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News and notes from around town:
• UPDATE NO. 2: The proposed design changes to the Ninth and New Hampshire building have now created a change in the proceedings tonight at City Hall. City commissioners no longer are scheduled to vote on the project this evening. Instead, City Hall leaders have decided the design changes require the project to be sent back the Historic Resources Commission, likely on Dec. 15. City commissioners will hear a presentation about the design changes tonight, and will accept public comment about the project.
• UPDATE: The deal-making has begun on a proposal to build a new hotel/apartment building at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire Street. Neighbors to the east have expressed concern about the height of the building, which is six stories near New Hampshire Street and closer to five stories near the east edge of the property, which backs up the Rhode Island Street neighborhood. Now, representatives with Treanor Architects have sent new plans to city commissioners just prior to a key meeting tonight indicating they've reduced the height of the building on its eastern edge to three stories. They indicated that would reduce the number of hotel rooms planned for the project, but I haven't heard by how many. The architects also have proposed several other changes related to signs, building materials and how traffic exits the underground parking garage. See the full list of proposed changes here.
They'll all get discussed tonight when city commissioners tackle the hot button issue at their 6:35 p.m. meeting. I've had a couple of people who have asked for some updates from tonight's meeting, so I'll do a little bit of live blogging of the proceedings. Check back here at Town Talk a little after 6:30 p.m., and I'll do my best to give you a play-by-play of the proceedings.
• You’ll take your good news where you can get it at this point in the Lawrence real estate market. New numbers show that home sales in Lawrence through October are down about 14 percent from 2010 totals. How’s that good news, you ask? Well, through the first seven months of the year home sales were down 25 percent from a year ago. So, to put it another way, there has been a slowdown in the amount of bad news over the last four months. These days, that’s good news.
One area where it is tough to see many positives, though, is on the new home construction front. Only 56 newly built homes have been sold this year. That’s down 40 percent from the 94 that were sold during the same time period last year. It also is down 23 percent from two years ago, when folks were hoping that the real estate market had hit its bottom.
Here are some other stats from the Lawrence Board of Realtors through October:
- The board is still not seeing the decline in home prices that the Douglas County appraiser has said he’s starting to detect. The median selling price for a home is at $157,500. That's down less than 1 percent from the $158,750 mark from a year ago.
- Despite low sales numbers, newly constructed homes have taken a big jump in price. The median selling price is now at $243,500, up from $229,411 a year ago. That’s about a 6 percent increase. Perhaps builders are taking a different approach and concentrating more on building upper end homes for people who still have money.
- Patience is the name of the game for sellers right now. The average number of days on market for an existing home is now 60, up from 39 during the same time period a year ago.
- October sales, in case you want to know, totaled 63, down from 68 in October 2010 and down from 111 two years ago.
• Speaking of the Douglas County appraiser, that office is knee-deep in setting the tax values of all pieces of real estate in the county. Property owners by March 1 will receive a notice from the county describing the taxable value of their property. Through October, the department is reporting that the average selling price for existing single-family homes is down about 3 percent from a year ago. They’re also reporting that they’re seeing many homes sell for less than the county’s current appraised value for the property. If that continues, here’s betting that this will be the year that quite a few homeowners see their taxable value from the county decline.
• One area of the real estate market that has shown some signs of picking up steam is the commercial real estate market. The appraiser’s office reports that there have been 38 commercial properties sold through October, up from 18 a year ago. Unlike single-family sales, many of those properties have sold at prices above the appraised value set by the county.
• One big project that won’t get a tax bill is the $19 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library. But it might employ quite a few local construction workers. City commissioners at their meeting tonight will take kind of a technical but important step in setting the stage for that project. Commissioners are being asked to approve a plan that allows the project to be built using a construction management approach rather than a traditional general contractor approach.
What’s the difference, you ask? Well, with the traditional approach the city puts the entire $19 million project out for bid once. Large general contractors are the folks who do the bidding, and the city would select the winner based on whichever firm submitted the lowest price. A $19 million project is going to attract general contractors from a wide area, and there is no guarantee that a Lawrence-based firm is going to win the low bid.
But with a construction management approach, the city interviews firms to serve as the manager of the project. They then negotiate a fee for the company to serve as the management firm. The management firm then takes bids from subcontractors — such as plumbers, electricians, drywallers and others who are doing the day-to-day work.
I’m just guessing here, but there might be a couple of advantages to the construction management process for local companies. One, a negotiation process may make it more likely that the city will hire a Lawrence-based firm to manage the project. Two, it seems like the construction management process would ensure that all the local subcontractors will at least get a chance to bid on the job. If a general contractor from out of town gets the job, he may already have his guys that are going to do certain parts of the project regardless. (I could be completely wrong about this. I’ve been wrong on construction sites before. Let’s see, black wire. Black for ground wire, like the color of the ground. Owww. Son of a …)
It also will be interesting to see whether the city takes any formal action to give a preference to local contractors. In some matters, the city will accept a higher bid for a product — vehicles come to mind — as long as it is not more than 1 percent higher than the low bid. The local preference policy pretty clearly says it won't be used for construction projects, but it will be interesting to see if the criteria the city comes up with for selecting a construction management firm will give preference to a local company.
It also will be interesting to see whether this twitch ever goes away.