Where's Niowave?

By Andy Balaskovitz

Company sends a representative to a community meeting with little knowledge of the pole barn controversy

Residents of the Walnut Neighborhood want to move beyond airing their complaints about a 14,000-square-foot pole barn in the neighborhood. Problem is, their corporate neighbor is not showing up to community meetings to discuss solutions.

At a community meeting last week — which included three City Council members, Mayor Virg Bernero, members of his cabinet and about 25 neighbors — one party was curiously absent: Niowave. While the company has retained local landscape architect Bob Ford — who attended — to plan a redesign of the exterior of Niowave’s new building, Ford said he was “naïve” about the controversy at hand. He was on a fact-finding mission and took notes to share with Niowave officials.

Neighbors are clearly frustrated that for nearly two months of vocalizing their issues, very little has been accomplished.

“There’s a lot of high tensions because they have been unable to meet with us,” Walnut Neighborhood Organization President Rina Risper said during the meeting. Several neighbors have said Niowave did not show up to a meeting last month after company officials were invited. The neighbors, who have been meeting with each other on and off since early July, have two desires: An exterior that would make Niowave’s addition look like the adjacent Walnut School and processes in place at the administration or City Council level so that something like this can’t happen again. “Our requests have always been the same. I’m not really pleased Niowave is not here. … We really want to hear from Niowave,” Risper said.

As for the look of the building: “Other than tearing this down, the closest thing we want is to have it appear as if it disappeared,” said Tom Cathey, who serves on the board of directors of the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art in Old Town.

Niowave’s spokesman on the issue, chief financial officer Mark Sinila, could not be reached for comment.

A ceremony in early July celebrated Niowave’s $10 million expansion at its headquarters at the intersection of Walnut and Kilborn streets. The company specializes in manufacturing particle accelerators. It is also seeking a personal property tax exemption from the city worth more than $200,000 as part of the expansion, although it suspended that effort as a result of the controversy.

Bernero asked residents to consider that Niowave “has a job to do” and that sending Ford as an intermediary will help accomplish everyone’s goals. “I hope you won’t take that as a sign that they don’t care,” he said.

Ford, who has worked on five of the city’s parks master plans and has been in landscape architecture for 35 years, said, “I would have wished a representative would have been here tonight. I did think someone would be here tonight.” He would not discuss the details of the contract between his firm, Landscape Architects & Planners Inc., and Niowave and said it would be “premature” to show design concepts he has for the building — “not that I don’t have ideas.”

Also, a timeline for finishing the project is undetermined. Bernero said he would like to meet again with neighbors in the next few weeks. On Wednesday, it appeared residents simply want to speak directly with Niowave. One Walnut Neighborhood resident named Paul, who declined to give his last name, said Niowave’s absence at a neighborhood meeting in July “spoke volumes to me.

“It’s like we’re on the first story of a two-story outhouse,” he added, “with Niowave being on top."