Ask ELi: Why is there a giant cross downtown?

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Photo of St. Anne Lofts, the downtown building with the cross on the front, taken in Jan. 2019.

A regular ELi reader wrote with the subject line “Religious Cross on building in Ann Street Plaza” and asked, “Who permitted this ‘cross’? Shouldn’t it be removed or covered up?”

The reader is referring to the four-story-tall Christian-style cross that is part of the masonry front of “St. Anne Lofts,” the building at 213 Ann Street, on Albert Avenue. That’s the retail/apartment building that now houses Blue Owl Coffee and FieldHouse.

The cross is private property, because it’s an integral part of the face of the privately-owned building. Although the cross looms over a public plaza, the City Council of East Lansing was advised by its City Attorney, Tom Yeadon, in 2012 that the City has no power to require that it be removed or covered up, even if leaders wanted to go that route.

The St. Anne Lofts building was constructed in 2012 and the cross became evident as soon as the external masonry was installed. Questions were raised about it then – it is, after all, a large religiously-specific symbol looming over one of the most popular public plazas in East Lansing. (There are no large symbols from other spiritual traditions along the plaza.)

Some critics found the situation particularly irritating because, as citizen-researcher Eliot Singer discovered, the private development project was assisted with $3 million in tax incentives, and so it seemed as if the East Lansing government was supporting one particular religion. But Yeadon told City Council that he believed it to be Constitutionally protected.

The cross was never evident on the renderings provided to the City Council and media before construction. In fact, the building looks little like what the public was shown – a rendering that showed the building viewed looking northwest (roughly from the clock tower downtown).

The rendering (above) left out the El Azteco building, which if shown as it exists would be in the foreground of this image. The rendering also did not show the cross on the Albert Ave. (here, left) side.

In 2012, two years before ELi as we now know it formed, I reported on this redevelopment project for the community. I reported about the Sept. 4, 2012, Council meeting, “Repeatedly raising the question of whether it really even is a Christian cross, Yeadon gave his opinion that it does not violate the establishment clause of the Constitution because the building is a private structure, because the public funds didn’t specifically pay for the construction of the cross itself, and because the project’s owner didn’t let the city know there would even be a cross until very late in the process.”

Yeadon told Council that public “monies were approved before this feature ever appeared on the plans.”

Then-Council member Vic Loomis questioned Yeadon’s claims.  Loomis (who in 2014 became a founding Board member of ELi) also joined me at the City’s Planning Department under a Freedom of Information Act request to view the initial plans submitted to City staff.

The very first set of plans submitted to the Planning Department’s staff clearly showed the cross as it would later be built.

So, while the public and Council were never shown the cross before the project was built, the Planning Department had elevation drawings showing how it would look.

Further research in 2012 showed that the City Manager knew about the cross before it was built. A memo entitled “St. Anne Field Observation” from building inspector Jim Hoffman to Planning Director Tim Dempsey and City Manager George Lahanas dated July 10, 2012, informed them, “The precast cross element on the front of the building has not been installed yet.”

Remarkably, the earliest plans for the building also showed a fifth-floor four-bedroom penthouse which was not part of the application and which the developer, Kris Elliott, built illegally. That became a separate scandal in a building whose construction saw many scandals and controversies – including the use of millions in dollars in tax assistance for construction of a student apartment building, the collapse of a floor during construction, and the admission of tenants before the Certificate of Occupancy was signed.

The scene was so fraught, a building inspector for the City was ultimately fired and the Lansing State Journal called the whole scene a “bureaucratic collapse.” Lahanas responded to the controversy by deciding to put the Building Dept. under the control of the Planning Dept., with the idea this would prevent further problems like the ones that occurred with this project’s build.

Back in 2012, after the cross became evident, critics (disclosure: including my spouse) asked the local chapter of the ACLU to weigh in, but they did not take up the case.  At the time, East Lansing’s mayor was Nathan Triplett, and he was involved with the ACLU and did not want to see an issue made of the cross.

MSU Law Professor Frank Ravitch came to City Council and gave his opinions on the matter of the cross, differing on a number of points with the City Attorney. But, ultimately, the City Council took no action on the matter, and the four-story cross on St. Anne Lofts remains a point of curiosity to many who wonder why it adorns a public plaza in East Lansing.

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