Last call for City Hall: Will Schor finish what Bernero started?

Schor to developers: ‘Put up or shut up’ on City Hall reconstruction

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It’s history on repeat.

When former Mayor Ralph Crego took office in 1943, he already knew that Lansing City Hall needed to be replaced. A report from the planning firm of Harland Bartholemew & Associates had recommended reconstruction of the building as early as 1938 — noting then, the interior was “slovenly” and “dingy.”

The old City Hall, designed by Lansing architect Edwyn Bowd, had become a relic with its Richardsonian Romanesque style. Its heavy rock-faced stone and round masonry arches made it look more like a castle or church than a city office building. Crego wanted to bring Lansing into the future.

But World War II threw a wrench in those plans. Crego shelved the concept and focused elsewhere. It wasn’t until 15 years later that the new City Hall opened.

When Mayor Andy Schor took office in 2018, he already knew that City Hall needed to be rebuilt. Annual maintenance costs on the 10-story office building had climbed to about $600,000. City-issued reports had found the towering downtown facility was close to “nearing the end of its useful life.”

The current City Hall, designed by Lansing architects Lee and Kenneth Black, is a 1950s’ period piece with its granite and limestone curtain-wall construction. Moreover, the walls and windows are drafty. Utility systems are dated. The plaza and parking structure beneath it are quickly crumbling away. Calcified stalactites of minerals ooze from the basement walls.

But the pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. Schor shelved the concept and focused elsewhere.

It’s history on repeat.

Crego’s second term brought on a decade-long period of urban renewal to the Capital City in the aftermath of WWII — including the construction of a civic center; central and neighborhood fire stations; a police station; an airport terminal building; a public library; a headquarters for the Lansing Board of Water & Light; and, of course, the centerpiece of his modernist revival: a new City Hall across from the Capitol.

Construction began on the current City Hall building in 1956. It took two years to finish. And the result was an ultra-modern-looking steel, concrete and glass building — a real skyscraper for its time — that local historians still recognize for its striking (though dated) International architectural style.

Old newspaper captions even went as far as to compare the plans for City Hall to the United Nations building in New York because of its semi-transparent green glass and stone-clad walls, according to a chapter on City Hall in historian and Michigan State University Professor Susan Bandes’ book “Mid-Michigan Modern.”

About 70 years later, Schor is now riding a second-term modernization movement of his own. Development is booming. Just last month, he announced plans to build a mid-sized concert venue and arts hub on Washington Avenue — a modern-day civic center. And just like Crego, he’s now ready to move on to a new City Hall.

It’s history on repeat.

A request for proposals reissued by the city last month seeks to contract with a developer to find a new space for City Hall — either by renovating the existing building or repurposing the facility and moving the city’s offices, the Police Department and the 54-A District Court elsewhere in downtown Lansing.

The Lansing Building Authority hopes to finish collecting at least a few development proposals by late next month and solidify a “short list” of developers for Schor’s review by April. Schor hopes to vet the plans and pick his favorite by late May and send over a detailed project proposal to the City Council.

If all goes according to early plans, shovels could hit the dirt on a theoretical City Hall reconstruction project within the next 18 months, Schor estimated. It’s an admittedly ambitious plan that has had plenty of starts and stops in its various iterations over the last decade. And it still carries a lot of uncertainty, Schor said.

But he still thinks “Lansing’s time is now” — a catchphrase that Crego would’ve probably adored.

“This is time to put up or shut up,” Schor told City Pulse. “There’s a lot of people out there who told me they didn’t bid on this project six years ago and now they have new ideas. I’m not just going to pick one and give it to one developer. This is my chance to say: ‘All right. People say they can make this work now. Let’s see how we can make it happen.’ The new request for proposals is basically saying: ‘OK, show us.’”

He added: “This was a crisis when Dave Hollister was mayor, when Tony Benavides was mayor and when Virg Bernero was mayor. It’s just not a very good building. I mean, I’m here now, and I haven’t fallen through the floor; we’re able to do business here. But it’s not a great building. It’s just not as functional or forward-facing as I’d like to see for the city government. It’s time to try this all again.”

A new request for proposals seeks out a nebulous sort of project that involves renovating, relocating or reconstructing City Hall — including devising a new plan for the district courtrooms, the Police Department and its attached lockup, either all in one facility or cleaved apart into separate locations.

And, so far, just about everything is on the table for consideration, Schor said.

Developers could propose renovating the existing building, on the corner of Michigan and Capitol avenues, into a modernized City Hall. They could also tear it all down and start fresh — either in the same place or in a different location. Schor is also willing to consider ideas that would repurpose other buildings downtown for a new City Hall while the existing building is redeveloped into something else.

Whatever the plan, it should “maximize the redevelopment opportunity” at the existing City Hall, ideally by moving city offices elsewhere and putting the building back on the tax rolls for private development, Schor said. Perhaps the loftiest aspiration built into the plan? Schor said he wants it all to “pay for itself.”

“Ideally, we’ll come up with something that is totally paid for — or something that’s a reasonable number for the city,” Schor explained. “If not, then I guess we’ll have to look at staying inside this building. It would be better to have a plan to rehabilitate this building and then be able to move City Hall somewhere else with a smaller footprint and more of a customer-service, forward-facing approach to city business.”

Schor said that he hopes to field a development deal next month that could involve renovating City Hall into another use like a hotel. In theory, tax-increment financing deals could then be used to shuttle tax revenue collected on that project toward renovations at another site picked to become the new City Hall.

The new City Hall complex could involve fresh construction or (as Schor prefers) renovations at other existing downtown buildings. The new site could also include a Police Department and 54-A District Court or developers could find new places to put them — including on other city-owned properties.

“We could theoretically have a three- or four-floor office building with a customer service center and on-site parking, a clerk’s office and a mayor’s office — the things that need to be in City Hall,” Schor said. “Some of the other departments could then be housed elsewhere. Those could move to another city-owned property and that would give us a smaller footprint needed for wherever City Hall goes.”

The city’s latest request also specifically “encourages” developers to consider projects that involve leasing or purchasing the city office spaces inside several city-owned parking ramps, including two ramps on Capitol Avenue and one on North Grand Avenue, as well as two other parking lots in downtown Lansing.

The entirety of the city office complex at 2500 S. Washington Ave. is also up for grabs if developers can make it work. The request specifically deems that location as “under-programmed” following plans to relocate the Public Media Center to the yet-to-be-built performing arts center on Washington Avenue.

The latest search plans also ask developers to consider concepts that would simultaneously reduce occupancy, energy and maintenance costs for the city while also finding better ways to utilize office space — including the possibility of a much smaller footprint and a much more convenient style of services for local residents. 

Schor added: “Not everyone needs an office with a door. There are other ways to reduce space. We have a huge amount of storage space for file cabinets and things like that. That’s digital. We don’t need all that.”

Developers have until March 22 to submit their final proposals to the Lansing Building Authority. Concepts will be reviewed primarily based on their “creative vision’’ for downtown redevelopment — with a little extra help from some contracted expertise.

Schor hired the East Lansing-based development firm River Caddis as the city’s first-ever “master developer” last year to help ensure the project, among several others, goes smoothly. River Caddis’ top executive, John McGraw, said his job is to “identify risks, cost savings and opportunities” to help identify the “best” options.

“We’re looking at numerous projects across the city, not just City Hall, but City Hall is a really important one,” McGraw said, noting that his firm plans to ensure that whatever proposal put in motion this year is one that efficiently fits the physical needs of the city without necessarily breaking the city’s bank to get it done.

The city’s contract with River Caddis spells out a total compensation package of up to $150,000 for six months of work and $100,000 for outside studies. City officials didn’t respond to questions about how much the firm has already been paid. The firm’s role as master developer precludes it from also submitting its own City Hall development proposal.

So far, no proposals have yet been submitted to the city, though representatives from several major players on the local construction market expressed at least some interest to City Pulse in the last week, including Ferguson Development, Gillespie Group, Boji Group, Urban Systems, Clark Construction and the Eyde Co.

Schor also said that he “wouldn’t be too surprised” if Chicago developer J. Paul Beitler resubmits his proposal to transform the City Hall building into a high-end hotel and restaurant — a long-running redevelopment plan that Bernero attempted to pass to Schor before leaving the mayor’s office in 2017. Schor supported it as a candidate for mayor the first time around. He was reelected last year.

Beitler’s concept, which Schor shelved shortly after he was elected, included signing a 99-year lease on the City Hall building with plans to turn it into a ritzy hotel geared for convention crowds and renovate the former Lansing State Journal building, on the southwest corner of Lenawee Street and Grand, into the new site of a smaller City Hall. It’s still listed under the “coming soon” tab on the Beitler Real Estate Services website.

Schor said that plan collapsed because the proposed Lenawee Street redevelopment didn’t include enough space for the courts and the police lockup, which are housed in City Hall. The Gillespie Group’s BLOCK600 combined hotel and apartment project on Michigan Avenue may have tightened the local hospitality market, but Schor thinks there’s still plenty of room for another iteration of a hotel-based project to gain some steam.

“I liked Beitler’s plan very much. I liked the hotel and the restaurant that he had proposed. I liked it very much — including the way he wanted to reuse the existing building. I guess we’ll see if it comes back again and if it matches with a new City Hall that can work this time around,” Schor added. “I’ve heard a lot of claims out there, but until someone files a proposal, I just don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”

Beitler didn’t return calls this week. The Eyde Co., which owns the vacant LSJ building, is willing to consider ideas that would incorporate the site into a City Hall plan, said its chief financial officer, Mark Clouse.

Developers Jeff Deehan and Brent Forsberg partnered as Urban Systems to submit another City Hall proposal in 2017. They told City Pulse that they were “considering” yet another “potential” proposal last week. Their original idea included renovating City Hall into a 205-room hotel and moving the city offices to the former Lake Trust Credit Union headquarters at 501 S. Capitol Avenue.

That plan is no longer feasible because the old Lake Trust Credit Union building is being developed into apartments, a gym and a yoga studio. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options at other buildings in the downtown area that could still be considered, Deehan and Forsberg suggested. The two have partnered to develop the newly proposed performing arts center.

Boji Group had also submitted a plan to raze City Hall altogether and rebuild it as a taller, 12-story building — including a hotel, apartments and an assortment of first-floor retail space. President and CEO Ron Boji, through spokesman John Truscott, said that he’s “interested” and “excited about pursuing” a “potential” proposal for a new City Hall, but otherwise declined to elaborate.

Boji didn’t mention any possibility of including the former Masonic Temple building on Capitol Avenue in any would-be City Hall plans. The Boji Group bought that historic building from WMU-Cooley Law School this summer but hasn’t yet announced any redevelopment plans for it.

The fourth proposal that was considered by the Bernero administration came from Karp and Associates. It also included plans for a new, taller City Hall — again 12 stories that also included a “world-class” hotel, high-end apartments, offices and event space. CEO Richard Karp didn’t return calls this week.

Beitler’s initial proposal to renovate City Hall was the only one of the four submitted at the time that would have preserved much of the original building without blocking the view of what preservationists have long considered to be one of the most important examples of mid-20th-century architecture in the Lansing region.

While there are several other similar steel-frame-and-glaze office buildings in the area, they “lack the finesse of City Hall,” Bandes wrote in her book. Old news reports had cast the building as “the first of its type in the Midwest.” Bandes wrote that the choice of the site, across the street from the Capitol, was also deliberate and critical to Mayor Crego’s intended message to the rest of the state: Lansing was ready for the future.

Schor said he’d prefer to see a development proposal that retains some of the historic City Hall, including the iconic sculptural representation of the city seal that’s carved into the western wall of the building. But he’s not necessarily committed to historic preservation in order to get the job done — and get it done for a good price too.

“I want to see what comes in. I like this building. I like the history of the building. But I’m not going to prejudge anything right now because I want to see what sort of proposals come in,” Schor explained.

Developer Joel Ferguson told City Pulse that he hasn’t decided whether to submit a proposal but was still considering it this week. Pat Gillespie said last week he was “50/50” on whether he wanted to add another project to his already busy development docket.

Allen Blower, a senior vice president at Clark Construction, also said that he was “working with some people and taking a look” at a potential proposal. He expects at least three proposals to be submitted.

“They’re out there, but it’s kind of confidential right now. That’s how developers work,” Blower added.

Several developer sources also spoke this week (on deep background) to outline an overarching sense of “deal fatigue” attached to the City Hall project. Several would-be developers cited ongoing frustrations with the sluggish pace and stalled momentum tied to the city’s protracted selection process. Some suggested it may lead to less inspiring concepts with a smaller economic impact than previous proposals.

Schor, however, is undeterred and back up to bat. In an interview with City Pulse last week, he optimistically recycled just about every cliche in his mayoral speech book to help carry the project over the final finish line.

It’s the “end of the road” and the “final chapter.” It’s “where the rubber meets the road,” Schor explained.

It’s history on repeat.

Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued coverage on plans to reconstruct City Hall.

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