A five-story building with apartments, offices and perhaps even a small-scale grocery store may be coming to the center of downtown, if city commissioners are willing to make major changes to a prominent public parking lot.
A group led by Lawrence architect Paul Werner and local developer Thomas Fritzel are floating a concept that would redevelop the entire public parking lot on the east side of the 800 block of Vermont Street with a project that Werner says will provide downtown with a major boost.
“We need more bodies in downtown Lawrence,” Werner said. “Particularly bodies that have a place to park. If we had 100 people living in that block with dedicated parking, I think it would be a major step forward for downtown.”
City commissioners will hear the concept at their Tuesday evening meeting and provide feedback on whether the idea is worth exploring further. Among the major points of the proposal:
• A five-story building would occupy the entire 1.4-acre city-owned parking lot that stretches from Ninth Street to just south of Eighth Street.
• The city would be guaranteed at least 159 public parking spaces — the same amount that exists in the current lot — as part of the project. All the spaces would be covered parking. In addition, the project would have about 200 other parking spaces that would be reserved for apartments, offices and other users. In total, there would be three levels of parking — one below ground and two above ground.
• The project would include either 48 apartment units and 44,400 square feet of office space or 86 apartments and 12,000 square feet of office space, depending on office demand. The building near the corner of Ninth and Massachusetts also would have 15,000 square feet that developers ideally want to fill with a grocery store. Werner said the development group has had some preliminary discussions with a grocer who expressed interest, but he said he has no commitment from a grocer. He said the development group likely would be willing to tell the city that the large space wouldn’t be filled by a restaurant.
“A grocery store would be a home run,” Werner said. “A pharmacy or drugstore use I think would be OK too. But a chain restaurant at that corner would not be the biggest point of excitement for the city, and we think that is right.”
City Manager David Corliss said he plans to tell commissioners that the project is worth exploring.
“We want downtown to be strong, and if downtown is to grow, it likely will be vertically,” Corliss said.
Corliss, though, said the project promises to be complex. He said the city will need to ensure that it is getting enough benefits from the development in exchange for allowing a private developer to use the valuable asset of nearly 1.5 acres of ground in the center of downtown.
The fact the property is city-owned also is expected to provide added financial benefit. The development group has said tax increment financing likely would be sought. A TIF allows any new property and sales taxes generated on the property to be captured and used to pay for public infrastructure related to the project. Since the property currently is city-owned, it generates no sales or property taxes. That means 100 percent of all property and sales taxes would be eligible to be rebated back to the development to pay for public infrastructure costs.
The project also is sure to spark discussion among other downtown businesses. Multiple businesses rely on the current public parking lot in the 800 block of Vermont. On Friday, reaction was mixed among businesses that are adjacent to the lot.
“My personal opinion is that it would be a mistake,” said Walt Houk, an owner of Travellers, 831 Mass. “As far as customers going into a parking garage, I don’t know if they would like that. It is convenient right now the way it is.”
Brad Parsons — an owner of Marks Jewelers, 817 Mass. — said he wants to learn more about the parking arrangements, but likes the idea of more people living and working in downtown.
“It sure seems like an idea well worth exploring with an open mind,” Parsons said. “I don’t see how more people living in downtown can do anything to hurt retail at all.”
The proposal comes just weeks after a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton started construction on a seven-story apartment, office and retail building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
City commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.