A redevelopment possibility for East Campus emerges

For many years Western Michigan University has been dealing with the question of what to do with East Campus. As the birthplace of the university there was too much history there to let it go. And as the birthplace of the university the cost of renovations make it extremely difficult to hold on to.

A concept for reusing the campus has been crafted that school officials say has the potential to change not only the Vine Neighborhood it overlooks but the city itself. Now it remains to be seen whether a financing package that makes the deal make sense can be put together.

WMU’s Vice President for Community Outreach Robert Miller addressed a packed room for a Keystone breakfast series event recently, offering an entertaining history lesson and a look into the future in equal parts.

From a historical standpoint, what would eventually become known as East Campus came about after Kalamazoo had the winning proposal for the location of a "Normal School" in West Michigan, edging out Grand Rapids which may have foiled its own efforts to land the school with a proposal to put the school next to an amusement park, a potential threat to the morals of impressionable teaching students. That was 110 years ago.

Even then, the community support that has come to be a hallmark of important local projects was in evidence. "The Kalamazoo community got behind it," Miller said. The first building went up in 1904. West Campus started to go up in 1948 and the first major renovation of East Campus came in 1992. The School of Arts was the last academic use there and it was the last to leave.

Fast forward to 2008, a task force was formed and given the responsibility to solicit requests from the private sector for reuse of the site. They also were to come up with ideas that might make possible renovation of the site that seems unfeasible from a financial standpoint.

Over a two-and-a-half-year period it narrowed the field of private teams from the original 80 that expressed interest in the work to settle on a proposal from KDC Real Estate Development and Investments, of Dallas. Work on the WMU project will be done from its Detroit office. KDC is one of America's leading commercial real estate and investment companies.

The KDC team includes two lead partners: Urban Campus Communities, a state-of-the-art residential developer that has worked in three university communities; and Lodgeco Management, a multibrand hospitality management firm with assets in 12 Michigan locations.

The team also will be made up of a number of firms based in or with offices in Kalamazoo. Among them are Tower Pinkster Architects and Engineers; Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, a civil engineering firm; and the Signature Associates and Cushman & Wakefield Alliance, commercial real estate firms.

East Hall, West Hall, North Hall and the Speech and Hearing Building -- four buildings that total more than 225,000 square feet -- would be the centerpiece of the reuse project that encompasses 35 acres. No plans actually have been drawn up, but possibilities that could be part of the development include a boutique hotel, conference center, apartments, condos, offices, parking and a health center. The hotel would be one with a "national flag," or a recognizable name. Another concept is to have parking built into the hill and landscaped in a way that it would largely be not be visible. "The focal point would still be North Hill and the columns of East Hall," Miller said.

What has emerged cannot yet be called a plan, but it is the potential for redevelopment of WMU’s East Campus, Miller said.

He told the group that some of the early thinking for financing was to make the land and the buildings available to a developer at no cost and allow them as a private business to leverage financing such as tax incentives that would not be available to the university.

Whether that scenario plays out is largely up to the state which is eliminating tax incentives for historical and brownfield properties in an effort to simplify the state tax system. Miller indicated a visit to Lansing to plead the case for the development was imminent.

To give the audience an idea of the scope of the financial situation, Miller said that In a previous exploration of redeveloping East Campus, estimates were the job would take at least $60 million. The amount of money the state currently says it will earmark for such projects across Michigan is $100 million, with a limit of  $10 million per project.

When given the opportunity to question Miller on the project, one audience member wanted to know what support was needed. Miller suggested that as plans emerge that people "get excited, get supportive and stay positive whatever happens up there."

A more poignant question came from a student who told Miller students simply like to visit East Campus, which has a remarkable view overlooking the city. She asked if students still would be welcome on the property after it has been redeveloped.

Miller indicated some of the proposals were rejected because there was a real question whether students could continue to use the property.

"Will students be able to use this site? Absolutely," Miller said. "Students will always be welcome."

Kathy Jennings edits Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Eric Holladay.

WMU’s Vice President for Community Outreach Robert Miller and a special task for has been working for more than two years on ways to redevelop historic East Campus.

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