On warm summer nights in the Vine Neighborhood of Kalamazoo, Michigan, it is not unusual to hear the sounds of a saxophone rolling down the hill from Western Michigan University’s long-abandoned East Campus. What was once a corner of campus with buildings that housed subjects ranging from Industrial Arts to Women’s Physical Education, and which currently houses the University’s archives, the beautiful hilltop nestled between Oakland Drive and Davis Street has become a haven for students and Vine Neighborhood residents alike, wishing to escape the hustle of their daily routines.
However, the calm respite afforded by East Campus may soon exist only in the history books of the Kalamazoo area. Three of the four buildings on the scenic Prospect Hill are slated to be razed by the present WMU administration, which released this decision in December 2012. The only building that will be left standing, according to the present plans, is East Hall, which served as the State Normal School, one of the original buildings on WMU’s campus. The other buildings—the North and West Halls, and the Speech and Hearing Center, along with the north and south annexes of East Hall—will all be destroyed. What is left of East Hall will become an alumni center, and the rest of Prospect Hill, which once was rumored to serve only as parking for the University’s football stadium, will become a “grassy area.”
The Kalamazoo community is not taking this news sitting down, though. The Friends of Historic East Campus, or FOHEC, a group founded in 1999 when original plans to demolish the buildings were drafted by WMU, has been waging a fierce campaign to raise awareness of the situation of one of Kalamazoo’s most historic areas. “I see it as a form of environmental awareness,” says FOHEC employee Sessie Burns. “The buildings have stood for over 100 years at this point.”
The group, which was once an organization affiliated with WMU, has since broken off from the University. Ever since, the group has been in constant, strern, contact with the University. On January 14 2013, the group sent a letter to the WMU Board of Trustees, which highlighted their concerns over the plans for East Campus. “We commend the [WMU] President Dunn and the Board of Trustees for approving the renovation and reuse of the East Hall core, but we remain unconvinced of the need or benefit for rapidly turning most of the unique, historic East Campus into a parking lot.”
Later in the letter, the group outlined a number of “Questions to be Answered by Western Michigan University,” among them the cost of maintenance of the building, the cost of demolition, and the indirect costs of demolition and redevelopment (debt incurred during the process, for example).
Five weeks later, the Vice President for Business and Finance, Jan Van Der Kley, sent the group a response on behalf of the Board of Trustees. Thanking FOHEC for their support over the years, along with the $63,000 the group has “contributed over the years… to help pay for the development and implementation of plays, surveys, and prospectus costs,” Van Der Kley that only “the preservation of East Hall is the best alternative when considering the financial realities and many needs of the University.” The proposed demolition would cost around $2.2 million, while the University is paying around $275,000 a year in labor, material, and utility expenses. He also stated that renovations of historic structures also cost two to three times that of traditional, ground up construction.
For the folks at FOHEC, this answer did not suffice, even though WMU is currently around $302 million in debt. Burns is quick to point out, just as the FOHEC website does, that WMU’s own structural engineer as deemed the buildings structurally sound. “The preexisting investment that Western has put into those buildings is immense,” says Burns, “and it’s not something that they can do again.”
However, the University listed “East Campus Buildings Renovations” as a #11 on their 2012 “Building Project Priority List,” estimating a cost of $96 million, a fee that the state would not pay, leaving the school to search for private funds to complete the project. However, as the members of FOHEC could attest, raising that kind of money is impossible.
Confronted with this roadblock, FOHEC has started a grassroots campaign that has spread across the city of Kalamazoo, from the Vine neighborhood to the West and North sides of the city. Yard signs that implore passers-by to STOP THE DEMOLITION OF HISTORIC EAST CAMPUS, along with bumper stickers bearing the same message, have appeared all over the city. Burns once even received a phone call from a woman complaining that someone put one on her front door.
The FOHEC website has called for signatures on a petition to stop the demolition as a last ditch effort. Most of Burns’ time is spent trying to get signatures and get the word out about the demolition, which Burns says the University is pushing through with a campaign rife with misinformation. The petition has 2,285 online signatures, and “close to 1,500” hard signatures.
Along with signatures, the FOHEC board recently nominated East Campus to be placed on a list of America’s “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” much to the disdain of the WMU Board.
It seems like all who are asked are quick to side with the underdog FOHEC. Those who do not live in the shadow of East Hall are offended by WMU’s refusal to be straightforward about their plans, even if the University says that it is working with the group.
Furthermore, support is immense among almost all of the inhabitants of the Vine Neighborhood. In fact, one of the two places people can pick up FOHEC yard signs is at the Vine Neighborhood Association.
A lack of money, FOHEC seems to believe, does not mean a lack of motivation to seek other uses for the buildings, and they firmly believe that all they need is wholehearted support from the community, and so far it seems like that is enough to keep the buildings around.