Nov. 23 2016 11:54 AM

Preservationists make gains despite loss to Bernero, BWL

Lansing preservationists took a licking over the BWL power station, but they are still ticking — maybe even louder.

OK, they lost the Battle of Scott Park. The BWL and Bernero get what they want, with the support of most of the City Council. Ratepayers save some money. The city loses a little more of its identity.

In a confusing ballot proposal, voters decided 57-43 percent to give the city permission to sell or dispose of the Scott Center Building, aka the Scott House or Jenison House. I thought a “yes” vote was the better option for saving the house because it would have permitted its sale and relocation. But Dale Schrader, a preservation leader, was pleased because so many people voted “no” — about 17,000 — because he says “no” would have saved the house. Too bad City Pulse and others fell down on clarifying what a vote meant before the election.

Regardless, the city can destroy one of the few remaining examples of the grand neighborhood that once stood where I-496 is. Schrader said the house is too far gone to attract a buyer, thanks to the Bernero administration’s neglect.

The historic nearly 100-year-old Scott Sunken Garden will survive, sort of. The plan calls for moving it — and hence removing its integrity as a historical landmark dating to the golden age of American landscape design.

The immediate cause of these twin insults to our heritage is that the public utility company needs to build a major power substation so it can close the coal-burning Eckert plant.

But the real root of it is that we lack leadership in City Hall that values the softer side of what makes for a great city.

Mayor Virg Bernero and his team get many points for bringing jobs to Lansing, but they are largely blind to preservation and the arts. (The mayor once told me he doesn’t have time for the arts; he thought the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, which is in Old Town, had moved to East Lansing.) Bernero cites Indianapolis and Madison as role models, yet seems blind to culture’s role in their success. A monument to his failure in this regard is the city surface parking lot that replaced the performing arts center at Lenawee and Grand. Another will be the destruction of Scott Park.

He does get credit for saving the old Ottawa Power Station, magnificently repurposed as the headquarters of the Accident Fund insurance company. That’s five years ago. What have you done for me lately other than put red balls in the downtown traffic circle at Christmas?

This all matters because next November Lansing will select a new mayor, and from all indications Bernero will be on the ballot for an unprecedented fourth term. Preservationists will have a chance to judge his performance.

How potent a force they will be is yet to be seen, but they tied up the BWL plan for months. The signs are they finally coming into their own.

Schrader, who is taking over as president of Preservation Lansing, says the group’s Facebook has grown from 400 to 1,700 followers since the Scott Park fight. started. And while losing at the polls, garnering 17,000 votes is hardly negligible. Had the group had the resources to mount a campaign to make it clear what a “no” vote meant, it might have been a different story.

Don’t underestimate gardeners. Word has it that members of the Garden Club of Greater Lansing are mad enough that they’re considering not continuing to maintain the Sunken Garden. They too vote.

Perhaps the best indication of the new spirit of preservation that could affect the mayoral race is the elevation of a preservationist to the presidency of the Lansing Parks Board.

The board voted to go along with the destruction of Scott Park with the support of its president, Rick Kibbey. But he has since relinquished the leadership to a preservationist, Veronica Gracia-Wing, who backed saving Scott Park.

“It’s a really critical time for the preservation contingent,” Gracia-Wing says. “We haven’t done a great job of preserving Lansing history.”

She plans to inventory the city’s parks assets and to work toward preserving such gems as the Turner-Dodge House on the north side and the Cooley-Haze House next door to Scott Park.

Another positive sign is that Jim McClurken is looking seriously at running against 4th Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko, who voted for the substation plan. McClurken, who as a parks board member opposed the power station, can look for support from the many organizations he and his partner have generously allowed to hold fundraisers at the Potter House mansion, their home.

Imagine: a parks board that considers preservation an important part of its job. Imagine a City Council with a member with a passion for preservation. Imagine voters making preservation an issue in the next mayor’s election. A great cause celebre could be the future of the Eastern High School building in the hands of its new owners, Sparrow Health System. Leadership on this issue from mayoral candidates can make a difference.

It’s a start.