By Jan Worth-Nelson
A small patch of trees known for decades as the Woodside Woods has become a point of contention since Mott Community College bought the historic Woodside Church on the southeast side of the campus eight months ago, with neighbors in the College Cultural neighborhood surrounding the college both praising MCC’s plans for the $8.5 million expansion and renovation of the former church and questioning the college’s landscaping actions.
At a regular meeting of the College Cultural Neighborhood Association (CCNA) Thursday, Maxine Street resident Kim Mahard lamented that the natural plot of greenery she cherished between her house and the campus had disappeared all in one day, with no warning or notice, and now all she said she sees is a parking lot.
Larry Gawthrop, MCC chief financial officer, said the cutting and clearing of the site had been conducted in consultation with a certified master arborist and that the thinning was done with safety as the paramount variable. He said most of the brush removed was hawthorn, a thorny shrub, along with dead trees and some invasive species. He said no trees larger than six inches in diameter were removed, but that one large oak tree with obvious deterioration and which is regarded as a danger would be removed this fall.
He said MCC is going through a design phase with architects over the next few months, but in the meantime MCC officials believed it was important to clear out the woods, where criminal activity had been detected, and where people have tended to loiter, hanging out near children in the adjoining playground, and leaving litter.
MCC Chief of Police Theresa Stephens-Lock noted that several recent fires in the woods and cleanup of condoms and bottles after nighttime partying in the woods emphasize the need to make the woods safer. Michael Herriman, CCNA neighborhood watch chair, said he’s often combed through the woods looking for items discarded after home and car invasions.
Some CCNA residents were unassuaged, saying they should have been informed of plans to clear the woods and to have a voice in plans for landscaping it.
Mahard said, “One of the reasons we bought our house in 1994 was because of the woods. My house lost value in 2008, and then it lost value again because of the water crisis, and now my house overlooks a parking lot. I’m so disappointed in Mott — you’ve always told us what you were going to do. I would like to see a plan. I don’t think that’s asking too much.”
Beard Street resident Alex Harris said “You’ve done an appalling job of communicating. You need to tell us unequivocally that you’re committed to communicating with this neighborhood, before you enact some draconian measures. Can we get that commitment?”
Gawthrop responded, “I am a bit shocked. I thought I was coming to explain–it was safety first. We did put thought behind this. Our commitment always is to you, this community, and to this county.”
Gawthrop stated the area will continue to be a nature area, with a walking trail, a bench, and some seating areas.
Andy Everman, not a CCNA resident but a frequent participant in its meetings, related the woods originally had been designed by Eero Saarinen, who came to the woods in 1949. Everman said 60 years later the plan was revised by Saarinen’s granddaughter and later by the late George Liljeblad, former parks and recreation director for the City of Flint and a CCNA resident. Everman said the college had put in a storm sewer that helped reduce some swampiness from the parking lot runoff. He also commented that “Several of your neighbors are in the woods, dead. At least six people, maybe seven– their ashes are in the woods. I was there when their ashes were spread.”
Dawn Hibbard, communications specialist at Mott and a CCN resident, said “Campus safety can’t keep us safe if they can’t see through there. We had a fire because somebody was smoking on our children’s playground and set fire to the wood chips.”
“We’re still working with the architect,” Hibbard continued. “It looks horrible right now, I agree–it looks severe–but landscaping is part of the plan–there is money being set aside for that. It will evolve.”
CCNA Vice President Sherry Hayden said, “If you’re going to do a design, let us see it. We live here, in this community; you’ve been very kind to us, we are missionaries for you, we view you as our neighbor and we want you to be a good neighbor too.”
Residents were happier about other elements of Gawthrop’s presentation as he described the $8.5 million dollar renovation and expansion project for the building. It is being renamed the Lenore Croudy Family Life Center in honor of Croudy’s 29 years as an MCC trustee. Croudy died in 2017.
“Architecturally that’s a significant building,” Jack Minore, a former city councilman, state representative, longtime activist and CCN resident observed. He expressed hope that it would be preserved “for the gem that it is.”
Funding for the project includes $3 million from the C.S. Mott Foundation. Gawthrop and Hibbard said the sanctuary will be left as is architecturally, and will be used for the music program. Plans include upgrading the sound system and including a new pipe organ class to be taught by Quincy Dobbs.
MCC’s Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC) will be expanded, allowing the program to increase its enrollment from 75 to 125, and to serve children from birth to five years old. The Early Childhood Education academic program will be relocated into the building, and food preparation areas will be transformed into a demonstration kitchen for lead-abatement cooking, Hibbard said.
The church was designed by internationally-known Finnish architect Eero Saarinen and built by his brother-in-law Robert F. Swanson in 1952. Its congregation, pastored by Rev. Deborah Conrad, decided to sell in 2016 as they faced rising maintenance costs and a smaller congregation than the building was designed for. They have moved into temporary quarters at 720 East Street.
At the time of the decision, Conrad said, “We have a mission that we care about. Caring for a building has required too much attention, and caring for the mission has taken a back seat. We realized we could do more. This is partly about setting financial priorities and partly about the passion of our folks and how the church has changed.”
Asked if the church’s carillon tower, long silent, might be repaired and restored, Hibbard said while that would be nice, “There are some big ticket items that we have to attend to first,” Hibbard said, “It needs a new roof and we have to upgrade all the electrical…we’re concentrating on the interior work.”
Still, she said, “It’s a beautiful package for us.”
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.