Your ELi: Still Waiting for Answers on Fire Marshal Reviews

Friday, September 7, 2018, 11:06 am
By: 
Alice Dreger, Publisher

Above: City Manager George Lahanas and the project under construction.

Following a long silence from him in the face of questions from ELi about the absence of documentation of fire marshal review for the Center City District project, last night City Manager George Lahanas responded, sending a letter to ELi calling our reporting “misleading.”

Says Lahanas, “no such physical ‘fire marshal review’ exists, or is required, for this or any other project. The fire marshal is nonetheless involved every step of the way, from evaluating all plans – including the building code and plan reviews – to attending the ongoing regularly scheduled site plan and progress meetings, which take place weekly.”

ELFD Fire Marshal Don Carter is quoted by Lahanas as saying, “This is a dynamic ongoing process. Everything is continuously reviewed for critical errors and mistakes. If we find deficiencies, the developer makes them right and we move forward.”

Lahanas has still not provided any evidence of the reviews he now says have happened. He also has still not answered our questions about why other major projects of this scale have had fire marshal reviews prior to City Council’s votes, but this one did not.

Fire marshal review was provided to City Council on The Hub, a 12-story building now under construction on Grand River Avenue at Bogue Street. Fire marshal review was also provided to Council for the 12-story building in the Park District development of DRW/Convexity. (In that case, Carter didn’t just review the plans, he opined: “looks very exciting – the sooner the better.”)

So why didn’t the 12-story building for Center City District get the same treatment?

We asked Lahanas and Carter for information on the fire reviews for the Center City District project in advance of our August 30 article. On August 18, I asked Lahanas why I couldn’t find the fire marshal review as normal in the Council packet. I asked him to explain the absence. No answer. I wrote to Carter the same day to ask him if he’d reviewed the project. No answer.

I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to ask for the documentation of the review. On August 21, I got back a response that indicated it didn’t exist. I showed up at City Council that night to ask about the absence of fire marshal review in Council’s packet for this project. Lahanas was there. He did not respond.

I waited for one more FOIA response, which showed no records found. Having by then asked and used the public records law and gotten no answers, we published that the material was missing.

We’ve asked the City repeatedly, since our August 30 article, to provide us documentation showing there has been review – so that we don’t just have to take Lahanas’s word for it. We even filed another FOIA request. So far, we have nothing but Lahanas’s letter.

Why there’s reason for concern:

In 2012, the project called St. Anne Lofts – the one with the big cross on it, right across Albert Street from the Center City District project – was the subject of a major investigation by the Lansing State Journal. The LSJ picked up on reporting I was doing and did a masterful job, using FOIA, to document what it called “the bureaucratic collapse of St. Anne Lofts.”

The title was a play on a collapse that happened in the building during construction. But problems with that project went well beyond the construction-related floor collapse. The LSJ documented how the “project [was] bungled by lack of city oversight.”

In that case, developer Kris Elliott got approval to build four floors. But he proceeded to have his contractor build five. The fifth floor was a special penthouse with balconies, completely unapproved. Here’s what the LSJ ultimately reported:

“City administrators in East Lansing, from the chief building official to the city manager, knew for weeks – if not months – that an unauthorized fifth floor was under construction at the downtown St. Anne Lofts development project. They knew the developer and his contractor were violating state law by building there without a permit. And, even after the fourth floor of the building collapsed – casting greater attention and scrutiny on its progress – they did not stop the project taking shape about a block from City Hall.”

What finally caused them to take action? Apparently, reporting by ELi and the LSJ.

A stop work order was finally issued. The developer was required to follow the law. Howard Asch, East Lansing’s chief building official, saw the end of his employment with East Lansing. And Lahanas consolidated the Building and Planning Departments under one person, Tim Dempsey, who is now in charge of both.

Having Dempsey in charge of both was supposed to be the start to fixing problems with communication and procedures in construction. It was a move that was supposed to prevent steps being missed, developers skirting the rules, and communication problems.

We see signs the problems aren’t all fixed, signs even in much smaller projects like the one involving drama over a driveway in East Lansing. The absence of a fire marshal communication for the 12-story Center City District project – when other 12-story projects haven’t skipped this step – and the refusal of the City Manager to produce any documentation supporting the claim there has been monitoring of fire safety in this project suggest to us there are still problems.

This is a project that is set to house over 500 people, including over 100 senior citizens living above a parking garage with 600 cars. We know the City Manager and his staff are busy. We also think answers to these questions, and supporting documentation, should be readily provided. We’ve asked, we’ve waited, and we’re still waiting.

How we do research:

At ELi, we’re not interested in wasting readers’ time or energy by bringing incomplete or erroneous reporting. That would be irresponsible. That’s why, before we report a story like this, we try to find out everything we can. If we think something significant has happened, but our research shows we are wrong, we don’t bother to report.

Let me give you two examples where that happened.

The Center City District bond is unusual, at least for East Lansing. It promises to pay back the investors from about $55 million of captured taxes on the project, but it provides no security other than the captured taxes, taxes that may not materialize as projected.

Significant (reasonable) concerns have been raised that when the bondholder – who, as we discovered, turned out to be the developer’s father – asks to be paid back, the City might end up on the hook and have to scramble to pull funds together. The bondholder can ask for the bond to be “refunded” (paid back) as early as January 1, 2020.

In an effort to figure out if the City could be facing a financial disaster over this, I did a lot of research on this question. I asked for and got a lot of help from City Council Member Ruth Beier. Beier talked to the City’s bond attorney, and got confirmation that the City would not be on the hook – that the only security would continue to be the project’s designated tax revenues and nothing more.

As a consequence, we never reported that story. Nothing to see there.

The second example also comes from the Center City District project. In that case, as I reported in conjunction with the fire review story, City Planning staff told us there were three-bedroom apartments being constructed in the Landmark, the Center City District building on Grand River Avenue. But Council had not approved any three-bedroom apartments.

So I went through many documents and recordings to try to figure out what was going on and whether it was legal. (St. Anne Lofts kept coming to mind.) In order to get more eyes on the question, I wrote an eight-page research report and sent it to various people, including members of Planning Commission and the Downtown Development Authority and others, to ask them what I might have gotten wrong or be missing. (You can see it here.) Many of them provided feedback.

In that case, City staff then came back and said they’d read the plans incorrectly and what they’d thought were three-bedroom apartments were two-bedroom apartments with three beds in them. That’s why you never saw that story – nothing to see there.

But that was the research that caused me to inadvertently notice the lack of two things on Center City: the usual fire marshal review in the Council packet, and evidence that Planning staff had checked to make sure the developer is building what was approved. We pursued those apparent absences in every way possible, found nothing, got no answers, and finally reported the absences. Only this reporting roused Lahanas to answer.

Now, in addition to saying he’s confident fire review has happened appropriately, Lahanas has finally also answered about whether the project being built matches what Council approved:

“The project does meet all of the conditions approved by Council (setbacks, zoning, etc.). As is common in building projects, there will be minor changes once construction is underway and the code allows for administrative approval of those changes.”

Lahanas doesn’t provide details on what “minor changes” might be happening, but at least he’s now answered a question we put to him about a month ago.

Reporting in a busy city:

Lahanas writes in his letter that “we do ask that your reporters be transparent in their reporting and provide fair, accurate, balanced and unbiased information to readers. We also ask that your reporters respect the fact that City staff members have full-time jobs providing public services to the community and cannot accommodate endless lines of questioning as your reporters research their stories.”

We get that staff is busy. Our readers are busy, too. That’s why they can’t attend all the public meetings they might want to know about, nor can they spend time looking for public documents, digging through local and state laws, reading pension plans, researching background on voting options, and more. We do it because we believe a democracy functions best when the people are informed.

We think you have the right to know what your government is doing. We believe that part of the City’s job is to answer questions from its citizens, including when those citizens are reporters doing the people’s work. We don’t ask “endless lines of questioning,” and in fact, the great majority of City employees when asked by ELi reporters answer our questions promptly and thoroughly. The City Manager’s office is an exception in this regard.

ELi was formed as it exists today partly in response to St. Anne Lofts, and the kind of work we do today continues to be as uncomfortable as that work was then. The City Manager wants us to believe everything was fixed by him and his management staff after that. We’d like to believe that. But we believe we need to investigate and verify what’s what when we see something that looks concerning.

This isn’t fun, but it’s necessary:

If you will indulge me for a moment, let me just conclude by saying that ELi’s staff doesn’t enjoy reporting bad news, or news that makes us queasy. There are a lot of days when I’d like to walk away from ELi and have my old life back. I know ELi’s Managing Editor, Ann Nichols, feels exactly like I do.

The reason we don’t do that is because this community has made the extraordinary commitment of developing its own press in order to push for transparency and accountability from our government. We had no other local dedicated press.

ELi is nonprofit and fully reader supported. You apparently want a responsible press in your city. We’ve said we would be that for you. We’re going to keep trying.

I don’t get paid by ELi, but I do have to fundraise for it or the organization simply can’t exist. We operate on only about $85,000 per year right now. If you want us in this city doing this work, please help us out right now by donating to keep our work going.