Leaders of the Lawrence Community Shelter said Tuesday they are sticking with plans to build a new homeless shelter along East 23rd Street, despite the project receiving an unexpected delay from planning commissioners.
One day after the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission delayed a recommendation on the project until at least January, the real estate agent for the shelter said he was optimistic the shelter would be able to extend a contract to purchase the former Don’s Steakhouse property, 2176 E. 23rd St.
“We believe we can keep the property under contract,” said Doug Brown, a board member of the shelter and a commercial real estate agent. “We’re talking to the property owners about that right now. We believe they’ll be responsive to that request, but we don’t have that finalized by any means.”
Planning commissioners deferred a rezoning and special-use permit request late Monday after expressing concern that the shelter’s proposed management plan didn’t do enough to address neighborhood concerns. Those concerns included how the shelter would control loitering in the area, the procedure for turning away banned individuals from the shelter, and transportation issues related to how shelter guests will come and go from the facility.
The Planning Commission’s deferral created a major complication because shelter leaders were scheduled to finalize the purchase of the property in early December. Brown said it is not feasible for shelter leaders to close on the property without knowing for certain whether the site will win the necessary land-use approvals.
With the recent deferral by the Planning Commission, the earliest the City Commission could give final approval to the project is now likely in February.
Finding another site for the shelter could be difficult, as new details that were released Tuesday showed that the shelter unsuccessfully made offers for two other pieces of property earlier this year.
According to information that Brown supplied to the city, the shelter in February submitted a letter of intent to purchase the Knights of Columbus building at 2206 E. 23rd St. Brown said that deal failed to materialize after the two sides could not agree on a price.
In June, the shelter submitted a letter of intent to purchase the former Meseraull Printing complex at 31st and Louisiana streets. That project failed to move forward after costs to extend city and water service to the site — which is just outside the city limits — became significant.
A site on county-owned property adjacent to the Douglas County Jail also was explored. County Administrator Craig Weinaug said he approached shelter leaders about placing the shelter adjacent to the jail, if the new shelter also could be made to serve as part of a re-entry program that county leaders would like to have for inmates after they’re released from jail. Weinaug said the two purposes ultimately were determined to be too different.
“The sheriff did a great job exploring it,” Weinaug said. “We all just came to the same conclusion that it wasn’t going to work.”
Brown said shelter leaders also had considered — although never technically made an offer — for vacant property that is just west of Independence Inc. headquarters at 2001 Haskell Avenue. Shelter leaders determined that strong opposition from neighbors would be likely at that site.
Neighbors near the Don’s Steakhouse site had asked planning commissioners on Monday to delay the rezoning and special-use permit applications. On Tuesday, a leader of the neighborhood opposition said he hoped the deferral would give everybody more time to consider a host of options — including whether there is government-owned property that could be donated for use by the shelter.
“I know there is huge pressure to move this out of downtown,” said Pat Slimmer, who owns an automotive repair shop next the proposed site. “I just want to make sure we’ve explored all avenues.”
Shelter director Loring Henderson said his group will continue to focus on the steakhouse site, but said he definitely plans to meet with neighbors several times before planning commissioners hear the issue again.
“I’m certainly feeling better about the situation today than I did last night,” Henderson said. “I think in the end, the support (from planning commissioners) is there, as long as we can show that we can work with the neighbors. And we definitely will work with the neighbors.”