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I share this as context for my disappointment when in last week’s Pulse article, “Off by $14 Million,” Randy Hannan dismissed Harry Hepler’s contribution to the conversation surrounding City Hall and its future as being the product of sour grapes. Hepler is the founder of H Inc. and one of Lansing’s original “Urban Pioneers” who invested in downtown Lansing before it was the cool thing to do.
For the record, H Inc. had been invited to submit a proposal and could have assembled a highly qualified development team for the City Hall RFQP, but elected not to for one reason: H Inc. is focusing all our energy into our next growth phase centered on the creation of pre-crafted residential living options assembled right here in Lansing for export throughout the Midwest. We only re-engaged in the topic of City Hall because we are excited by the opportunity to see that architectural gem restored and because we care about realizing the best, historically sensitive outcome for our city. In contrast to Hannan’s negativity, all of us at H Inc. commend Mayor Bernero and his team for starting an important conversation about the future of City Hall. No one disputes that the current building has served our city well for many decades, but now requires significant, thoughtful new investment. Our enthusiasm is only tempered in recognition of Lansing’s financial pressures and for lack of a complete plan that addresses both the current building and future facilities.
Asked to comment for the Pulse’s 9/21/2017 article, this is precisely the message Mr. Hepler delivered: Lansing would be best served by completing the recommended Master Plan and Feasibility Study to guide decision-making with a full accounting of the costs and a complete understanding of the needs a new facility must address (One building or several? Police? Courts? Departments now housed outside of City Hall?). This should be the least effort expected given the financial weight and long lifespan of such a project, and I believe the results of the RFQP support this position.
Proposers demonstrated with clarity that the current building can realize a higher and better economic use as a private development contributing to new growth and vibrancy downtown. Three of the four proposers agreed to varying degrees with H Inc. and members of the historic preservation community that the current building ought to be rehabilitated to accentuate its architectural merits while preserving elements of the public courtyard for public use (though I would note none of the four proposed a true historic preservation of the classic Kenneth Black designed building). Clearly, there are good ideas pertaining to the current site to build-on and incorporate into the City’s Master Plan, but I’m less sure there is at this point a single winning proposal.
The submitted proposals demonstrate a lack of clarity and direction surrounding the future City Hall. While several sites were pitched that have the potential to become superior locations for city offices, there was a distinct lack of detail with respect to what functions new facilities would be made to serve, in what timeframe, and at what cost to the city. A master plan would help answer those questions and also inform the most beneficial way to structure a deal to minimize risk to the city. It may be better, as the RFQP postulates, that a single firm handles development of both sites. Alternatively, the city may realize better value by having one party redevelop the current site and with a clear master plan in place have many others competitively bid to develop the new City Hall.
It’s the lack of detail and planning around the new facilities that worry me most. Absent a clear master plan for both the current site and new facilities, a quickly executed development agreement could easily fail to meet Lansing’s space requirements, while costs could very well outstrip vaguely formed expectations — turning this entire endeavor from the catalyst for growth it is intended to be into a drag on the city’s financial health. That is why I think it best to give up the artificial December deadline, allowing the conversation to mature and a new administration with new staff talent to contribute before any development agreements are executed. To do otherwise would be like selling your house before having any idea where you were going to move.
Concerns about process aside, I remain excited about the future of Lansing, including the prospect of visiting a rehabilitated Kenneth Black building and new city hall downtown.
(Stephen Purchase is a Lansing resident, is vice president of H Inc.)