medical fields. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Hahn wandered into the facility dedication ceremony looking to speak with the bigwigs in attendance, including Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin. After speaking with Stabenow and former Lansing Mayor David Hollister (Jerry’s father), Hahn said he came to a stark realization.

“One part of me says I wish them success and progress,” he said. “And on the other hand, when I spoke with them, I realized this wouldn’t happen outside their kitchen window.”

The vastness of the structure and the speed at which it was built caught Hahn and others in the neighborhood by surprise. They say they had no input on the decision.  

Mary Elaine Kiener lives in a 100-year-old home three houses away from the new building. Kiener learned last April from Niowave’s finance manager that the addition would be “basically a shed”.

“I watched it go up in horror and then I realized, ‘Oh my God. This is ugly,” Kiener said. “That’s no simple shed. It’s more like an airplane hangar. It’s taller than my three-story house!”

Still more neighbors are ticked off. 

“It’s a monstrosity right in the midst of our neighborhood,” said Dale Schrader, who lives less than a block away from the addition. “I’m shocked that (the city) would allow that in the neighborhood. It belongs out at an airport industrial park or a dairy farm, not in the middle of century-old homes right across from a church. It’s completely out of place.”

Schrader spearheaded the recent renovation of an old filling station on West Grand River Avenue just west of Old Town.

Jerry Hollister said he has not received any complaints about the structure and that they worked closely with the city Planning Office during the process.

Bob Johnson, director of planning and neighborhood development, said he worked with Niowave to assure aspects like height, building usage and distance from the street were up to code. Other than that, aesthetics are out of the city’s hands. The property is zoned professional office district, but Niowave received a special land use permit in 2006 because the nature of the company’s work fits within “experimental research.”

Jerry Hollister said Niowave has a vested interest in the neighborhood. That’s why they bought and rehabbed a dozen houses as rentals. He said Monday night that the company “absolutely wants to continue a dialog” with neighbors about the building, once it hears all of the concerns. And until now, the company has been fairly inconspicuous because it retained the architecture of the former Walnut Street school that serves as its headquarters.

“If they have a vested interest in the neighborhood looking good, why did they put an industrial building in the middle of a family neighborhood?” asked Rina Risper, president of the Walnut Neighborhood Association.

At the Tuesday dedication ceremony, the words “innovation” and “partnership” were thrown around as Niowave and government officials touted the success and expansion of the company. The words came with a sense of irony. 

Risper was in attendance and said that there was nothing innovative about how the cavernous structure looks and there were no partnerships forged to get input from the surrounding residents. 

“I feel betrayed,” Kiener said while sitting on her porch. “This was not a neighborly decision.”

As part of the expansion, Niowave is promising 15 to 25 jobs and is asking for a personal property tax exemption from the city that would waive more than $230,000 in taxes over the next six years. A public hearing is scheduled for July 23. A similar tax abatement was given in 2006 that is set to expire this year, along with an incentive that freezes property taxes when it was bought and expires in six years. 

“I will never see the sun again and they get a tax abatement for it,” Hahn said. “The neighbors should also get an abatement to make up the loss of property value.”

As for the City Council, there isn’t much that can be done. City Attorney Brig Smith said certain conditions for a tax incentive — such as appearance or landscaping — can’t be set by the city. At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood said the Council doesn’t have “any leverage other than asking,” but agreed: “I think that it looks hideous. It is what it is: It looks like a pole barn that belongs in some industrial park.”

Councilwoman Jessica Yorko, who represents the 4th Ward where Niowave is headquartered, suggested such development appears to be a trend. She compared it to Lansing Community College’s announcement — with little community input — to demolish three 100-year-old houses on Saginaw Street to build a park.

“First LCC, now Niowave. When you live in an urban setting, people want to know big things like tearing down houses. It’s just a neighborly thing to do,” she said. “It has to be done out of goodwill. It’s just a value that is lacking with some of our larger locations.”