Oct. 9 2013 12:00 AM

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce demolishes a 93-year-old home downtown in hopes of building a surface parking lot


Even as momentum builds in Lansing to recognize efforts in historic-building preservation, every so often we see another groan-inducing example of cutting ties with our built environment.

The latest: the Michigan Chamber of Commerce bought a 93-year-old house across the street from its headquarters on South Walnut Street downtown in hopes of building a surface parking lot. If the Lansing City Council approves the plan, all four corners at Walnut and Hillsdale streets downtown will be surface lots. The chamber owns three of them.

The organization, without disclosing how much it would have cost, said the house was too expensive to save. It says it needs more parking space for a planned increase in occupants at its headquarters across the street at 600 S. Walnut.

A special land use request to use the now-vacant property as a parking lot is before the Council. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 21 on the request, with a vote on final approval possibly within the next the month.

Historic preservation aside, the city’s Planning Department did not overlook the fact that it would cover the intersection with surface lots. In a staff report, the department recommended that the Council deny the special land use request, in part because it “will change the essential character of the surrounding properties” and because it is inconsistent with the Design Lansing Master Plan.

“There are already parking lots at all three of the other corners at the intersection of S. Walnut and W. Hillsdale,” the report reads. “The addition of another parking lot in this area will only further diminish the aesthetic, economic and environmental quality of the area. The cornerstones of a vibrant urban environment are high density residential areas, thriving business districts, a solid economic base and a sound infrastructure system.

Eliminating a building to create a surface parking lot is completely contrary to these foundations.”

Of nine criteria the Planning Department considers when making a recommendation on special land use permits, the chamber’s proposal does not meet five of them. The department made a similar determination when reviewing a special land use request from Riverview Church, which wants to convert the former Cadillac Club in REO Town into a church and banquet center. In both cases, the Planning Department found that the proposals are “not harmonious with the character of surrounding properties,” would “change the essential character of the surrounding properties,” “may interfere with the general enjoyment of adjacent properties,” do not improve the lot and are inconsistent with the Zoning Code and master plan.

City Council is expected to approve Riverview Church’s application, despite the Planning Board and the Planning Department’s recommendations.

But whereas the citizen-advisory Planning Board recommended denial of the permit for Riverview, the board unanimously recommended approval for the chamber.

The chamber also disputes the Planning Department’s findings, saying in its application that the proposed parking lot will affect the neighborhood “only for the better.”

“We intend to try and make the downtown thoroughfare a gateway as much as possible,” said Bob Thomas, the chamber’s senior director of operations. He cited plans to landscape around the perimeter of the lot.

Thomas said the house was in disrepair when the chamber bought it from the Michigan Jaycees on March 1 for $42,000, according to property records. Within months, the structure was demolished. Today, the .2-acre parcel is empty, except for some weeds and dirt.

“The roof had caved in on the south side of the house and was collecting water damage. The sidewalks leading up to the house and the stairway were not safe. In general, it was going to be a significant investment in order to bring the house up to workable condition. It was more expensive to repair it then it was worth,” Thomas said.

“We’re trying to maintain the character of the gateway and downtown. The alternative was to have a run-down house that wasn’t safe or attractive,” he said. “In our mind, we’re adding some value back to this corner where there was none before.”

The chamber wants to install 22 parking spaces in the proposed lot. Between this request and the chamber-owned lots at the southwest and northeast corner of the intersection, the organization would have a total of 100 spaces at the intersection. Thomas said up to 50 employees (between the chamber and the Jaycees, which moved into the chamber’s building) work onsite, plus occasional board meetings. Thomas said the chamber has proposals for another organization to move in, though he declined to say which one. He also said the lots are used on weekends for special events and overflow parking.

A Michigan Historical Marker was placed on the site in 1989 to recognize the history of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. However, the Michigan Historic Preservation Office said the marker simply recognized the association, rather than the building or the property. Jim MacLean, head of community partnerships for the Capital Area District Library downtown, said the former home was built in 1920 for Edward W. Davis, the owner of Davis Laundry.

Bob Johnson, Lansing’s director of planning and neighborhood development, said he had no legal standing to deny a demolition permit for the house.

“The only thing that will protect a 93-year-old structure is a historic district,” he said. Such districts add a higher level of scrutiny when considering demolitions, Johnson said, such as showing that the structure presents a danger.

In an interview last week, Downtown Neighborhood Association President Gretchen Cochran expressed concern about covering the four corners in surface lots, contributing to storm water runoff and emptiness at night.

“In general, we feel that surface parking lots are not good for the neighborhood,” said Cochran, who also heads Preservation Lansing. “I don’t call that neighborhood vibrancy at all.”