Oct. 18 2018 11:00 AM

‘We’re all in this together’


Shards of broken glass line the playground where children once had recess at the former Genesee Street School.

A mattress is overturned in the parking lot. Some windows have been boarded up: Others have been shattered by neighborhood children with too much time on their hands. Loose bricks along a nearby walkway only provide ammunition for more vandalism. A hand-painted mural is still plastered on one of the aging brick walls.

“We’re all in this together,” it reads — an ode to the asset the elementary school once was in its local community. The building nowadays provides nothing more than an avenue for trespass. Community organizations in years past have opened inside but have since left. Today, the building is only a vacant symbol of what could have been.

“The whole place needs to be torn down before somebody’s child winds up dead in there,” said Hazel Bethea, the president of the Genessee Neighborhood Association. “If they’re going to work on it, then they need to do what they said they were going to do. Otherwise, that building just needs to come down. Enough is enough.”

The neoclassical brick behemoth — built in the early 1900s — became a school by 1912. It remained part of the Lansing School District until the late ‘80s before it was offloaded to various nonprofits and community organizations over the years. And local residents are growing tired of watching the iconic property deteriorate. Cedric Smith overlooked the trash-covered parking lot from the porch of a nearby home and watches teenagers break into the building on an almost daily basis. Anything would be better than nothing, he said. And Mario Ricks — who lives across the street — agreed: Either turn it into something useful or knock it down.

“I’d love to turn that into a community center,” Ricks said. “It could be anything, really.”

The Black Child & Family Institute operated from the building for years before leaving in 2013. Zero-Day, a nonprofit dedicated to job training and housing for veterans, used it as their headquarters for another few years. It landed on the National Register of Historic Places before the site was donated to another nonprofit agency.

New World Flood — a 501(c)(3) launched by Michigan State University alumnus and former NFL player Todd “TJ” Duckett — now owns the deed to the school. Duckett previously launched conceptual plans to renovate the site into a community center but said those ambitions have been largely quashed by financial restraints.

“It’s taken a long time to figure out how to actually renovate the building and make it functional,” Duckett said. “The building is a lot of work. It’s a bigger undertaking than we had thought when we were going into this. We hit a few roadblocks here and there. Now we’re just trying to figure out what to do over there. It’s a tough spot.”

Bethea urged Lansing’s City Council last week to take action to improve the property. She supports the concept of Duckett’s community center. It could provide a much-needed outlet for local children and families, she said. But since New World Flood acquired the site three years ago, it has only moved in the opposite direction.

“The kids in this neighborhood don’t believe in staying out of anything that is empty,” Bethea added. “They’ve been running through that building for months. It’s just too dangerous for anyone to leave it like this.”

City Council President Carol Wood lives in the Genesee Neighborhood and shares Bethea’s concerns. She said she’d like to bring Duckett in for a meeting to discuss the future of the site. Cameras or lights could curb vandalism, she suggested. Otherwise, the city could eventually mandate the former school be demolished.

“If the building repairs will cost more than the value of the property, we can go through that process and order them to bring it up to code or bring it down,” Wood suggested. “We can bring in the property owners and work out a plan to improve the site or we can order them to make it safe or it’ll be demolished.”

The parcel has been valued at about $120,000, according to Ingham County records.

Records further indicate taxes were last paid on the property in 2015 and have been piling up ever since. A notice hanging on the doorway suggests New World Flood needs to pay nearly $15,000 to avoid a show cause and judicial foreclosure hearing scheduled for February. And Duckett isn’t sure where to come up with the cash.

The latest Internal Revenue Service records indicate Duckett’s nonprofit only collected about $24,000 in contributions in 2016. And that’s hardly enough to pay the back taxes, let alone make any progress on what Duckett estimated to be at least $5 million in renovations needed to return the building to its former glory.

“We’re looking at whether we’re going to be able to reach that goal or if we should move into a different space,” Duckett said. “We’re a grassroots organization. We weren’t exactly looking for this site when the opportunity came up. But it didn’t cost us anything, and it offered us a chance to do something in the community.”

Duckett said his board of directors will meet within the next month with hopes to either solidify a fundraising plan or pull up stakes by the end of the year to offload it to another group that can make more progress. He never intended to allow the site to fall into the state of disrepair it remains today, he repeatedly emphasized.

“It’s tough to hear these concerns, and this isn’t OK with us,” Duckett added. “We’re part of this losing season right now. Maybe we’ll remember these days and how low it got and that’ll help fuel this property into what it can be. It’ll be our goal to figure this out soon. As an organization, that’s our responsibility to better this place.”

Meanwhile, the dangers posed by the deteriorating eyesore of a school only increase by the day. City code compliance records indicate the property has been repeatedly cited for overgrown grass, trash illegally collecting outside the building and for several broken windows that have since been boarded up.

Councilman Brian Jackson — whose ward encompasses the Genesee Neighborhood — recently jogged by the school and said it looked like a “legitimately abandoned” building. He, like Wood, also wants to see the building revitalized for a better use. But finances have always stood in the way of progress, he said.

“I think there’s a point where we can say enough is enough and declare this as an unsafe structure,” Jackson added. “I just hope we can reach a solution using community and neighborhood input. Some might want to see it rehabbed. Others might want to see it go. I just want to see it become anything other than what it is today.”

Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued coverage at the former Genesee Street School.