Lawrence developer Bo Harris thinks his newest project - to redevelop the area around Eighth and Pennsylvania streets - would create a fun place to live.
With loft-style condos, traditional brownstone flats and a mix of offices and retail shops in about a two-block area, Harris' project would create a new way to live in one of Lawrence's older neighborhoods. And all of it would just be a short four-block walk from the heart of downtown.
"We think we can create a real life, work and play zone," said Harris, who built the Hobbs Taylor Lofts on New Hampshire Street downtown. "A zone that is very pedestrian-oriented and linked to the vitality of downtown."
But neighbors aren't sure it will be that much fun. They're concerned that downtown-style, multistory buildings would be too close to existing single-family homes, and would create traffic and on-street parking problems in the neighborhood.
"They think it is OK to have single-family homes on one side of an alley and then, boom, you hit 40-foot buildings right on the other side of the alley," said Phil Collison, a member of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. "There should be some type of buffer zone."
The two different views have created the makings of a classic City Hall battle pitting developer versus neighbor. City commissioners on Thursday had hoped a study session to bring the two sides together would help break the stalemate.
City commissioners, however, vowed to keep searching for a compromise.
"It is a very exciting project," City Commissioner Sue Hack said. "We have said over and over again that the ability to save and protect our downtown rests with our ability to attract more residents to the area. This would do that."
As currently proposed, the project would add 74 new living units to the area, including 20 apartments in the four-story former Poehler Grocery Wholesale building east of Pennsylvania Street.
The other 54 units would be condos - most of them two-bedroom, two-bath units - housed in five new buildings along the west side of Pennsylvania Street, between Eighth and Ninth streets. The buildings would replace Lawrence Bus Co. garages and vacant lots used to house outdoor buses and parts.
Neighbors said Thursday they like much of the proposal, particularly the renovation of the Poehler building and the four other old industrial buildings east of Pennsylvania Street. Those buildings would house a mix of retail and office uses.
But in the five new buildings west of Pennsylvania Street, neighbors want Harris to build just 24 condos, and to eliminate plans for ground-level retail businesses in two of the buildings.
Harris said that probably would make the project financially unfeasible. He said he's frustrated because he's been talking about the project at East Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. meetings since 2002.
"We talk about doing things in this part of town, and nothing ever gets done," Harris said. "Here's a chance to get some things done, but it seems like an opposite tack has been taken to just oppose change."
Neighbors, though, said they have legitimate concerns about the project.
The development proposes 435 parking spaces, but 166 of them are on-street parking spots. Janet Good, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Assn., said on-street parking spaces already are in high demand without the project.
But she said a bigger neighborhood concern is that the project will cause property values to rise to a point that many longtime residents will no longer be able to afford to stay in their homes.
"If people have to sell their homes because they can't afford to pay their property taxes, that will be a shame," Good said. "Our elderly residents deserve better than that."
But Harris said the value of single-family homes in the area will continue to rise whether or not his project goes forward. He suggested City Hall could use some of the new tax dollars generated by his project to fund a program to help some East Lawrence residents stay in their homes. He's also agreed to work with Lawrence Tenants to Homeowners to enter six of the projects living units into its affordable housing program.
There are other challenges.
Harris told commissioners that he would like City Hall to pay for several infrastructure improvements in the area, such as stormwater repairs, street upgrades and an extension of Delaware Street from Eighth to Ninth streets.
Interim City Manager David Corliss said an earlier estimate pegged those costs at about $1.8 million. He said many of the costs, such as installing brick streets, were not costs the city would typically bear. But Harris said many of the upgrades are needed because the city had not adequately maintained the infrastructure.
Commissioners did not get into that discussion on Thursday, instead seeking compromise between Harris and the neighbors. Commissioners David Schauner and Boog Highberger volunteered to mediate a meeting between the two groups in coming weeks.
The project won't be in a position to receive final City Commission approval until early June. That's because members of the city's planning staff discovered they did not properly notify residents who live within 200 feet of the project of last month's Planning Commission hearing on the matter, where near-unanimous approval was given to the proposal.
A second hearing is scheduled at the Planning Commission's May meeting.