Suspicion and Frustration Follow Bailey Vote

Friday, January 23, 2015, 11:36 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Since Tuesday’s 3-2 vote at Council to close the Bailey daycare and community center, ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols and I have been soliciting citizen reactions.

As we reported earlier this week, Mayor Nathan Triplett, Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goddeeris, and Councilmember Susan Woods effectively voted to close the daycare and center. Councilmembers Ruth Beier and Kathy Boyle tried unsuccessfully to require City support for the daycare through June, 2016. (The Bailey parents’ working group had said this June 2016 deadline would be enough time to enact their plan to transition the daycare to a program that would not be City-run and would pay the City rent for the Community Center space it occupies.)

We have been unable to find any citizen who will support, on the record, the majority vote to close the daycare and center.

We have, however, been provided ample feedback from those who sided with the losing votes by Ruth Beier and Kathy Boyle.Thus, this article reports what those who supported keeping the daycare and community center open said at Council on Tuesday before the vote, as well as what they’ve told us since.

Just to be clear, the boldface subtitles below do not represent ELi’s position—we take no position on these matters. Rather, they represent the themes that emerged in remarks made by those who wanted to see the daycare and community center kept open. (This is similar to how we organized dominant themes in our reports on why people voted “yes” or “no” on the land sale ballot question last November.)

Worries about what will happen to the Center and the neighborhood:

Because she had spoken at Council Tuesday night and I could find her email contact information, I asked Erin Graham, who lives in Bailey with her husband and two school-aged daughters, to tell us her reaction to Tuesday’s vote. Graham and her husband moved from Seattle, Washington, to take faculty jobs at MSU. Graham told Council on Tuesday before the vote that they had explored living in Okemos, Haslett, etc., but that they settled on Bailey in part because of the park and community center.

Graham tells us post-vote that she is worried about blight resulting from the building being closed to activities. Quoting the Merriam-Webster dictionary, she wrote, “One definition of blight is ‘something that causes harm or damage like a disease.’ Diseases spread. The closure of the Bailey Community Center will negatively impact all of us.”

Similarly, Erik Altmann, a resident of Bailey and member of the Planning Commission, told me the day after the meeting, "They just voted to create blight at the east end of downtown to complement the blight they haven’t been able to fix at the west end of downtown.” He added, “These people have no idea what they’re doing."

Nick Tesseris told Council on Tuesday he specifically moved back to East Lansing as an adult to live in Bailey, and that “the community center is a big part of that.” He told Council he had the sense they did not understand how important the Community Center is to the Bailey neighborhood.

Byron Lane has lived across from the Bailey center with his wife and three children since 2002. His family has attended classes there; for example, his daughter attended a Chinese immersion preschool program at the Center. Lane told Council on Tuesday night that he worried what was going to happen if the center was sold to a developer. He told Council he knew there had been promises it wouldn’t become student housing (Mayor Triplett has called this his “line in the sand”) but noted that once a property is in private hands, there is just so much the City can do. He reminded Council of a housing project on Alton where the developer sued to fight the City's attempts to restrict their plans, and the developer got the student housing project built the way the developer wanted, against concerns of the neighborhood.

“We love students,” Lane told Council. “They’re an important part of East Lansing.” But, he added, having student housing at the Bailey center “would be disastrous for us.”

In an email responding to questions from ELi since the vote, Byron’s wife Michelle Lane, a lawyer, described her reaction to the vote as one of disappointment and concern. “I really thought the voices of our neighborhood would be heard and I expected them to be convincing,” she said. As a result of the vote, “I think the vibrancy of our neighborhood will decline. . . . I think that [by] removing the playful voices of children from the park and neighbors no longer visiting the center for various activities . . . the center will become quiet like a morgue. Who would want to live by a morgue?”

Feeling unheard by and suspicious of Council and City staff:

After the vote, Erin Graham summed up her take thus: “Three out of the five council members voted against the will of the people.”

The problem people we have talked with since the vote have had with this is not just that this was a “vote against the will of the people,” but that the vote seemed to be set against the neighborhood well before Tuesday.

As many respondents noted, the daycare parents group was told at Council, weeks ago, If you want to save this daycare, come up with a plan that takes it out of the hands of the City. As Charles Hoogstraten told Council on Tuesday, the parents did just that; in a short space of time, they did what everyone recognized as a huge amount of work and presented a very detailed plan. But still they were met with only minority support on Council and no support from City staff. This seems to have left many citizens cynical and/or suspicious.

Contributing to the cynicism has been the City staff’s insistence throughout the last few months on keeping the Bailey Community Center on a “redevelopment ready” list. Says Michelle Lane, for example, “I'd like to know why the city seems to have a plan for the center but is unwilling to share the plan with its citizens who are most directly affected. This appears to show a lack of candor and a disregard for the thoughts, opinions and emotional welfare of its citizens.”

Meanwhile, Erin Graham found herself frustrated by the focus at Council on the possibility of what she terms “vague and uncertain future costs,” such as asbestos abatement; even as Council was reaching a decision allegedly based on the economics of building upkeep, staff could not say for sure whether or when the building needed certain repairs. “Voting against the community center because there may be an asbestos issue is like voting for a war because there may be weapons of mass destruction,” Graham told me.

Sally Silver, a long-time resident and activist of the Bailey neighborhood, has told me she has never felt her neighborhood so opposed by its own City as it has been on this issue. On Tuesday she told Council, “I feel besieged . . . by the City itself.” She asked Council why staff should be trusted at this point to provide accurate information, given how many inaccuracies citizens had turned up while checking facts.

Decrying a failure to support working parents:

Denita Brant, who lives on Linden Street, told Council on Tuesday night that she lives “close enough to hear the kids when they are playing in the Bailey yard.” She talked about the need for parents to have “peace of mind” of the kind that comes with having your children nearby. She asked why, when working parents have been shown to need more nearby childcare options, the City was moving to end all chances of this one staying. Her big theme was that the building was built as a school, and she said that that identity—of the building as a school—needed to be taken into account in the City’s decisions.

Sean Sanford of Bailey told Council that he isn’t sure what his family is going to do once the daycare closes in terms of care for his son. He explained that having to go farther away from home creates hardships for parents like him balancing work and parenting, and that his son’s life will be disrupted by this sudden need to leave a school he has loved.

Konrad Hittner, president of the Bailey Neighborhood Association, spoke at Council Tuesday night only for himself, and in doing so spoke to the obligation on the part of the community to provide an adequate system of childcare for young children and families. He said he understood that losing money is problematic, but noted that the parents had presented a plan for a solution and said Council should support it.

In her remarks to me, Erin Graham summed up the concerns of many working parents watching this: “The vote was against children, women, families, the Bailey neighborhood, and the citizens of East Lansing.”

A sense of the City turning its back on young families and long-time residents:

At Council on Tuesday, Grover Hudson, who has lived for 24 years “just a couple of houses from the schoolyard,” told Council that he was worried about talk of the City selling and developing the Bailey school building and property. He asked why, if the City talked about trying to keep Bailey a family neighborhood, they were heading down a road that might lead to more student rentals in the area.

Dale Downes, who lives just a few blocks north of community center, told Council the daycare had provided a “wonderful and valuable service” to the neighborhood. He also worried the city would “divest itself of the property.” He argued the city should be working harder to find uses for empty parts of the building, not closing it.

Orilla McHarris came to Council Tuesday to “beg you to keep the childcare program running” at Bailey long enough to let the parents’ group have a shot at success. She told Council that it seemed to her that if the parents could submit such a carefully developed proposal in just a few weeks, they could probably do a good job of running the program.

McHarris told Council that “we have had several new young families move in with young children. In order to keep a family friendly neighborhood, we need family-friendly things like the childcare program at Bailey. I beg you to at least keep it going for a few years.”

If you really want to woo the young professional families downtown, don’t take away family educational space:

Although many who spoke at Council were, like Hudson and McHarris, long-time, older residents of Bailey, there were several speakers on Tuesday who, like Graham and the Lanes, are recently-relocated professionals with young children. These are exactly the kind of people City has been wanting to move to East Lansing. And these people know that the City has been saying it wants them. So to them, it was particularly grating to see the City treat them this way just a couple of years after they bought into the Bailey neighborhood.

Matt Phillips lives “a stone’s throw from the community center and park” with his wife and two children. Their children had attended East Lansing Public Schools through Schools of Choice, and the experience was good enough that the family decided to move to East Lansing. They chose Bailey. Phillips told Council they appreciated the “vibrant nature of the neighborhood, the proximity to downtown” and that the Community Center was a “huge draw” for his family. He called it a “buffer against student housing, but also a bridge. It’s where we meet.” That Center, he told Council, is what encouraged his family to buy an 80-year-old house near the students. (Bailey resident Justin Booth echoed this in his comments to Council, saying that the park is a geographic meeting point to bring people together.)

Before the vote, Phillips warned Council that closing the Community Center would have a “ripple out effect,” sending the message that the City doesn’t really want families like his to move to the downtown neighborhoods.

Brendan Cantwell relocated with his wife from Athens, Georgia, so that they could both work at MSU. Cantwell told Council on Tuesday night that they chose to live in Bailey because of the mix of residents and because they wanted to live near work and downtown. They had a child at the Bailey daycare but felt they had to move him when it became clear the City wasn’t supporting the daycare’s staff. (The City staff's persistent lack of support for the childcare was confirmed in an interview I did with the former director of the daycare.) Cantwell told Council that City staff had undermined the program’s stability and success.

After the vote, in an email interview, Cantwell told me he is “extremely disappointed that a majority of the council did not support Beier's motion” to support the daycare through June, 2016. “The result of the vote and proceeding discussion suggested that closing the early child care program and shuttering the community center was a forgone conclusion. Given the clear, near unanimous support for both the childcare program and community center voiced by neighborhood residents, the three members of the council who voted against the Beier proposal sent a clear signal that their opaque priories for the neighborhood superseded the priorities of the community.”

Cantwell worries that Council’s decision will destabilize the very aspects of the neighborhood that drew his family to live near downtown East Lansing: “Substantial redevelopment for any purpose other than the provision of child care or other non-for-profit community services will disrupt the fragile social balance of the neighborhood. I see this as a step towards the hollowing-out of Bailey as a family neighborhood.”

Asking the politicians to listen—and to explain why developers get what they ask for:

Cantwell shared with me a letter he wrote to Mayor Triplett the morning after the vote. He told Triplett therein, “you seemed quite uncomfortable with the impression that many have about your motivations, the motivations of some members of the city staff and of some members of the council. I understand that it must be difficult to have people dislike your decisions and distrust your motives but you are a politician and it is the right of citizens to question you and demand explanations and accountability, just as it is your right to make decisions regarding the city that may upset some.” 

He also told Triplett, “In a few months I will likely live adjacent to an abandoned city building that may erode the value of my home and make my neighborhood a poorer place to live and raise a family.” He named citizens’ “suspicions” aroused by what happened at Council, where, he says, well-reasoned arguments were lacking for the closure.

Cantwell went on in his letter to Triplett: “The City Council has a recent history of redevelopment by subsidizing private developers through tax incentives. This leads me and others to assume this is the Council's preferred way of doing business and therefore increases the probability that such an approach will be attempted at the Bailey site, despite your insistence on lines in the sand’ [about not allowing student housing to move in]. The fact that the council would not let the parents group continue to occupy the building while decisions are made engenders suspicion that at least some members of the Council already have ideas for how to repurpose the space. Again, such a suspicion is not the result of accepting unsubstantiated rumors—but are the concerns of reasonable person making an assessment with the information available.”

Bailey resident Elizabeth Anderson told Council on Tuesday that the urge to turn East Lansing into a land of “wealthy skyscrapers” was only leading to the despoiling of neighborhoods. She argued that a public millage would not be an unreasonable way to approach the economic problems of the Bailey Center.

Ed Wagner lives in Bailey with his pregnant wife and his son who attended the daycare. On Tuesday night, Wagner told Council he had noticed that Council gives money to developers when they need it—so why not give the community similar support through the Bailey Center? He reminded Council of their decision to give the Trowbridge Road developer a profit boost through a TIF (tax increment financing) increase, and said, “I’m asking you to allocate resources to keep Bailey open.”

Red Cedar School Redux:

James Anderson told Council that “tonight is the Red Cedar School moment for City Council.” He reminded Council how members of Council had strongly objected to the closing of the Red Cedar School because of how they understood it to be likely to  negatively impact the neighborhood. He reminded Triplett in particular that Triplett had been sharply critical of padlocking Red Cedar.

“You are obsessed with subsidizing downtown development,” Anderson told Council, “But how can we grow downtown pearls in wounded neighborhood oysters?”

Support entrepreneurship when it comes in the form of citizens organizing:

Several of the people who supported the parents’ working group hailed it as just the kind of entrepreneurial project City staff and politicians regularly salute. Sally Silver, for example, told Council that they should be supporting the parents’ plan for an independently-run sustainable daycare at the Center because it represented an excellent example of citizen-entrepreneurship of the kind that would benefit many.

The remarks of Ralph Monsma, former resident of Bailey and now a resident of Pinecrest, echoed Silver’s remarks. “I love the concept that this is a start-up,” he told Council of the parents’ group plan for a new daycare in the same location. “Don’t turn a blind eye to this,” he asked Council Tuesday night.

Miriam Schwartz-Ziv, speaking as a daycare parent and as a resident of the Bailey neighborhood, also told City Council they should want to “take this great opportunity” to let the parents’ group transition the daycare to a new model. The investment from the City would be small compared to the benefits, she said, including in terms of property tax revenues which depend on strong neighborhoods with good housing prices.

Robert Anderson, who lives across from Bailey, told Council that it would only take a relatively small amount of money from the City to ensure positive aesthetic, commercial, and communal results. He saw plenty of evidence the neighborhood residents would put their own intelligence and energy into the transition to a sustainability plan for the building, if the City would just give a bit of support.

Negligence and mismanagement by City staff:

Echoing the comments of many over the last several months, at Council Tuesday night Sally Silver called the treatment of the daycare by staff over the last few years “inconsistent and confusing,” and asked how it could be that appropriate safety inspections had not been happening at a City-run daycare. “This is negligence by the City staff,” she told Council, and added that staff mismanagement was now being used as an excuse to close the building.

Jim Liesman of Bailey similarly told Council that the City staff “has brought this crisis to Council” because of the way they’ve mishandled the program and building. He argued that the Center is a vital part of East Lansing’s success because it is a vital part of the neighborhood’s success. The comprehensive plan, he said, includes a lot of “talk about walkable communities. We are one.” Why not, he asked, support this walkable neighborhood?

When I asked him to tell me how he felt about the vote on Tuesday, former mayor Mark Meadows—who like former mayor Doug Jester had urged Council to keep the daycare and center open—told me, “I am obviously disappointed in the outcome. From the reports of the meeting provided to me, it seems clear that the complete story surrounding this failure has either not been shared with the Council or has been withheld from the public.”

He explained, “The Bailey operation had a small deficit or surplus until this year, where it suddenly ballooned. That can only be the result of bad management or creative accounting. In either case, the fault falls on the Council for failing to adequately monitor City Departments, which the Charter clearly gives them the power to do. My hat is off to Council Members Boyle and Beier, both of whom continued to demonstrate their dedication to preservation of our neighborhoods.”

 

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