July 21 2010 12:00 AM

How a power plant became an urban development

One of Lansing’s young business leaders thinks it’s fitting that the site of the Board of Water and Light’s proposed steam/power plant was the test track for R.E. Olds’ REO Motor Co.

“Now you’ve got a cogeneration power plant coming in that’s reducing the carbon footprint of what’s been looked at as a coalfired monster in town,” Chris Van Wyck, creative director of Ciesa Design in Old Town, said.

“I like the idea that what was once an innovative space is still an innovative space.”

Van Wyck is a partner in New Enterprise Opportunity, a 1-year-old new business incubator in REO Town. He thinks REO Town is ripe to leap the gap of Interstate 496 and plug in to downtown Lansing.

REO Town, the historic district south of Lansing’s hub, is home to several new businesses, loft apartment projects and a new art gallery, but the area’s renaissance has slowed in recent years. The bustle of 1,000 to 1,200 construction jobs is expected to jump-start a new wave of activity. When the plant is finished in 2013, 180 BWL employees will move to the new plant from the BWL’s administrative headquarters on Haco Drive to the east. A customer service center and drive-up payment window will add to the traffic.

Karl Dorshimer, vice president of the Lansing Economic Development Corp., said the proposed plant fits into long-range plans to encourage a continuous strip of activity along Washington Avenue, from downtown to REO Town. He cited the impending demolition of the seedy Deluxe Inn next to I-496, a property with river frontage ripe for mixed-use development.

“This is Washington, the main drag for the city of Lansing,” Dorshimer said. “I really look forward to the day when all this excess downtown just pours across 496.”

BWL general manager J. Peter Lark said other locations were considered for the plant, but declined to name them. The REO Town bullseye, he said, was a happy coincidence.

The BWL needs to build close to three hookups: the downtown steam loop, highvoltage electric lines and natural gas lines.  The BWL staff connected the dots and ended up on the big parking lot next to the Grand Trunk railway depot on South Washington Avenue.

Dorshimer said the plant will give REO Town an “iconic” focal point. “There is no remnant of the REO plant,” Dorshimer said. “This will help provide an identity.”

To visualize the new plant, the BWL tapped Dick Peffley, a 28-year veteran at the utility. Peffley designed the utility’s last major project, the chilled water plant at the southwest corner of Pine and Allegan streets in downtown Lansing.

Peffley said natural gas power plants are usually “just pole barns,” but the BWL wanted to do something special with the REO Town plant.

“This was a particularly pain-in-the-butt design,” he said. “When you’re going into an area that has this kind of history, you have to be kind of sensitive.”

Peffley said he was inspired by the renovation of the BWL’s 1939 Ottawa Power Station into the world headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co., now nearing completion.

Peffley’s father, Roy Peffley, designed the BWL’s most recently built power plant, the Erickson Station, in 1972. The new chiller plant is named after Peffley the elder, now retired and living in Florida.

With that background, it’s no wonder Peffley the younger is keenly conscious of the utility’s history. The proposed plant’s stacked step-up layers of red brick and white masonry pay homage to the monumental Ottawa Power Station a few blocks north.

“That building is such a piece of Lansing’s history,” he said. “To have it revitalized and not torn down is huge, and I wanted to capitalize on that. Someday, when somebody looks at this building and I’m long gone, they’ll think the same thing.”

Four stories of offices will fill the glassand-brick front of the plant. Behind them will be two co-generating units, each consisting of a gas turbine to produce electricity and a boiler to produce steam, with a third boiler for backup. The backup boiler will not produce electricity.

“All that’s in there is fairly simple, it’s just on a large scale,” Peffley said.

On July 14, Peffley and his staff launched an 8-foot-wide balloon 160 feet into the air over REO Town to see how high the proposed plant would tower over the neighborhood.

“It fit well, better than I anticipated,” Peffley said. “Two blocks away, you won’t even see it from your house.”

Peffley suggests skeptics who doubt that a power plant can fit into an urban neighborhood look at the chilled water plant. “The building fits in with the historic State Capitol, didn’t make noise, and looked just like the design,” he said.

A major challenge was harmonizing the eight-story plant with the ornate Grand Trunk railroad depot next door. Peffley’s team started with a narrower and taller design but scrapped it when it looked out of scale with the depot.

“I shrunk it down and pushed it around a little, and used brick that’s similar to the brick on the railroad station,” Peffley said. “It’s expensive to build that way, but we’re part of the community, we want the buy-in.”

Peffley said the plant’s brick shell is designed for easy repurposing. Natural gas plants have an expected life of about 30 years.

“This one will be a heck of a lot easier to redo another plant inside, or turn it into commercial or residential,” he said.