Sept. 9 2009 12:00 AM

Grand Avenue parking deck demolition brings Ottawa Power Plant makeover to a new stage


At mid-day last Tuesday, a substantial man in a substantial suit dodged the drifting dust to stand at the corner of Ottawa Street and Grand Avenue in downtown Lansing. He looked happy to risk dirtying the suit. It was a beautiful day to knock down a big ugly thing and take back the sky.

The man watched as two threestory-tall hydraulic pinchers took slow bites from the parking garage spanning Grand Avenue, picking at seven layers of concrete lasagna like fussy dinosaurs.

In the man’s left hand was a color poster depicting that very spot, a year and half from now.

The man holding the future was Matthew Haran, marketing poobah for the Lansing-based Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America.

Eyes fixed upward, he let the picture slip almost to the sidewalk.

“It’s really happening,” Haran said.

In Haran’s picture, the Ottawa Power Station bared its orange shoulders to open skies, unhindered by the grim, grey parking deck. The garage has eclipsed the west face of the flame-shaped Art Deco landmark since it was built in 1985.

In front of Haran, the real Grand Avenue was a grey and white haze, with a backdrop of stringy reinforcement cable and dangling concrete chunks. The former power station and future world headquarters of Accident Fund was only beginning to peek from the ragged edge of demolition work. The whole parking structure won’t be gone until mid-December, but this the beginning.

“My office is going to be on the fourth floor,” Haran said. “But things could change.” The Accident Fund plans to move into the building in spring 2011.

Haran was fresh from a press conference announcing the demolition. Present at the event were Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, Economic Development Corp. president Bob Trezise and assorted representatives from the Accident Fund and the Christman Co., the project’s main contractor.

At the ceremony, Trezise compared the parking deck to a wall dividing the city.

With the deck gone, the city’s greatest building will open to view, but Trezise and Bernero also expect the surrounding areas, including Lansing Community College, to connect with each other as never before. To grease things further, traffic will open in two directions on Grand Avenue.

The crunching claws brought a new surge of excitement over the Ottawa makeover. There’s been no shortage of dramatic milestones in the project all summer, including stately new windows and a nifty riverfront bike path. But the heavy work on the west side drove home the scope of the change coming to downtown.

After Haran left the corner for his boring old office, perhaps wishing he could jump into his own poster, another man drifted over from the press conference to catch the action on the corner. Christman project manager Chad Teeples, in charge of the Ottawa renovation, watched the pinchers snip at the steel and concrete, gently nudging the debris to the ground.

“What amazes me is the power of those things,” Teeples said. “Look how they cut through that stuff.”

Don’t they use wrecking balls anymore?

“Wrecking balls are bad,” Teeples said.

The Ottawa station’s lovingly restored masonry and brand new windows are only yards away from the demolition, so precision is key. The pinchers took turns, digesting the parking deck in small bites, occasionally working in tandem. It was almost poignant to see the carefully placed automatic sprinkler apparatus bite the dust. As the afternoon wore on, the treads of the pincher cranes struggled to climb ever-steeper mountains of debris.

Suddenly, one of the giant pinchers fell silent. A worker in a hardhat came up to the fence and hailed Teeples.

“Did you see that cable blow?” the hardhat asked. “She’s dead in the water.”

Hydraulic fluid sprayed from the pincher’s elbow and ran down its arm. Had it taken too big a bite? The contraption folded to the ground like a docile beast that knew it had done wrong. The operator climbed out of the cab and punched a number on his cell phone.

Despite the glitches, Teeples said, the project is going according to schedule.

The biggest previous job at the Ottawa plant — installing nine floors into its cavernous body — was finished last month.

Once the parking structure is gone, the next big step will be to free the plant from one last indignity: three water chilling units that squat on its west shoulder like cylindrical alien suckers.

Teeples expects the chillers to come off some time in the fall, when a new chiller under construction at the Capitol Complex is finished.

“That will be easier than it looks,” he said. “They look big, but there’s not that much to them. You’ll see them up one day and gone the next.”

Teeples took one more look past the chewed-up garage at the power plant’s blazing orange wall. A couple of rubbernecking hardhats, perched high on the plant’s parapet, went back to work when the demolition paused. On or off the building, the Ottawa project has been the greatest show in town all summer, and will continue for some time yet.

Still, Teeples almost seemed to be thinking of the end.

“There will be other great projects to work on, but nothing like this one,” he said.

Chad Teeples, project manager of the redevelopment of the Ottawa Power Plant into the world headquarters of the Accident Fund (left), watches demolition of the Grand Avenue parking ramp Tuesday, Sept. 1 with Mark Alexander of the Accident Fund.