News and notes from around town:
• The concrete is starting to pile up at the corner of Ninth and New Hampshire as a project to build a seven-story apartment, retail and office building moves ahead. But what hasn’t moved ahead is the idea of allowing the new building to reserve about 65 parking spaces in the adjacent city garage. The development also wants about $280,000 in city funding to pay for several upgrades to public infrastructure.
The development group — led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton — asked the city for the incentives back in November, but so far City Hall hasn’t made any official response. But an attorney for the development group told me recently that doesn’t mean the idea has gone away. Bill Fleming said the plan now is to ask the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee — the same group that reviews the feasibility of tax abatements — to look at the proposal.
“We want to make sure that people understand the benefits that are being brought forward by the project so they can compare them to the costs,” Fleming said. “I think the analysis will come out real favorable.”
Fleming hopes that the project can be reviewed by PIRC sometime in March. PIRC’s role in the process would be to make a recommendation to the City Commission, which still would have the final say on the matter.
A PIRC review could be an interesting one because normally PIRC is asked to bless a set of incentives in order for a project to move forward. That’s not the case here. The project is clearly moving forward with or without the incentives. Construction is scheduled to be completed in early 2012.
That’s led some people in the community to argue that the city shouldn’t even consider the incentive. That argument has some validity, but there’s a counter argument to be made. Often people complain that companies and developers “hijack” the city by saying they won’t do a project in Lawrence unless an incentive is offered, even though they plan to do the project here anyway. In this instance, the developers chose not to take that approach. Instead, they chose to be honest about the fact that the incentives weren’t going to make or break the project. They’ve argued that the incentives will make the project better, and also will show a commitment on the part of City Hall toward downtown development. I’ve heard some developers say that is no minor point. If city commissioners refuse this incentive, will it cause other developers to think differently about proposing development projects for downtown? (Think of the vacant lot across the street from this project, or the old Allen Press property at 11th and N.H. or several other locations.) Will it make future developers more likely to play the incentives game that so many people seem to hate? Does any of this mean the city should approve the incentives for Ninth and New Hampshire?
Beats me. Some days I get paid to answer questions. Some days I get paid to ask them.
• While we’re on the subject of downtown development, plans for Treanor Architects to build its new corporate headquarters at the site of the former Strong’s Office Supply building at 1040 Vt. are still progressing. Fleming, who also is an attorney on that project, said he hopes the Public Incentives Review Committee will review those plans, too.
The company wants to use the Neighborhood Revitalization Act — which is a tax rebate program — to help make the project more feasible. It also wants some changes to the adjacent city parking lot that would allow long-term parking. Currently, the lot is a two-hour lot.
• We might as well complete the downtown trifecta. What would a $360,000 piece of downtown art look like? I don’t know, and I don’t think we’ll get the chance to find out. The question came up because of the city’s 2 percent for art policy, and the $18 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library. Generally, the art policy suggests that when public buildings are constructed that the city set aside 2 percent of the budget for public art. When you see the sculptures in front of fire stations or the health department building or other similar structures, that’s a sign of the policy. In the case of the $18 million public library expansion, that would be a $360,000 piece of art. But City Manager David Corliss told commissioners recently that’s he’s not going to recommend the city spend $360,000 for art. He noted the 2 percent for art is not mandatory, and the city has reduced the 2 percent amount in the past. Already, some city commissioners are talking about how the new library will need to be a public building of the highest quality. It will be interesting to see how big of an art project ends up at downtown’s newest destination.