The Niowave fix

By Andy Balaskovitz

Experts say the possibilities are endless for redesigning the exterior of a pole barn

Even some houses are “post-frame buildings,” or, more crudely, pole barns.

That should give some hope to Walnut Neighborhood residents who wonder what can be done to the exterior of a three-story, 14,000-square-foot, white and blue building erected near them this year by high-tech manufacturer Niowave Inc.

Post-frame building renovation experts say the possibilities are endless when it comes to upgrading the exterior of pole barns — no matter the size. When it comes to the exterior, essentially, you can give an industrial building a skin more like a residential structure.

“Post-frame really is just the base of the building,” said Kevin Simmons, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Frame Building Association. “You can pretty much do with that building what you can with any other structure. The options I would think are unlimited.”

Niowave has put on hold a $200,000-plus tax abatement request to the Lansing City Council while it figures out what to do with what neighbors have called a “monstrosity” that the company built adjacent to the old Walnut Street School, which the company bought and converted into its headquarters in 2006. The pole barn went up this spring after Niowave told residents it was building a “shed” where the school’s playground was. City and Planning Board officials say the pole barn is legal under the special land use permit Niowave was granted when it bought the old school property.

A public hearing before the City Council was initially scheduled for Monday night, but was canceled after Niowave pulled its request. The Council’s Development and Planning Committee will discuss the matter at a noon meeting today on the 10th floor of City Hall.

It’s uncertain how much Niowave is willing to spend to compromise with its neighbors’ concerns. Mark Sinila, Niowave’s chief financial officer, declined to comment Tuesday on the matter.

“We’re not willing to make a comment until we settle the issue with the neighbors,” he said. “We’re looking at our options, talking with neighbors directly.”

Sinila said “this thing has gotten so blown out of proportion” and that it “seems like every media outlet in Lansing calls me a couple times a day.” Council President Brian Jeffries said last week that he is open to the idea of tying building improvements to the tax incentive. At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney, who chairs the committee considering the tax abatement request, also is open to the idea, but hopes Niowave will reach an agreement with neighbors before the formal request is up for Council approval.

“Hopefully Niowave will come to the table and not require something like that,” Quinney said Tuesday. “But if that is needed, we will do that. I’m not going to close the door on anything at this point. My hope is that we can resolve this thing without having to tie-bar something like that.”

“We just want to make sure we do the right thing” before asking for final approval of the tax abatement, Sinila said.

Quinney said ideal exterior changes would make the pole barn “compatible” with Niowave’s main building, at 1012 Walnut. The former Walnut Street School, over a century old, has a restored brick exterior that neighbors say featured graffiti before Niowave moved in.

Four of Niowave’s residential neighbors were back before the City Council Monday night with concerns about Niowave’s perceived disregard for the neighborhood. Some pledged to be at today’s committee meeting; others read from a list of 26 questions and talking points they hope Council members can answer.

“It started out as a really, really nice relationship” when Niowave moved in to the neighborhood in 2006, Councilman Quinney said. “Hopefully we can get back to that.”