Lawrence Community Shelter site plan ( .PDF )
Leaders of the Lawrence Community Shelter have filed a revised set of plans that shrink the size of the homeless shelter proposed for the former Don’s Steakhouse location on East 23rd Street.
But new concerns over the project are growing among neighbors who believe the city is trying to ram-rod the plans through the approval process.
The new plans shrink the proposed homeless shelter from a two-story building to a one-story, and eliminate about 25 percent of the square footage of the building. The amount of sleeping space in the shelter remains unchanged, with space for a maximum of 125 beds.
“The cuts really were just based on cost factors,” said Lawrence architect Dan Sabatini, who is designing the project.
The Lawrence Community Shelter is seeking to replace its current shelter at 10th and Kentucky streets because it has become too small, shelter leaders say.
But neighbors are crying foul over the new plans because they believe the plans show how the city is trying to rush the project through the approval process.
The new plans continue to show the project using 1.45 acres of property that is owned by the trust controlling the vacant Farmland Industries fertilizer plant, which is adjacent to the Don’s Steakhouse site. The shelter does not own the Farmland property and does not have the necessarily regulatory approvals to purchase the property in the near future.
Any purchase of the Farmland site has to be approved by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment because the state agency is responsible for ensuring that the former fertilizer site is properly cleaned up.
Rick Bean, chief of KDHE’s remedial section, said the department will oppose any attempts by the shelter to purchase the 1.45 acres. Bean said KDHE still prefers for a single buyer to purchase the entire 467-acre Farmland site because that will make it easier to ensure the entire site ultimately gets cleaned up.
But the city is allowing the shelter to submit plans that show buildings, parking and stormwater detention on the Farmland property, even though the shelter’s ability to obtain the property is far from certain.
“If I were trying to get a project approved, you can bet the Planning Commission or the City Commission wouldn’t even consider looking at my plans unless I owned all the property outright,” said Mike Hultine, an owner of Cornerstone Construction, which has its offices near the proposed shelter site.
Scott McCullough, director of the city’s planning department, said it is unusual for the city to allow a project to move through the approval process without the applicant owning all the property or at least having it under contract to purchase.
“But the Farmland property is really unique with all of its components,” McCullough said. “We’ve accepted this request because the ownership circumstances are unique.”
A rezoning request and special-use permit application for the shelter are scheduled to be heard by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on Nov. 16. If approved there, city commissioners could be ready to give the project a final hearing by early December.
If the shelter’s current plans do win approval, the shelter could not build on the Farmland property unless it owned it. Instead, if it wished to proceed with the project without the Farmland property it would have to file a revised site plan showing how it would fit all the project’s elements on just the Don’s Steakhouse site.
But at that point, the shelter would not be required to go through the entire rezoning and special-use permit process again. The revised site plan, technically, would not need to be reviewed by city commissioners at all but instead could be approved administratively by the planning staff, McCullough said.
Sabatini said the shelter could be successfully built on just the Don’s Steakhouse property but leaders of the shelter want the additional property to construct a small building that would house a jobs program for the shelter.
Neighbors are concerned that the city may approve the rezoning and special-use permit for the shelter based on building and site plans that stand little chance of actually being built.
“We know there is a lot of pressure to speed up the process to get the shelter moved out of downtown,” said Pat Slimmer, who owns an auto repair business that is adjacent to the proposed site. “But that doesn’t mean we should rush it to the point that all parties don’t have the time to make informed decisions.”
Hultine said he believes city leaders already have made up their mind that the site will be approved.
“I definitely have the impression that this site was picked some time ago and steps have been taken to make this site the site before it ever gets to the public hearing,” Hultine said.
City officials, though, deny those allegations. Both McCullough and City Manager David Corliss said the project will be required to meet all the regulations that any other project must meet.
“Whether it is the right site is still a very open question,” Corliss said. “There are a lot questions to be answered yet.”