July 18 2012 12:00 AM

Now the Lansing City Council will consider tying tax incentives for Niowave to exterior improvements at its pole barn

After hearing pleas from Walnut Neighborhood residents, Lansing City Council President Brian Jeffries is open to the idea of tying Niowave Inc.’s proposed tax incentives to exterior improvements on the company’s unsightly 14,000-square-foot pole barn.

“The idea of tie-bars, I think, makes a lot of sense,” Jeffries said following Monday night’s Council meeting. Six residents spoke during the meeting against Niowave’s new $10 million expansion that has yielded what they call a “monstrosity” amid their residential neighborhood.

“To move this forward, there has to be assurances to the neighborhood,” Jeffries said, adding that he thinks it “does make sense” to either require building changes upfront or insert some sort of “claw-back,” in which the incentive is pulled back if Niowave doesn’t improve the exterior of the building. He hesitated to support withholding the incentives until changes are made, though: “I don’t like to hold up development.”

“It’s clear there is zero trust there,” Jeffries said of Niowave’s neighbors toward the company. “That’s too bad.”

The Niowave saga has officially spilled over into the City Council chambers. At next week’s Council meeting, a public hearing is scheduled on a personal property tax exemption worth more than $200,000 over six years on new equipment. A vote date on the incentives is uncertain, and the proposal will likely be referred to the Council’s Development and Planning Committee for further discussion on Monday.

Niowave, a local high tech manufacturer specializing in commercial particle accelerators, moved into the former Walnut Street School in 2006. The three-story, 14,000-square-foot metal structure adjacent to the school, which is in the middle of a residential neighborhood west of Old Town, will be used for research and development of superconductor particle accelerators. Niowave is guaranteeing 25 to 35 new jobs as part of the tax abatement deal.

Niowave originally wanted to buy the former Verlinden Elementary School on the west side a few blocks from the vacant General Motors Verlinden site, said Bob Trezise, Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) president and CEO. He helped Lansing secure Niowave in 2006 when he held the same post at the Lansing Economic Development Corp.

Now, six years after restoring the Walnut School, Niowave erected the pole barn on the same plot of land at 1012 N. Walnut St. “The building doesn’t look right,” Trezise volunteered.

“It was my fault,” Trezise said of the controversy, explaining he should have been more pro-active regarding the building’s final appearance before it was built. He said he’s “had very positive discussions” with Niowave about improving the appearance, including landscaping.

Trezise said expanding on-site was the last option after a “year-long search for buildings” inside and outside of the city, resulting in nothing acceptable to Niowave.

A search Monday of available parcels and buildings — for sale and lease — in the Lansing area turned up at least nine properties that match similar specifications to Niowave’s pole barn. Some were vacant parcels — like three acres along North Grand River Avenue one mile east of the airport selling for $100,000, which is adjacent to residential and commercial and near industrial properties. Others are vacant industrial buildings — like a former 84 Lumber store selling for $300,000 about seven miles south of Niowave’s headquarters.

Beth Grimm, finance manager of Niowave and wife of founder Terry Grimm, said Monday, “It’s much more efficient and productive to have all your facilities together.”

Beth Grimm met with eight Walnut Neighborhood residents on Monday to discuss solutions and said it would take “research and time” to discuss possibilities among management. One resident, Mary Elaine Kiener, told City Council Monday night that the meeting was “neighborly and respectful.”

However, Kiener said residents still want to see an alternative façade to the building and for the city to create “processes and safeguards to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future.”

“I understand the process was apparently legal,” Keiner said, “but being legal doesn’t necessarily make it right.

The Lansing Planning Board discussed Niowave at a special meeting last week. The outcome suggested there’s nothing more the citizen advisory board can do and that there’s regret about not requiring more of Niowave’s building intentions six years ago.

“We’re not happy with the way it looks either, believe me,” Susan Stachowiak, Lansing’s zoning administrator, said at the meeting. Stachowiak oversaw Niowave’s applications for rezoning and a special land use permit for its headquarters in 2006 so it could manufacture despite office zoning.

The sole condition of the rezoning was that Niowave find a suitable place for the playground equipment that was there when it moved in. That equipment was moved to Sleepy Hollow State Park before Niowave opened, minutes from a September 2006 City Council Committee of the Whole meeting show. Several “criteria” were attached to the special land use permit that involves conforming to the look and feel of the neighborhood, but Stachowiak has said that applies only to the “use” of the property, or what goes on inside the buildings.

Former State Rep. Lynne Martinez, who serves on the Planning Board, expressed concern that Niowave would expand into the neighborhood on a dozen properties it already owns. Niowave has rehabilitated the residential plots and aims to rent and eventually sell them. Trezise said that in two more years, Niowave is going to need “even more space.” While the company owns the twelve residential parcels nearby, Trezise said, “We will definitely be working with them on another building somewhere else” and added Niowave “absolutely” intends to maintain them as residential.

Stachowiak said Niowave couldn’t expand business operations to those properties unless it sought another rezoning and special land use permit. “I think if they ever came back, now we’d be sensitive to this type of thing,” she said.

Another board member, Alisande Henry, asked, “How do we use caution when we issue special land use permits in the future?”

“This one just sort of slipped through the cracks, is the best way I could put it,” replied Stachowiak, adding that the Planning Board and city could have “put some conditions on the character of the buildings” as part of the special land use permit. “Going forward, we can add those types of conditions, we just didn’t do that.”

Board Chairman John Ruge ended the meeting, disheartened: “This was thoroughly unsatisfying. This just happened and now we’re stuck with it.”