'All time low'

By Sam Inglot and Andy Balaskovitz

A plan for the pole barn surfaces, but Niowave and the Walnut Neighborhood appear to be on different wavelengths

The relationship between residents of the Walnut Neighborhood and Niowave Inc. is at an “all-time low,” one resident told the Lansing City Council on Monday night. The comments came three days after a few neighbors were shown what they’ve been waiting on for over four months: a plan to improve the appearance of Niowave’s 14,000-square-foot pole barn in their neighborhood.

Mary Elaine Kiener, a Seymour Avenue resident, and Rina Risper, president of the Walnut Neighborhood Organization, told the Council Niowave refuses to talk with more than a few residents at a time and is slow to respond to neighborhood concerns.

The declining rapport between the two groups comes after three neighbors were shown a plan on Friday by Lansing landscape architect Bob Ford, who was retained by Niowave to help address concerns of neighbors. Kiener and Risper expressed satisfaction on Monday with the plan, but not with how the company is engaging — or isn’t — with neighbors. Kiener said the plan is exclusively landscaping around the building to make the building “disappear” and said it doesn’t change the building’s façade.

Niowave is housed in the old Walnut School building north of downtown. The pole barn was part of a $10 million expansion to conduct further particle accelerator research.

“The relationship between the neighbors and Niowave appears to only have deteriorated over the last six months,” Kiener said in an interview. “The level of trust on the part of the neighbors … is in doubt. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Just trust us.’ Well, they’ve not done anything right from the beginning of the building” to give neighbors reason to.

Kiener said the design that Ford did, if implemented properly, could help relieve neighbors’ frustrations.

“The design that he did is brilliant, and what he’s proposing through landscaping is to make the building appear to disappear by drawing your eye away from it,” Kiener said. “It’s a lot of trees and a lot of landscaping,” she said, adding that there were no changes to the façade.

Dale Schrader, who lives nearby, said residents plan on discussing the plans as a neighborhood. But in his opinion, a simple “Home Depot” fix with landscaping isn’t enough to address the “white behemoth.”

“We may have to take our protest to another level,” he said. “We don´t have their attention yet, apparently — we’re waiting to hear from them all the time.”

After seeing Ford’s plans at Friday’s meeting with Niowave, Kiener said she had to ask “five times” to take a photo of Ford’s concept to show the neighbors. She said they plan on hosting a series of discussions with the neighborhood to see what people think and if the plan would be enough to hide the building. She declined to show the plan to City Pulse.

Niowave Chief Financial Officer Mark Sinila said he is “surprised” to hear about breakdown of the relationship from the neighborhood.

“I thought things had taken a positive step forward,” he said on Tuesday. “We told them we were ready to make some immediate changes once we get their OK.”

Sinila also declined to show the concept to City Pulse because he called it “proprietary information” and that “nothing is set in stone” — but he thinks it’s a “pretty good plan” to get the issues resolved.

Kiener said she plans on hosting a series of “community listening sessions” this weekend. She said there would also be a Walnut Neighborhood Organization meeting Nov. 29. The meetings will give residents a chance to voice their opinion on the proposal and decide whether to give their support.

Sinila said Niowave is waiting for unanimous neighborhood support of the landscaping fix before the company asks the Council to revisit a personal property tax exemption related to the expansion. The company is seeking a waiver on more than $230,000 in taxes over six years on new equipment in the facility. “It was postponed until we make amends with the neighbors,” he said.

The City Council is also set to take up an ordinance that was drafted as a direct result of this saga. Council President Brian Jeffries said the ordinance would amend the city’s zoning code by requiring property owners to notify the Council about any new construction on sites with an already approved special land use permit. City planning officials have said the pole barn was allowed because it fit within the parameters of a permit approved in 2006.

However, Jeffries said the ordinance won’t be passed until after Jan. 1. A resolution to set a public hearing for Dec. 3 on it was tabled at Monday’s meeting for further discussion in committee and by the Planning Board.

Meanwhile, as a testament to how sour things have gotten between the company and the neighbors, Risper, the neighborhood organization president, addressed a rumor that if neighbors were unwilling to work with Niowave, that the company would pack up and leave.

“If Niowave is threatening to move,” Risper told the Council, “I say move if you’re not willing to work with the neighborhood.”

Jeffries hopes the groups can work out their differences and was surprised at the tone: “That is something I have not heard before.”