Neighbors ready to fight East Lawrence project

Members of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. are promising to do their best to torpedo a proposed large development in the 800 block of Pennsylvania Street if city commissioners don’t bow to their demands that it be scaled back.

For months, neighbors have complained the proposed Harris Construction Co. Inc.-led development would be too much for the neighborhood, increasing traffic and putting strains on parking.

The project would bring dozens of apartments, stores and businesses to the block in compact, mixed-use buildings.

“We think we can create a real life, work and play zone – a zone that is very pedestrian-oriented and linked to the vitality of downtown,” developer Bo Harris has said. Harris built the Hobbs Taylor Lofts at Eighth and New Hampshire streets.

But now, neighbors say legal action and a campaign to dissuade the project’s prospective tenants are all possibilities if the City Commission won’t limit the project’s residential density and assure the retail component of the plan excludes pawn shops and liquor stores.

The City Commission is expected to take up the issue at its meeting Tuesday.

“This is Trojan horse gentrification,” association member Robert Myers said at a neighborhood meeting Monday. “It’s guaranteed to bust low-income housing.”

A petition

Members of the association, led by resident Nicky Proudfoot, created the Old East Lawrence Neighborhood Preservation Alliance earlier this year to oppose what some members felt was a fast-moving project that would disturb the neighborhood’s balance.

“It’s almost like a loaded gun,” Proudfoot said at Monday’s meeting. “He can do practically anything he wants there.”

In a petition circulating among East Lawrence residents, the alliance lists demands it plans to make of city commissioners. So far, the petition has about 140 signatures from property owners in the area.

The petition disagrees with the Harris plan to include 54 housing units in the project, a number neighbors fear would create a block too densely populated.

The petitioners want the project reduced to 36 condominium-style homes – fewer than Harris figures would be necessary for the project to work financially.

“It certainly has gotten to the point where it appears (the neighbors) have drawn a line in the sand,” said Hunter Harris of Harris Construction.

Hunter Harris said if the city agreed to restrict the project to fewer than the planned 54 homes, neighbors could say goodbye to the promise of affordable housing in the development.

“Our financial models are very clear,” he said. “We didn’t pull 54 units out of a hat.”

The project also would include a renovated historic district across the street in the old East Bottoms.

The cost of doing that part of project requires the 54 housing units if the project is to succeed financially, Hunter Harris said.

But Proudfoot said if the city didn’t scale back the project, her group could use other tactics to stall the development, including court actions and trying to dissuade prospective tenants from buying into it.

“Then we’re going to get lawyers and we’re going to fight,” Proudfoot said. “We’ll make sure people know that it sits right on top of a sewage treatment plant.”

Mayor Mike Amyx said Thursday that he has just recently reviewed the proposal and that his decision Tuesday will hinge on information provided by other commissioners who have met with the two sides, and the arguments presented at City Hall then.

“I’m not trying to prejudge the project,” Amyx said. “We’ll just see as we go through this.”

Heated meeting

At Monday’s neighborhood meeting, Realtor and East Lawrence resident Ed Tato told neighbors that in talks with Bo Harris he had learned the affordable housing component would be dropped if the city limited the project’s density.

Tato was the neighborhood association president when Harris first approached the neighborhood about the project.

Tato said Monday he had been working as a consultant on the project for the last three years and in that time Harris paid him about $5,000 for his services.

He has disclosed the same information at several public city meetings.

Tato also works for Reece & Nichols real estate, and said his firm likely would list the for-sale units if they are completed.

Tato’s relationship with Harris has been alarming to some neighbors, current neighborhood association president Janet Good said, because they view it as a conflict of interest.

But Good said she didn’t think Tato was backing the project out of self-interest.

“I don’t think he’s making any decisions based on anything except what he thought is best for the neighborhood,” she said.

At the meeting, Tato also said he only supports the project if it includes the affordable housing component. Tato is a former member of Tenants to Homeowners, a group that promotes affordable housing.

Rebecca Buford, executive director of Tenants to Homeowners, said she began talks with Bo Harris about the affordable housing component of his project last month, and that the developer discussed in a letter the likelihood that six of the 54 units would be affordable units.

Buford said Tenants to Homeowners likely would be willing to buy and search for funding to subsidize those units, just as the city would need to help pay for infrastructure such as street and sewer improvements.

“It’s going to serve the community and create affordable housing units forever,” Buford said of the project.

Buford said Harris proposed selling the group 700-square-foot units for $90,000 each, which is more than the group considers affordable for those with low income.

“We’re really hoping that the Harris proposal lives up to its proposed goals,” she said.