Sept. 21 2016 11:47 AM

Vote on BWL substation plan could happen this week

Lansing Board of Water and Light General Manager Dick Peffley (left) and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero unveil a solar powered charging station in Wentworth Park Thursday afternoon. Behind them is a sign that has popped up around town protesting the proposed BWL plan to put a substation in Scott Park between downtown and REO Town.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse
The Battle for Scott Park, which has pitted the Lansing Board of Water & Light against park lovers, environmentalists, preservationists and the Lansing Garden Club, could be decided as early as next Monday. The City Council’s Development and Planning Committee is set to resume consideration at 10 a.m. Thursday of the utility’s request for a special land use permit to allow the construction of the $27.9 million Central Substation in the 6-acre park at Washington Avenue and Malcolm X Street at the northern edge of the REO Town neighborhood. If the committee reports the resolutions needed by the BWL, then the Council could vote on them as soon as Monday.

At stake are not just a city-owned riverfront park, which would be reduced to two acres, not just at the cost of many old trees and other botanical life, but also the nearly 100-year-old Tudor-style Scott House. The structure, also known as the Jenison House and the Scott Center, would have to be relocated out of the park or demolished. The city has let the house decline, but preservationists say with effort it could be restored as an example of the grand homes, such as the Olds Mansion, that once graced the neighborhood but were demolished to make room for I-496. The historic Scott Sunken Garden, built with Italianate stone on the foundation of the 19th century home of state Supreme Court justice Edward Cahill, would be moved to a site in the remaining park space. Historians have said doing so will devalue its history. Members of the Lansing Garden Cub, which maintains the sunken garden, may be unwilling to tend to it elsewhere.

On the other side, the BWL argues that Scott Park is the optimal location and that building on any other site would be more costly to ratepayers and take longer, hence delaying the closing of the coal-burning Eckert Power Station — Wynken, Blyken and Nod — which is scheduled for 2020, at considerable additional expense.

Despite the opposition, both the Lansing Parks Board and the Planning Board approved the plan. Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who supports the plan, argued: “It’s not just about a garden. And it’s not just about a park. I mean, this is a longterm viability issue for our city, for our economy. You can’t live without electricity.”

The permit resolutions were expected to be referred to the entire Council two weeks ago. But Councilwoman Jody Washington, who heads the Development and Planning Committee, delayed it, chastising the advocates for presenting the proposal as if it were a “done deal.” She told the BWL to come back this week with its responses to 57 questions.

Once Washington is satisfied and allows the package of resolutions to be sent to the Council, it will need five votes out of eight to be approved. It appears to have the support, but one Council member, Carol Wood, is opposed to the permit, and four more — President Judi Browne Clark, Adam Hussain, Patricia Spitzley and Washington — say that while they are leaning toward it, they want to hear BWL’s answers to Washington’s questions. So, the battle isn’t yet over.

The siting of the substation and how Lansing restructures its electrical sources and requirements pose challenging questions with complex answers. Some of the issues are:

Why does the BWL need the Central Substation and what exactly does it do?

In order to shut down the aging, coal-burning Eckert Power Station by Jan. 1, 2020, BWL has to replace the control devices in order to maintain certification from national and state regulators. The new power substation will electronically respond to demands for electricity as they happen. The Eckert station currently does not have that capacity.

Why does BWL want the substation in Scott Park?

At the nearby corner of Townsend and Malcolm X streets, the BWL has a series of power distribution lines that feed power to downtown Lansing. This point, called the “sweet spot,” is the easiest point for the utility to connect up and distribute power. The Central Substation would take high voltage electricity and reduce its voltage for transmission and use by downtown residents. Right now, that reduction in voltage occurs at the both the Eckert station and the REO Town station.

Aren’t there other locations where the Central Substation could go, thus preserving the park and the historic Sunken Garden?

The utility said in February it had exhaustively reviewed eight locations, including Scott Park. The others:

— Two locations on GM property: They were rejected by GM’s brass in Detroit.

— The old Seventh Day Adventist property: Utility officials said this location would require the removal of two historic properties and part of a street.

— South Street: This would require the displacement of numerous families and demolition of homes.

— The Land Bank property across Washington Avenue that was the home of the Deluxe Inn: This is under a purchase option for the development of a possible long-term-stay hotel.

— An area behind South Washington Ave.’s business district, on the southwest side of the street: This was rejected as too costly and too disruptive to the businesses.

— At the Eckert location: In a floodplain, it would require extensive and costly infrastructure to raise the Central Substation.

Utility leaders said each of the sites could increase the cost of the substation by millions of dollars and result in delaying shutting down Eckert — at a cost of $30 million to $70 million.

What about the Diamond REO Way location?

Utility leaders said building there — behind the BWL headquarters on Washington Avenue in REO Town — would add a relatively small $3.4 million in construction costs. But it would take longer to bring online, hence delaying the 2020 shutdown of the Eckert plant, which would cost ratepayers at least $30 million to keep open because of federal and state-mandated updates if the 2020 shutdown deadline is missed.

However, a Sierra Club expert in coal-generated electricity and the electrical generation system said the issue of keeping Eckert open was a “red herring,” adding the plant could be kept on standby, with the boilers off, and still meet regulations to assure transmission stability.

Could GM provide property near the “sweet spot” at Townsend and Malcolm X?

Utility officials said that after a year of discussions with local GM officials, Detroit executives nixed any proposals to purchase land at the Grand River plant, saying the automaker has other plans for the property. On Aug. 23, Erin Davis, a spokeswoman for GM, confirmed to City Pulse that “GM is unable to provide space.”

Preservation activists have promoted a letter-writing campaign to GM encouraging the auto giant to come up with space for the project. They point optimistically to a Sept. 7 email from Dan Flores of GM News Relations as evidence the car make is considering a change in position. Flores told two advocates he would forward their letter to GM’s government relations division.

Would moving the historic sunken garden improve the garden?

Landscape architect Bob Ford, working on behalf of the BWL, said the proposed move “brick by brick” of the historic sunken garden would make the garden compliant with Americans with Disability Act, open it up for more use and locate it overlooking the Grand River.

The BWL plan would also include a new access point for the Rivertrail as well as a new fishing platform. It would also include an overlook at the southern part of the park.

However, experts in historic structures and landscape have said moving the garden “brick by brick” would in fact destroy any historic significance.

“The early 20th century 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 City Council in a July 14 letter.

“Let’s be clear, there is no such thing as moving a garden,” wrote Peter Carrington, assistant curator and collection manager of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden at MSU, in a letter to the Council. He said the proposal would “destroy” the garden.

What will become of the Scott House?

The house could be sold if voters approve a ballot measure Nov. 8. If voters say no, and the special land use permit is approved, the house would be demolished, or moved to other city property. If voters say yes, Habitat for Humanity has a bid to pay $1 for the house and move it to another piece of city property at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Lenawee Street and convert it to condos. The city would sell the property to Habitat for $1 as well.