Let’s talk, downtown Lawrence.
City commissioners said Tuesday they’re interested in at least having a conversation about a proposal to construct a five-story building on a prominent public parking lot in the center of downtown.
“These are the types of projects that have the potential to make downtown better,” Commissioner Lance Johnson said. “People living downtown and working downtown are how you fill the stores downtown.”
But such projects also are the type that create lots of questions. That’s why commissioners said before they talk about the project in any detail, they want Lawrence architect Paul Werner — who is proposing the project — to have an open meeting with downtown property owners who would be impacted.
As reported last week, Werner — and to a lesser degree, Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel — have been working on concept plans for a five-story building that would be built on the city-owned parking lot on the east side of the 800 block of Vermont Street. 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 portion of the building near Ninth and Vermont also would have 15,000 square feet that developers ideally want to fill with a grocery store.
The project would include anywhere from three to three-and-half levels of covered parking. Werner is guaranteeing the city would have at least 159 public parking spaces — the same amount that exists in the current lot — as part of the project. Plans call for about another 200 spaces as part of the project, reserved for apartments, offices and other users.
Some city commissioners indicated some of those details will need to be tweaked in the future.
“I think we’re definitely going to want to see a better return on our parking investment,” City Commissioner Aron Cromwell said. Cromwell also said the idea of securing a grocery tenant for the project also was critical.
“If you changed that from a grocery store into a Walgreens, I don’t think it would have the same amount of appeal,” he said.
The project isn’t appealing to everybody currently. Dan Ranjbar, a Lawrence orthodontist who also owns retail property in the 800 block of Massachusetts, said he is concerned the new project won’t be as accommodating to motorists who currently use the city parking lot.
“The reason for doing this development is unclear to me,” Ranjbar said. “Bringing more housing downtown might be one reason, but I think there are other places you can do that.”
Werner, though, said he looked forward to meeting with downtown merchants and property owners in the near future.
“I still believe that when they think about the number of people who would be living so close to their business, they will see the benefits,” Werner said.
Before the project moves along too far, the city will have to decide whether it wants to hear from other developers on the matter. Lawrence businessman Doug Compton sent a letter to commissioners asking that other companies be allowed to submit a proposal for the property, if the city is interested in changing its current use.
Commissioners stopped short of committing to that, but Mayor Mike Amyx said he wanted staff to thoroughly review any legal requirements the city may have in regards to opening up the property for development.
“I think that’s an item that will be brought back up again,” Amyx said. “I think we’ll need to work at this a little bit slowly.”
In other news, commissioners:
• Asked members of Treanor Architects to meet with property owners near 10th and Vermont streets before moving ahead with plans to build new corporate headquarters for the architecture firm. The company is proposing to renovate and add onto the former Strong’s Office Supply store at 1040 Vt. As part of the project, the developers are seeking tax rebates through the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. But commissioners said before they started debating that aspect of the project, they wanted to ensure neighbors were comfortable with possible changes to the city-owned parking lot.
• Agreed to a resolution supporting an application for state tax credits to renovate the Poehler building at 619 E. Eighth St. Kansas City-area developer Tony Krsnich is proposing to put about 40 apartments in the top three floors of the old grocery warehouse building. He’s seeking state tax credits that would designate the project as affordable housing, and would hold rents to between $500 and $600 a month for one and two-bedroom units.
• Approved a new policy regarding city overtime. Commissioners approved the changes on a 4-1 vote, with Amyx opposed. The changes eliminate practices that allowed some city employees to be paid overtime even if they did not work 40 hours in a week.