Aug. 17 2016 12:23 AM

State preservationists call substation site historical

State historic preservation officials have weighed in on a big part of the controversy over the Lansing Board of Water & Light’s plan to replace Scott Park with a power substation. Their verdict? The Scott Sunken Garden, which would have to be relocated, is historic and moving it would “make it ineligible for historic designation.”

“The early twentieth landscape design is unique to Lansing and should remain in its original orientation and context,” Amanda Reintjes, greater Michigan field representative for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote to the Lansing City Council in a July 14 letter.

“Furthermore, the National Register Coordinator at the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office has preliminarily determined that the gardens are historically significant and eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Dismantling the stone walls and recreating the gardens in another location would cause a loss of integrity, making the gardens ineligible for historic designation and destroying their in situ authenticity.”

Those views are one more factor the Lansing City Council will likely take into consideration as it weighs a decision on the BWL's proposal. The Council holds a public hearing on Monday.

The BWL announced in February that to make room for the proposed Cental Substation, it wants to remove the nearly 100-yearold Scott Center building and move the 86-year-old sunken garden, both of which are in 6-acre Scott Park at Malcolm X Street and Washington Avenue. The substation would take up four acres. The utility proposes reconstructing the garden on the southwest corner of the two acres of Scott Park that would survive along with making it handicap accessible and adding a fishing platform, Rivertrail access and art-covered walls that would partially block the view of the substation.

Bob Christensen, National Register coordinator for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, explained in an April email that while the Scott Center, formerly the Jenison House, would not qualify for National Register designation, the Scott Sunken Garden would.

“The garden was designed for the specific spot where it has stood for the past eighty or more years,” Christensen wrote to Parks Board members and preservationists. “Moving the garden to some new location would rob it of its historic context as part of the property historically owned by the Scott family — and given by them to the city as a public park. The garden would lose too great a measure of its historic integrity through a move to be eligible for the national register. The garden with its adjacent trees and its setting on high ground overlooking Lansing’s primary scenic resource, the Grand River, should be left in place.”

Christensen is uniquely situated to make such determinations if the city, which owns the property, were to seek historic designation for the garden. His recommendation would be forwarded to keepers of the federal register, who would review the property for historic significance and determine whether it qualified for listing. Historical designation does not impact what can happen with the property. If the garden were moved, as BWL plans, the federal designation would be withdrawn.

Dale Schrader, vice president of Preservation Lansing, called the letters and support from state officials “important.”

He said it shows that Lansing is “about to lose another historic place.”

This news comes after 75 people rallied in the garden Sunday to protest the BWL plan. That rally has since garnered national news attention through an the Associated Press story.

Protesters gathered with homemade signs, including Joe Vitale, president of Preservation Lansing. His sign has pictures of former BWL officials removed from office under a cloud of scandal and Mayor Virg Bernero under the headline “No Alternative Sites. Trust Us.” The Bernero administration is backing the BWL plan.

Jim McClurken, a Parks Board member who opposed the loss of the park, was also there.

“I have been saying that the BWL has a trust issue,” he said. “I think that clearly shows here.”

BWL has said Scott Park is the only viable location primarily because of cost. It has said that building it elsewhere would cost ratepayers $70 million over seven years.

But it has also said that a location near its headquarters in REO Town would cost ratepayers $13 million more than Scott Park, which BWL has said would cost $26 million.

Asked to explain the discrepancy between $13 million and $70 million, the BWL's spokesman, Stephen Serkaiain, declared a moratorium on answering any more questions before Monday's City Council public hearing. Efforts to contact General Manager Dick Peffley directly were blocked. Through Serkaian, Peffley declined an invitation to appear on the "City Pulse Newsmakers" TV show to discuss the plan before the Council hearing.

Meanwhile, in a related development, the Bernero administration’s plan to move the Scott Center house to another city-owned location is up in the air after Habitat for Humanity withdrew its cooperation.

At the end of May, Bernero announced a plan to sell the Scott Center to Habitat for Humanity for $1. Under the proposal, BWL would pay to move the building to an empty city lot on the far west side of downtown Lansing on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That lot was also to be sold to Habitat for $1. In return, Habitat would rehab the house into condos and as the center piece for a larger housing development.

The sale of the house requires approval by Lansing voters, which the City Council voted last week to put on the Nov. 8 ballot.

But as the Council was preparing to approve the ballot measure, leaders were notified by Habitat that it had withdrawn from the proposal due to financial considerations. Voters will still get to determine if the house should be sold, but no offer for sale is currently on the table.