Aug. 27 2014 12:00 AM

LCC goes from gritty concrete college to garden hip spot

Ivy covered walls are back in style.

A little more than six years ago, Lansing Community College President Brent Knight inherited a downtown campus that was cutting edge in 1957 — a brutalist bunker of corrugated concrete, dark brown masonry and darker brown steel, walled off from the surrounding city.

In the past five years, the bunker has softened into a garden spot and threatens to become an oasis of art and greenery. Last week, landscapers were still crisscrossing the campus with truckloads of vegetation and fresh topsoil. Over the summer, mysterious pedestals were erected next to the Arts & Sciences Building and other spots. In the next two months — "before the snow flies," Knight said — 20 new sculptures, large and small, will go up all over campus, some of them 20 feet tall. Urban "green belts" of trees along Saginaw Street and Capitol Avenue are in the works.

The project is noteworthy not so much for its scale as for its hemmed-in location. Knight doesn´t have the land grant expanses or ancient sycamore groves of MSU to play with.

"We´re a compact campus, trying to do many things in a small space," he said.

Students will find a new and improved LCC campus next week when classes start. The college has spent more than $18 million to renovate the Gannon Building and $31 million the Arts & Sciences project, $9.9 million of which came from the state of Michigan, with $1 million from private donors. Knight said the rest of the funds came from college funds, "both debt and equity."

The makeover complements other student-friendly changes such as free parking for students, beginning this fall. "Free parking for students is really nice," said Rochell Thompson, radio production and broadcasting student, parking sticker in hand.

The changes also come with a 2.4 percent tuition increase for this academic year, from $83/credit hour to $85/credit hour. Knight said LCC still has the second lowest community college tuition in the state.

The aesthetic overhaul is part of Knight´s master plan to bust the bunker and fill the campus and its major buildings with pleasing stimuli and make the campus "a better neighbor" to the surrounding city.

A bigger master plan

Threading through the sidewalks in his trademark golf cart, Knight, 67, talks more like a rancher showing off his spread than a community college president. Shrubs, grasses and perennials splashed upward along every wall and berm in sight.

"It´s much softer than that harsh masonry," he said. "Look at that." An extra brutal dividing wall next to the parking structure on Grand Avenue was totally wrapped in green.

He steered the cart along Schoolcraft Road, a glorified driveway that runs parallel to four-lane Saginaw Street.

"This gravel won´t support any kind of plant life," Knight said.

The clay and gravel dirt along this precious green belt is being replaced by black dirt, ready for a new row of trees that will run from Capitol Avenue to Grand Avenue along Saginaw.

"Saginaw would not win any awards aesthetically, but we´re trying to do our part," he said.

Another green belt of trees is planned for the west edge of campus, along Capitol Avenue. The continuous green belt design is a deliberate departure from the typical urban tree-ina-hole sidewalk planting.

"The trees do so much better in a green belt instead of sidewalk cutouts," Knight explained.

The cart crossed into a rough patch near the intersection of Saginaw and Capitol, where Knight wants to create a gateway to campus.

In 2012, LCC bought and demolished three houses on this corner. Preservationists lamented the loss of the city´s urban fabric. The houses were built in 1888, 1889 and 1902.

Marking its territory

The skeptic´s view is that LCC is aggressively marking its territory, but Knight said the demolition is part of a bigger plan. The view from Saginaw opened up the campus´ undisputed historic gems, the 1891 Rogers-Carrier House, a fanciful Queen Anne confection by Lansing architect Darius Moon, and the 1893 Herrmann House next door.

Another historic building on Capitol, home to the Mourer-Foster Insurance Co., is visible from Saginaw in its considerable, columned glory.

Knight said the tangle of utility poles and wires along Capitol will be moved, making way for historic street lamps.

"When it´s done, we´ll restore this streetscape back to 1900, when these houses were built," he said.

Knight is also looking for ways to punch through the basin of concrete in the middle of campus.

Splashes of hardy grasses and wildflowers are ubiquitous. (Easy-to-maintain plants are used to keep the college´s $85,000 annual landscaping budget from ballooning.) A large new hole in the con crete near the Gannon Building will be filled with more greenery and a sculpture.

"We don´t need all this concrete," he said. "All we´ve got to do is make space for fire trucks."

Satellite farm to sculptures

An outdated array of huge satellite dishes in the middle of campus has almost been dismantled, to be replaced by benches and trees.

Knight steered the cart southward, toward Shiawassee Street and the campus´ southern edge.

At the southeast corner of the Arts & Sciences Building, a pedestal awaits a 20-foot-tall sculpture, part of a major outdoor art initiative to be unveiled this fall.

The sculptures were designed by students in a contest held last year. LCC is keeping the designs under wraps for now, but Knight couldn´t resist a hint.

"It suggests a swirling red ribbon," he said, pointing at the pedestal. "It´ll be quite prominent."

Two more 20-foot sculptures will go in front of the Administration Building and near the Children´s Learning Community Space.

"We´ll have 20 different sculptures, large and small, and they´ll be installed before the snow flies."

Journalism student Jaimie Bozack of Lansing, said, "If tuition goes up a little, it´s worth it, because we´re getting a better experience. I´m going to like the sculptures. With everything that´s going on, I´ll just want to be here more."

Atrium makes a splash

The cart turned eastward along Shiawassee, where a city block of plants and benches have nearly buried the campus´s concrete border wall. We turned northward on Grand and beheld the most conspicuous emblem of the new LCC, a twostory, undulating glass curtain wrapping the atrium of the Gannon Building.

The atrium, scheduled to open in November, will house a food court and gathering spot for students and the general public. (Subway, Pizza Hut and Einstein Bros. Bagels are all on board.) From inside, the space looks enormous, with neuronlike wall supports reaching to the secondfloor ceiling.

"This is the former swimming pool, which was controversial," Knight said, referring to an outcry from staff and students who wanted the college to fix and keep its pool rather than repurposing the space. "But it will be a great space for students and the community for 50 years."

The west side of the Gannon Building is already open. The centerpiece of the $18.3 million Gannon renovation is the Star- Zone, modeled after the Apple Store. ("Joe is here to help you," announces a huge digital screen in the glitzy atrium.) Admissions, registration, advising, records and most other student services are handled at computer screens, under the guidance of blue-shirted, wandering staffers. The atrium is awash with natural lighting.

"I´m glad they care about the way the campus looks because as a student, it´s more professional," said Trisha Knapp, a nursing student. "When you go into the basement of Gannon, it feels like a dungeon. It feels old and to some people, it can influence their learning. The Gannon renovation is awesome. It looks really nice."

Daniel Zelko, also a nursing student, said of the Gannon overhaul, "Now I feel like they just really opened it up so you can walk in, ask anyone and they´ll point you in the direction. It seems a lot easier to get you where you´re going. It kind of reminds me of Best Buy."

"Phil´s Spirit Shop," a store selling LCC gear and named after the school´s first president, Philip Gannon, adds an almost impertinent note of informality.

The Gannon project drops the other shoe of Knight´s core renovation effort at LCC, following the opening of the renovated Arts & Sciences Building last fall.

Art is everywhere

The Arts & Sciences project was a microcosm of what Knight wants to do with the whole campus, only with an educational slant. No matter where you turn in the building, there is colorful stimulus. Art is everywhere, from a huge mural of the Mackinac Bridge to a hall of civil rights leaders, a gallery of great writers, contemporary art, historic photos and wall-size maps. There´s a display of cross sections of a real brain, a wall of butterflies and stuff that lights up and does God knows what. Knight calls them "ambient learning opportunities."

The Arts & Sciences and Gannon renovations are the last such projects LCC will undertake in the foreseeable future, Knight said. The last reminder of the bunker era, Dart Auditorium, will have to wait for its makeover. On the day of our cart ride, Knight said he´d been talking with architects about Dart that morning.

"It´s one of the most difficult challenges of all, in terms of a contemporary look," he said. But no changes are planned, except perhaps to rename it as a Performing Arts Center rather than an auditorium.

Knight isn´t getting everything he wants. Towering over LCC´s south entrance is a two-story T-shaped monolith straight from a dystopian 1970´s sci-fi movie. Welding was once taught on the top of the T, where the fumes would vent above campus, but the strange structure has been idle for years. Knight wants to tear it down or make it into a clock tower, but he said the engineers´ estimates are too pricey.

I suggested that it would make a great pedestal for a very big sculpture.

He pretended not to hear and steered the cart back to his office.