|By Andy Balaskovitz|
The former School for the Blind library and museum comes back to life as a ‘neighborhood empowerment center’When walking through the former School for the Blind library and museum on Pine Street with Gene Townsend, the construction manager who organized its redevelopment, one of the first things he said was, “It’s amazing what you can get done in a few weeks.”
Townsend, who also led the redevelopment of the former superintendent’s house just a short walk away, was referring to the amount of work slated to be done by Dec. 20 when multiple neighborhood groups move into the property.
But in a few weeks, the floors and wood walls will be finished and light fixtures will be hung, turning the 46-year-old building into a headquarters for local neighborhood agencies — all on time and on schedule.
“The goal is to make this building a resource center for neighborhood redevelopment,” Townsend said. “This was an old, decrepit building and we did a total gut rehab on it.”
Townsend maintained the “town hall” concept on the inside with an open foyer as well as glass-walled conference rooms.
The building is split into two portions: A one-story section to the south and a two-story section on the north. He also added a new entrance on the east side of the building facing Pine Street.
The new tenants of the 17,000square-foot structure will be a Head Start branch, a division of the Ingham County Land Bank, the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition and a “few other social services agencies,” Townsend said. Head Start, an early child development program, occupies the one-story portion, while the neighborhood groups are in the rest.
The goal is to set the scene for collaboration, he added.
The overall project cost $2 million, which includes the Housing Coalition’s purchase of the building and renovation costs. The rehab began in June, Townsend said.
Townsend is shooting for a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver status, which includes rain gardens outside, new windows and heating and cooling equipment — even family-sized bathrooms with showers for people who want to clean up after bicycling to work or exercising during lunch break.
“That (LEED) process drives a lot of decisions,” Townsend said.
He added that the building hasn’t been used since the 1970s, and demolition and asbestos abatement cost about $50,000.
Katherine Draper, executive director of the Housing Coalition, joined Townsend on the tour. She couldn’t be happier to move her six-employee operation out of a “little old house.”
“This is very exciting for us,” she said.
“Our mission is to revitalize neighborhoods and assist low income families with purchasing homes — this project really fits both of those things.”
She’s referring to the open classroom, workshop and boardroom space that will be free for the public.
“This is a phenomenal campus, just a beautiful spot,” she said. “It’s a natural extension of the Old Town corridor, and we hope it leads to further development.”
On the two-story portion, the ceilings were raised five feet to let in more light from roughly 10-foot windows that reach the ceiling. The exposed ductwork is an off-white shade to hide dirt and cobwebs, Townsend said.
The cement pillars along the original, west-facing entrance were also maintained. The only real snag Townsend encountered was the foundation of an old dormitory that had to be removed from the parking lot.
“That was a big cost to demolish, but it has gone pretty smoothly,” he said. “Good subcontractors make all the difference.”
With the influx of new employees, children and general activity, Townsend said neighbors should not be concerned about the traffic (the roads can handle it) or the people (it makes the neighborhood safer). It’s all about density to make a neighborhood work.
“It’s about having eyes and ears on the property to make it work,” he said. “It’s better than a vacant property with a cyclone fence around it.”
Pam Dutcher, who lives around the corner of the center at 504 W. Grand River Ave., has been in the neighborhood for six years.
“They won’t bother me. I don’t mind the extra traffic,” she said.
In her six years there, Dutcher has seen her share of gangs, violence and dog fighting near her home, she said. But the new center, along with a spattering of homes nearby fixed up by the Land Bank, things are getting better, she said.
“That 40 acres of land is nice,” she said, referring to the campus. “A lot of people walk their dogs over there.”
This project was about twice as large as Townsend’s Printer’s Row housing development in the Cherry Hill Neighborhood downtown, he said. This is another feather in his cap, though, for the area in and around the Walnut neighborhood: He was also construction manager for a couple of houses on Maple Street as well as the former superintendent’s house, which is used by Rizzi Designs.
Townsend said the old school building on campus a short walk away from the center is “getting the most attention” now. It would most likely be residential, but there are significant startup costs standing in its way — the price of rent must make up for the costs to renovate, which looks shaky right now.
“They would make wonderful lofts,” he said.
When looking around the property, it becomes obvious Townsend is leaving his mark. But he’s modest. “Yeah, we’re starting to. This is going to be a cool facility.”