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For decades, a stretch of green space dotted with trees has spanned the distance between Lansing Eastern High School’s parking lot on the south and Orchard Street on the north. Buried underneath, however, could be historical secrets about the site’s former use as the Michigan Industrial School for Boys.
The Lansing School District began excavation work on the site two weeks ago as it prepares for the construction of the $7.1 million Eastern Athletics Complex.
Dean Anderson, the state’s archeologist, said he’s already walked the site with officials from both Christman Construction and the school system.
“It’s hard to tell what might be down there,” Anderson said Tuesday. “It may or may not by historically significant. Time will tell.”
He said the property has been identified as an archeological site for historic interest. However, that designation confers no legal obstacles to construction. But he is planning to work with district officials as the construction continues and, potentially, do an archeological dig.
Buried under the grass, trees and soil are the remains of perhaps as many as seven buildings. The last buildings on the site were torn down in fall 1973, but the facility, which had been operating since before the Civil War, had gone through a series of buildings. Traditionally, in such scenarios, the foundations of the buildings were left, and much of the building was placed in the foundation and covered over.
As a museum studies major, Susan Edminster, who lives on Orchard across from the construction, has raised concerns about the potential loss of valuable information regarding the history of the property. It played home for over a century to an entity that was named and renamed numerous times over the years. Locally, most people refer to it as the Boys Training School, decommissioned in the early ‘70s.
Edminster’s work during her master’s studies at Michigan State University revealed a deep and complicated history of the property, including ties to legendary Civil War companies of African American soldiers. The site has been given an historic designation number, which means under law it has historic significance but does not regulate or impact any development on the property.
Throughout the time the land was used, it played home to dozens of different buildings and configurations. Often when a building was razed, said Edminster, the entire building was shoved into the foundation, covered up and forgotten.
“There could be all sorts of things in there,” she said of the foundations and building remnants.
Barry Roney, bond coordinator for the district, said he has researched the history of the property “extensively” and agrees there are the remains of buildings located under the surface of the property. The construction crews have already discovered the remains of two such buildings.
“We are working with the state archaeologist,” Roney said. “He’s been out here and he will be back.”
Despite the number of building demolished and buried on the site, Roney said he did not anticipate there would be much to be found in the way of historical interest.
“A lot of that is just rubble,” he said. “We may well use some of it as fill if it is suitable.”
Roney said that change will be fed by both the planned Sparrow Hospital’s expansions and the athletic fields. Sparrow Health System purchased the Eastern High School building in 2016 and the hospital has been undergoing major expansion, including a new cancer center.
The new athletic complex will include a multipurpose field with synthetic turf and grandstands, a competition size track and additional softball fields. It will also have a 450-car parking lot, with the main entrance off Pennsylvania at Shiawassee Street.
“You’re changing the nature of this area in regard to the kind of traffic it will get,” Roney said.
But the excitement of officials is not shared by everyone. Neighbors on Orchard Street worry about increased traffic and trash that increased use could cause, Edminster said.
“My concern for my street immediately is that the street was created about 1910, 1911. It’s not a standard-width street,” Edminster said. “The plans show that there will be an exit from the very large parking lot at the end of our dead-end street. Our concern for this neighborhood is that this will cause a 1000 percent increase in traffic and noise and trash.”
School officials said the planned parking lot is unlikely to cause traffic issues in the quiet neighborhood. The driveway emptying onto Orchard will be closed off by a chain link fence gate and used only for emergency vehicle access, and in “rare” instances where the light at Shiawassee and Pennsylvania causes traffic backups. But officials said they don’t expect the backups.
“The light will be reset for Friday nights to address that and prevent too much queuing,” said Roney.
He also noted that with increased activity on the site for athletic events, as well as school officials doing upkeep, trash would not be an issue.
“With more activity, with more people, the trash is going to get picked up,” he said. “And that’s going to get strictly enforced.”
The Lansing Eastern Quakers have not had a football field of their own to host games for decades, but that comes to end in 2019. The Lansing School District, using funds from the $120 million Lansing Pathway Promise millage, has begun preparing a large parcel of land on Pennsylvania Avenue to build a new home for the eastside team.
School and city officials said they believe the new athletic complex will give a boost the neighborhoods surrounding the property.
“The sky’s the limit,” said former Lansing Police Chief Teresa Szymanski, who is chief of operations for the Lansing School District, of the potential impact on the adjacent neighborhoods. “There’s all sorts of opportunities there we haven’t even unfolded yet that could bring this neighborhood back up.”
That excitement is shared by City Councilwoman Jody Washington, who represents the 1st Ward, where it is being built.
“This is an awesome project,” Washington said. “I think it is going to be transformative for the area, I truly believe that.”