Dec. 15 2010 12:00 AM

Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann has big plans to manage Frandor’s storm-water runoff — but what is standing in his way?

On a cold, windy Wednesday night in November, Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann offered the first public glimpse into his vision for the Frandor Shopping Center at Emil’s restaurant on Michigan Avenue.

To Lindemann, Frandor represents a river-polluting planning blunder. It’s his mandate, he says, to keep polluted rainwater from running off the massive parking lot and draining into the Red Cedar River.

Yet, when City Pulse ran a story in June 2007, Lindemann said the plan was to be in place by now, with construction finishing by 2012.

And while he says the plans are in motion, he is bracing for another two, three, maybe five years of political wrangling, regional cooperation and investment commitments from developers. The newest visuals are merely tentative.

The goal is to discharge clean water into the river. The task is doing it in a way that is cost effective, says Lansing Township Planning and Development Director Steve Hayward. Lansing Township and East Lansing have jurisdiction over about half of the Frandor area, while Lansing oversees the rest.

Hayward knows there is a runoff problem at Frandor, but he is quick to point out that business owners would have to fund any solutions to it through higher taxes.

“It’s up to them to say how they want to proceed,” Hayward said of the property owners. “If the project can get a lot of federal and state funding, it makes sense to move forward.”

And then there is the politics of what Lansing Township, Lansing and East Lansing want to see result from the project and what it costs taxpayers. Part of that may also include granting tax breaks to potential investors.

“The politics of this make it clear to me that it will be complicated,” Lindemann said. “I’ll make this a campaign issue. I’m not new to politics.”

Three municipalities make planning “more fragmented,” Hayward said, “But that doesn’t mean we can’t sit together and plan the area.”

Three years ago, Lindemann anticipated having all of the political and commercial commitments in order by now. Construction was to begin this year and the project could have been finished by 2012, realistically, he said then.

Lindemann said he is frustrated about getting the initial thrust of the project underway. This includes sitting down with the three municipalities to agree on who will pay for what — which is yet unknown.

There is also the need to inform Frandor business owners so that when they are presented a petition by the county they know what the issue is, Lindemann said. The Lansing City Council will be the decider of granting Lindemann easements to start the project.

Tracy Dobson, a fisheries and wildlife professor at MSU, was involved with the initial sampling of the Red Cedar River three years ago. She said she has noticed the energy being sucked out of the project over the past few years.

“We seemed to be on a roll there for a while, and the energy just dissipated for some reason,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean Dobson isn’t excited. Aside from cleaner water discharges, a more natural set of processes will lure wildlife to the area, she said. And there is always the excitement for new aesthetics.

“The thing could be a very cool, attractive magnet for people instead of the eyesore that it’s been over the years I’ve lived here,” she said.

Lindemann wants to be methodical about how the process moves forward, but it appears he’s getting antsy.

“It gulls me to try and figure out why we can’t do something like this,” Lindemann said. “This is a build it and they will come sort of thing.”

Rebuilding the system

The Frandor shopping area, which blankets the below-ground Montgomery Drain, is the largest contributor of nonpoint source pollution (i.e. rain water from the streets) in the Red Cedar watershed, Lindemann said.

His aim is to turn the area back into a swamp that will absorb the rainwater. This can be accomplished through “low impact design,” such as rain gardens, as opposed to piping it, as is done now.

“I have to interrupt that flow. That’s my charge under the Clean Water Act and I can’t do it alone,” Lindemann said.

Aside from rain gardens in the parking lot, there is also the defunct city-owned Red Cedar Golf Course to the south across Michigan Avenue.

“That becomes the sewer — the whole damn golf course. It’s a huge catch basin,” Lindemann said.

And then there is the commercial development nearby, which Lindemann says could be a catalyst to get the project moving.

Between the old Dunham’s sports equipment building and Story Chevrolet dealership on Michigan Avenue, Lindemann estimates there is about $450 million worth of investment to be had. That would include restaurants and mixed office, retail and residential buildings.

A planned pedestrian bridge over Michigan Avenue would be key to linking MSU students to Frandor, heightening its retail prowess. There is also consideration for an outdoor amphitheater and a bit of retail on the old golf course.

“This is how we rebuild cities,” Lindemann said. “This is about rebuilding Lansing.”