Politics, economics, and emotions collide in debate over the fate of Scott Sunken Garden

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Photo by Max Johnston

The Scott House, with a power plant literally and figuratively on the horizon. Photo by Max Johnston.

By Max Johnston
Listen Up Lansing Staff Reporter

Malcolm X Street west of Washington Avenue was once densely populated with English Tudors and mansions of the Lansing elite. Now only two remain: The Michigan Women’s Historical Center & Hall of Fame and The Scott House and Sunken Garden.

However, the Board of Water and Light is trying to replace the Scott House and Sunken Garden with a new substation, much to the chagrin of some in Lansing like Liz Harrow.

“Mainly my objection is that it feels that Lansing is giving up on its downtown, or on REO Town,” Harrow said. “They have decided that this unsightly compromise is good enough for a small city with low ambitions.”

Photo by Max Johnston

The Scott Sunken Garden. Photo by Max Johnston.

The City of Lansing has options for the property. The city and the BWL have offered to sell and relocate the house and Sunken Garden for $100,000, although that isn’t including refurbishing and restoration costs that could turn off many buyers. Amy Adamy, communications coordinator for BWL said that the choice of the Scott House location was simply a pragmatic one.

“We took about a year to look over several sites within the Lansing area and ultimately it came down to two options available for us: The Scott House center site and the Eckert Location. The difference is that the Eckert Location is in a 100-year floodplain which means that it would cost several million dollars more to raise it out of that floodplain making it vastly more expensive,” Adamy said. “This is really the most cost-efficient choice that we have and really it is the best option.”

The Scott House Sunken Garden has a deep connection to local and state history. The garden was built in 1930 by Richard Scott, then president of REO Motor Company, on the property of Michigan State Supreme Court Judge Edward Cahill. Vice President of Preservation Lansing Dale Schrader said the Sunken Garden is a valuable landmark for the community who has worked to maintain it.

“People go there and they meditate and they sit and they look at it and it’s spectacular. It’s a city landmark,” Schrader said. “The garden club of Lansing has also worked on maintaining and restoring this garden for the last 30 years, so it’s like their lifeswork might be destroyed here.”

Proposed locations for the new BWL substation. Map courtesy of Google.

Proposed locations for the new BWL substation. Map courtesy of Google.

Schrader said the dollars-and-cents outlook is shortsighted and sets a dangerous precedent.

“I would say it’s a short-term approach, it’s probably the most efficient location, but it’s just that the land inside this park is forever cut off from the public. It has so much effect,” Schrader said. “It will have a domino effect, when you drive out there it’s sort of a little oasis in the middle of a mess, but if you cut that oasis in half and then a quarter of it falls into disrepair as well. Cooley Gardens will just be completely isolated; we want our grandchildren to appreciate history and it will just all be destroyed.”

Adamy said that the BWL’s choice was an educated one, and that the organization would like to relocate and renovate the property if a buyer can be found.

This project has been sensitive, we’ve been careful planning it. We’ve spent a year to look and do research across the country of what other cities have done in regards to the substation,” Adamy said. “We made the commitment to not just put up fencing on your traditional substation on that corner, we’ve done a lot of research and a lot of work and we’ve asked for the community’s input as well to make it more visually appealing. We’re putting up artwork along the sides, and we want it to act as a gateway to REO [Town neighborhood].

The next step is a vote of the Lansing Parks board, who declined to comment for this article, on April 13 in order to determine if the Scott House land will remain a dedicated public park space. However, this vote simply provides a recommendation to the City Council who has the final decision. This isn’t stopping Preservation Lansing from putting up a fight. An online petition started by the organization has gained over 700 signatures in the first week of April.

Michigan State University Professor of Urban Studies Zenia Kotval said money could be key to how this plays out.

“Local budgets are a reflection of what citizens are willing to pay. If a landmark were important to the citizens, the local authorities could levy a special tax to protect it. The citizens would vote on the special tax levy,” Kotval said. It’s a wicked problem. Landmarks are important to special groups. If these groups are able to raise funds to save and manage them, that’s wonderful. Their protection is important, but not necessarily the function of local government budgets.”

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