Efforts to find a new, less controversial home for a downtown homeless shelter are intensifying as Lawrence Community Shelter leaders plan to ask city commissioners for zoning help tonight.
Loring Henderson, executive director of the shelter at 214 W. 10th St., said the nonprofit wants to explore the possibility of relocating the shelter to a Lawrence industrial park or other industrially zoned area of the city. But city zoning regulations prohibit homeless shelters from being located in such areas.
Henderson is asking commissioners to start the process of changing the city's zoning law so that the shelter would have more potential sites to consider.
"We understand that a move is something that has to happen," said Henderson, who declined to discuss sites the shelter may be considering.
"Everyone wants us out of this building, and we want out of this building. There's no reluctance on our part to move."
But finding a location has been difficult. The shelter is looking for about 15,000 square feet of space that would allow the number of shelter beds to grow from 31 today to 50 to 75. In 2006 it sought to purchase a former nursing home building at 31st and Kasold, but the deal fell through after significant opposition arose from neighbors. Complaints from neighbors have been a major concern at the current site.
An industrial area might alleviate some of those concerns, said City Commissioner Rob Chestnut, who has been advocating for a better location for the shelter.
"Typically an industrial area is not sitting right next to a residential area," Chestnut said. "That's clearly one of the challenges they have right now."
Shelter leaders, though, may not get everything they're seeking from the commission. Henderson and shelter attorney Price Banks are asking the commission to change the zoning law so that shelters are an approved use within all industrially zoned areas in the city. In other words, a shelter wouldn't need special city approval to locate within an industrial park.
But city staff members have suggested an alternative change. Staff members said the city's zoning regulations could be changed to allow homeless shelters to apply for a special-use permit within industrially zoned areas. Currently that is prohibited.
Chestnut said he thinks requiring a special-use permit is a must for a future shelter operation. The special-use permit allows the city to place specific conditions on the operations of the shelter, and the permit can be revoked if the shelter falls short of the agreed upon standards.
Henderson said the idea of locating in an industrial zone is appealing on several fronts. Henderson said most industrial buildings have the single-level, wide-open spaces desired for a shelter.
Henderson said a new shelter also likely would need space to accommodate social service providers that want to locate inside the shelter. He's also optimistic that the shelter will need more space to expand the in-house job programs it offers to clients.
Shelter clients are manufacturing dog biscuits that are sold at the Lawrence Farmers Market and other locations. The shelter is seeking a retired business executive to volunteer as a business manager to help take that operation to a new level.
"We think that program is ripe for expansion," Henderson said.
Cost of expansion
Henderson declined to release cost estimates for a new shelter because it depends on whether the group builds new space or renovates an existing building. But he said shelter leaders are laying the groundwork for a capital campaign that could be launched once a site is found. He said a capital campaign, along with possible grants, would be the most likely funding source for a new shelter. He said it was unlikely that the City Commission would provide any significant funding for a shelter.
Chestnut said that was his sense as well.
"I think there are a lot of issues with the city getting involved in financing or owning that facility that would be problematic," Chestnut said.
The shelter has a special-use permit for its shelter at 214 W. 10th St. The permit expires in two years. Henderson said it is the shelter's goal to have found a new location by the end of the two-year period.
City commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. tonight at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets. Commissioners won't be taking final action on the shelter's request, but rather are being asked to direct the Planning Commission to begin the process to change the zoning code.