A drop in commercial construction projects pushed the 1991 valuation of local new construction to its lowest level since 1985, more than $8 million below 1990 figures.
Despite the overall drop in new construction, however, local home builders were the busiest they had been since 1988.
In a report released this week, the city building inspector's office said the local construction industry received building permits for $2,492,606 worth of new construction and property improvements during December. That brought the total building permit valuation for the year to $58,753,218.
The annual valuation total, which was down from $67,050,483 in 1990, made 1991 the slowest year since the local building boom in the mid-1980s. In 1985, the total building permit valuation was placed at $34,024,000; it hadn't been below $65 million since that time.
A permit's valuation represents the cost of construction exclusive of the land value.
But Gene Shaughnessy, the city's chief building inspector, isn't complaining.
"I'd say under the circumstances, with the economy the way it's been the last couple of months, we had a pretty good construction year," he said.
SHAUGHNESSY attributed the lower valuation total for 1991 to a lack of large-scale commercial projects during the year. Still, he said the year-end report held indications of some strengths in the local construction industry.
Perhaps most notable for 1991 was the fact that Lawrence home builders received building permits for 339 new single-family residences. The record in that category of construction is 349 permits issued in 1988. The city authorized 261 new homes in 1990 and 227 in 1989.
"We showed a tremendous increase in single-family construction, which means it must be a growing community," he said.
Bob Santee, president of the Lawrence Home Builders Assn., said activity in single-family construction during 1991 reflected both a good market then and builders' anticipation of a strong 1992 market.
"A lot of the inventory got sold in '91, so there's not a lot of inventory left over," he said. "The permits in the latter part of '91 are going to be ready for the spring market in '92."
SANTEE estimated that about half of the new homes being constructed were being built on speculation. Local contractors are optimistic about the market because of low mortgage interest rates and the community's continued growth, he said.
Santee also noted that many of the new homes are being bought by people who choose to live in Lawrence and commute to jobs in Topeka and Kansas City.
"It amazes me that we keep growing, but that's one of the benefits of being in Lawrence," he said.
Shaughnessy said that other indicators of strength in the local construction industry included the total number of permits issued and the amount of fees collected during the year.
The inspector's office wrote 2,029 permits across all categories of construction. By comparison, 1,697 permits were issued in 1988, when the valuation total set its record of $75,796,195.
"We went over 2,000 for the first time I have anything on record," Shaughnessy said of the 1991 total.
ALTHOUGH he attributed some of the increase to a new mechanical code that went into effect in June and requires inspections of heating and cooling systems, Shaughnessy said the number still was strong.
His office also collected $229,098 in permit fees, the highest amount ever.
"I think it indicates that Lawrence is alive and well," he said.
This year also could be a good one for local contractors, Shaughnessy said.
Construction of a new 121,267-square-foot Wal-Mart store at 33rd and Iowa is scheduled to begin this spring. Shaughnessy was uncertain what the permit valuation of the multimillion-dollar project was likely to be but said it would boost the 1992 total.
He also said construction of new multifamily housing, which has been slow following a boom in 1988 and 1989, could pick up steam this year.
"We've got some apartment projects pending that could come in in January, so the new year could get off to a good start," he said. "Until people decide to do what they've been speculating on, who knows."
FOR DECEMBER, which registered the signs of a seasonal slowdown in local construction trades, the building inspector's office issued 111 permits, 15 of them for single-family homes. It was the first month since January that fewer than 20 permits were issued in that category.
No new commercial construction was authorized during the month.
The largest project that received a permit during December was a 15-unit apartment building being built at 211 Mount Hope Ct. That permit was valued at $700,000.
The building inspectors office also issued demolition permits for houses at these addresses: 1931 N.H., 413 Mich., 1121 La., and 1004 W. Sixth.