A Story of 305, 315 and 321 North Harrison Road
300 block of N. Harrison, facing northwest, February 1992. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.
Three small houses along Harrison Road, on the western edge of Beal’s Addition to Collegeville, were built some time in the early-to-mid twentieth century. For many years they were rented out as student housing, and as is typical of such they saw heavy abuse and little maintenance—i.e., the bare minimum needed to keep them up to code.
300 block of N. Harrison, facing southwest, February 1992. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.
In 1992 all three properties were owned by Mary White, a relative of East Lansing developer Al White, whose eponymous Whitehills subdivisions are home to some of East Lansing’s more affluent residents. Ms. White &co. intended to redevelop the site as a new house for the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, complete with 30-space parking lot. She managed to gut the interiors of the houses before the City, responding to nearby residents’ complaints and fears, stepped in.
315 N. Harrison, February 1992. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.
Knowing the site was zoned for such development, and that Ms. White was arguably within her rights to build the sorority house, the City Council opted to incorporate the three properties into the “Collegeville Historic District,” thereby preventing their demolition. Ms. White argued that the houses, boarded up and stripped to the studs on the inside, were uninhabitable and could not be rented, and that it would be prohibitively expensive to restore them for use. The bickering and recriminations went around the City Council and the courts for more than two years. Finally, the City bought the land, bulldozed all three houses, filled the holes, and seeded the space with grass. The site is now denoted as “city park.”
300 block of N. Harrison, facing northwest, 14 July 1995. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.
In fairness, I feel I should add this personal perspective. At the time I was firmly against Ms. White’s development plan, agreeing with the neighbors of the site that the plan would result in significantly increased noise and parking problems, as well as the loss of several tall (if not mature nor necessarily well-developed) trees. I was also fond of the buildings, though perhaps had my attention not been called to them by this brouhaha, I might never have noticed the simple, vernacular frame houses. I even went so far as to write a heartfelt, albeit misinformed, opinion letter to the East Lansing Historic Commission.
In retrospect, it seems that Ms. White was not out of bounds, as much as I or the neighbors or the City might have taken umbrage at her intentions. The end result makes it clear that the City had little regard for the buildings themselves, or any possible historical value they might have had. Although the resulting park is arguably more in keeping with the notion of an historic district than is the large-scale development of nearby College Delta, the City’s actions were not necessarily fair to the landowner, and perhaps a questionable use of the historic code.