Save Eastern


University of Michigan Health-Sparrow is to be commended for proposing a psychiatric facility for Lansing. America is suffering a mental health crisis, and our community is no exception. Sparrow operates the area’s only patient intake facility, but it is overwhelmed, based on media reports last year. Lansing needs what U of M Health-Sparrow is proposing.

But not at the cost of the old Eastern High School.

Preservationists speak as one: Eastern needs to be saved, outside and in. “It is one of the most significant buildings in Lansing,” Nancy Finegood, the former longtime director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, said. Nothing like it will ever be built again.

Brian McGrain, then the city’s economic planning and development director, said in 2019, when Eastern graduated its last class, “It’s been a central point of the east side for a century. We would be astonished, as would the rest of the east side, if they did something like leveling it.”

Yet that is exactly what U of M Health-Sparrow is obviously considering, based on not reading too far between the lines. “The high school has been closed for years,” said its statement last week that confirmed its proposal to build a nearly $100 million psychiatric facility here, “and its dilapidated interior makes it unsafe and cost prohibitive to locate any services there.” 

Given that Eastern was functioning just five years ago when the Lansing School District delivered the keys to Sparrow, we could dwell on whose fault that is. Rather, we prefer to appeal to the new owner’s better angels. U of M Health bought Sparrow. We beseech its executives and U of M’s regents, who will decide whether to fund the psychiatric facility, to look at this situation in its totality, not just from the mental-health needs perspective.

We see some evidence that U of M might at least consider it. This year, U of M Health-Sparrow announced that it will renovate nine eastside houses it inherited near the hospital that the old Sparrow management let rot away. U of M Health-Sparrow showed a genuine sensitivity to the community. Obviously, saving Eastern is a project of much greater magnitude, but not one that a university with an $18 billion endowment cannot find the means to support.

This, Lansing, is a fight worth fighting. But it will take a commitment reminiscent of the Keep GM movement. In 1996, General Motors announced plans to pull out of Lansing. Then Mayor David Hollister said “no” and rolled up his sleeves. Nearly 30 years later, GM remains one of our community’s economic pillars.

We understand the significant difference here: U of M Health-Sparrow wants to invest in our community, not leave it. We want that partnership. But we want it not to be one-sided, as it usually was in Sparrow’s favor.

The responsibility for leading this fight falls logically on the shoulders of Mayor Andy Schor. Fortunately, Schor cares about preservation. He is committed to saving the current City Hall, another important piece of Lansing architecture. And he tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to move city offices into the historic Masonic Temple.  Schor’s office issued a statement last week that the mayor would be “disappointed to see Eastern come down. He appreciates that UM Sparrow is engaging the neighborhood and alumni on the future plans. He’d love to see that building be reused somehow.”

However, words are far from enough. It’s up to alumni, preservationists and community leaders who value placemaking to convince Schor to make keeping Eastern a priority. Ryan Kost, the city’s eastside Council member, has already pledged his support to “fight tooth and nail” against old Eastern’s demolition. We expect other Council members will join them, and we’re particularly hoping that At-Large Council member Peter Spadafore will be among the most vocal. After all, as school board president he presided over Eastern’s sale to Sparrow. He should feel a strong sense of betrayal that a major institution such as U of M Health-Sparrow would be considering destroying such an important piece of Lansing’s history.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Connect with us