History to rubble

It is the afternoon before they go to court to try, once again, to save the Pontiac buildings, some more than a century old, that once housed some of the state’s mentally ill.

Attorney Donald Rump, representing the historic preservationists pro bono, usually leaves the office at 3 p.m., but today he’ll be staying late, pondering whether the state is really violating the law by tearing down the buildings. He’s also bounced some things off the folks in the state attorney general’s office. The demolition began about a week ago. It’s not a good time to be finding holes in his argument.

"That complaint that I have ... by the time I’m there tomorrow morning I might have totally changed it," he says. "I’ll probably be up all night trying to decide how I can do that."

Rump and his clients, including members of the mayor-appointed Pontiac Historic District Commission, are most concerned about the central buildings in the former Clinton Valley Center complex. Surrounded by later buildings, the middle structures were built around 1870 and designed by Elijah E. Myers, a distinguished architect of public buildings.

The preservationists believe in what they’re doing. But as their struggle approached the 11th hour, it was still unclear whether they had a legal leg to stand on.

Wrecking ball

Bruce and Doris Smith, who run Smith+Smith Architects in Pontiac, are leaders in the fight to save the 19th century buildings. They’ve offered their professional opinion to state officials – that the buildings should be preserved and are "in excellent condition for their age."

"There’s a great deal of interest in these buildings," says Doris Smith. "These buildings are ones that any state would be proud to have."

Any state but Michigan, perhaps. During the week of the hearing, Doris’ husband, Bruce, kept watch as a demolition contractor tore at a building Smith estimates went up around the 1940s.

"They’re tearing the south wall of what is referred to as the receiving building, where they used to check people in," he says.

Gov. John Engler closed Clinton Valley Center about three years ago amid mental health advocates’ protests. Now the state, in partnership with the City of Pontiac, appears bent on finishing off the former asylum, despite the protests of preservationists.

Neither city nor state officials are willing to take credit for deciding to tear down the buildings. Nonetheless, a request for proposals drafted by the city envisions primarily upscale single-family dwellings, along with townhouses and offices on the land.

Last-minute offers

Preservationists and would-be developers have been fighting to save the buildings for more than a year.

St. Augustine’s University Foundation, seeking to use the buildings as a college campus, got an injunction to block the demolition.

Then, in mid-December, Oakland County Circuit Judge Steven Andrews lifted the injunction, saying the buildings could be torn down under 1998 state legislation that provides for the development of the 220 acres of state land. The state also set aside $5 million for demolition.

On Jan. 11, the historic association Heritage Pontiac and eight residents including the Smiths filed their complaint in Oakland County Circuit Court; they claimed the demolition violates the 1998 legislation, which says the land’s fair market value should be based on its "highest and best use."

Preservationists say the "highest and best use" incorporates the old buildings, yet the state plans to have the land appraised without them. Also, Rump interprets the legislation’s references to "reusing the property" to mean the buildings as well.

Also pushing to save the site is Milford developer Raymond Leduc – whose projects include an $85 million golf course, country club and subdivision project underway in Commerce Township. After the college proposal failed, he sent certified letters to Pontiac Mayor Walter Moore, Engler and other officials, offering an estimated $1 million for the 30 acres where the buildings stand. He offered to rehabilitate the buildings however city and state officials saw fit, possibly turning them into a hotel, lofts, offices or some combination. By last week, Leduc had increased his offer to $2 million cash to no avail.

State Management and Budget Office spokeswoman Penny Griffin says the 1998 legislation requires that the state go along with the city’s master plan, which says the buildings must come down. "We can’t entertain offers from people," she says.

Pontiac City Council President Pro-Tem Gary Foster, who disagrees on what the master plan requires, calls the state’s cold shoulder to Leduc "mind-boggling."

"Getting them to change directions," Foster says of the state, "is like trying to stop a freight train."

State Rep. Hubert Price, D-Pontiac, says he supports the demolition: Homes are being built at a faster rate in Pontiac than at any time in the past decade, and the property should be cleared for a residential neighborhood. (Leduc says preserving the 30 acres with the buildings wouldn’t bar single-family homes on the rest of the land.)

And Mayor Moore says although he is conflicted as to what should happen with the buildings, the decision is really up to the state. As to Leduc’s offer, Moore replied that what he received from Leduc was a copy of a letter to Engler, and that it was up to the governor to respond.

The ruling

On the morning of the hearing, last Friday, the high spires of the former mental hospital’s late 19th century buildings are visible through the glass outside Judge Denise Langford-Morris’ third-floor courtroom. Asked what makes the buildings so special, Leduc motions toward them, as if just glancing at them would make the answer obvious.

"Why are they so set on demolishing these buildings?" he asks.

Rump argues about the meaning of "highest and best use" and the state’s "reuse" of the property. He argues that the demolition will cost taxpayers approximately $3 million if the 30 acres draws $1.1 million less without the buildings and the cost of the demolition work is $1.8 million.

Michigan Assistant Attorney General Matthew H. Rick counters that Judge Andrews already determined that the state isn’t violating the law and that plaintiffs’ can’t prove what the demolition would cost individual taxpayers. Besides, he argued, the state offered to take pictures of the buildings.

Meanwhile, less than a mile away, the demolition continued.

At the end of the day, Rump explains that Langford-Morris has dismissed the case as Andrews did, citing the state legislation. Rump says it is unclear what the preservationists will do next.

Even if a state lawmaker wanted to push through an amendment, he says, the buildings would be gone before the Legislature could act.

Still the Smiths say they will continue fighting.

"If we quit, we’d never forgive ourselves for caving in," Bruce Smith says. "You can’t let the bastards win."

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