March 17 2010 12:00 AM

City’s sale of an Old Town landmark troubles former tenants

Lansing may be one step closer to selling Old Town’s historic Comfort Station, though a neighborhood group that once occupied the building may want a piece of the pie.

The Comfort Station was once the home of the North Lansing Community Association but has sat empty for eight years. During that period, the city has tried to sell the 17-footwide building while its former tenants seethed, angry at having been evicted and got ready for a legal battle.

But the Lansing City Council’s Planning and Development Committee is attempting to soothe association members, some of whom claim it should get a fair share of proceeds from any sale.

The association claims it would sue if the city sells the Comfort Station without “properly compensating” the association for upgrades it made to the property. The association claims its work caused the value to increase from $6,000 in 1980 to $130,000 in 2009.

Association spokesman Tom Powers expects to meet with the City Attorney’s Office this week to discuss an alternative to a lawsuit. He refused to state how much compensation is wanted.

When the city evicted the neighborhood association in 2002, its attorneys set the amount due at $50,000. That figure is based on the money the association spent to upgrade the interior of the building, plus an estimated $40,000 for ongoing maintenance, insurance and utility payments over 22 years.

“I hope you realize you have an opportunity here to avoid an ugly battle,” said Harold Leeman Jr., a former First Ward councilman, at the March 10 committee meeting.

Even before Powers itemized the association’s services, At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries told him he had sought the city attorney’s interest in hearing Powers’ case.

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko questioned the precedent of reimbursing nonprofits for space the city has provided. Yorko works for the NorthWest Initiative, which was housed rent free in the Parks and Recreation Department’s Scott House for about five years before it moved. The nonprofit organization had taken over the entire second floor. It covered utilities — about $130 per month, totaling $7,800 over five years — and insurance. The group’s contract was renewed every two years.

The city leases properties to other groups, too, Jeffries said: the Gier Park BMX track, Fenner Nature Center, Turner Dodge House, , among others.

But the Comfort Station situation is different, Powers said.

He enumerated some of what the association had done: The building was used as a neighborhood center, but the fact that it still stands is the result of rehabilitation work the association did in 1975. It teamed with the city to secure a federal grant to help rehabilitate the Turner Dodge House and the Comfort Station. In order to comply with the terms of the grant, the association paid for all interior work to bring the building up to code. When the interior and exterior was completed, the association was to take ownership of the building.

But Powers has little paperwork to document his claims due to a fire in Old Town that destroyed the association’s records, said Geneva Wiskemann, a former state archivist.

“I had no idea of the investment you have made in saving this asset,” Yorko said to Powers. “I would like to find a way to publicly recognize your group. We should honor what you have done.”

The committee will meet March 24 to continue to discuss selling the station.