News and notes from around town:
• A project to build a new hydroelectric power plant on the north bank of the Kansas River is still alive, although efforts to obtain financing for the nearly $25 million plant have not gone as planned. Sarah Hill-Nelson, an owner of the Bowersock Mills & Power Co. told me that the company was only partially successful in selling the needed bonds for the project. As we reported several times, the project was up against a tight deadline to find buyers for federal stimulus bonds before the end of 2010. Hill-Nelson said buyers were found for about $15 million worth of the tax-exempt stimulus bonds, but the purchases are contingent upon the project finding buyers for about $8.7 million worth of more traditional bonds that aren’t tax-exempt. But the good news, Hill-Nelson said, is that since contingent buyers were found for the stimulus bonds that satisfies the federal government’s 2010 deadline. Bowersock is now changing its marketing strategy in an attempt to sell the remaining bonds so that the project can move forward. Hill-Nelson, though, didn’t have a timeline on when that may happen.
“We’re still in the thick of it,” Hill-Nelson said. “We’re putting more boots on the ground, but the project is still viable and it is still alive.”
• So, you want to go deep into the recesses of city government? You’ll have a chance tonight. City commissioners will deal with two issues that — quite frankly — look pretty boring but have the potential to change how parts of the city look and feel in the future. Commissioners will consider making changes to two sets of codes that could have major impacts on the Oread Neighborhood.
• First is a change in how apartment complexes can develop in the future. The changes would affect apartments built on land zoned RM-32, which is the most dense type of apartment zoning in the city and is mainly confined to the Oread area. (You can see a map of the areas here.) There are several details to this, but really it comes down to one question: How many bedrooms will future apartment complexes have? Folks in the apartment business have been saying for awhile that one- and two-bedroom apartments are more marketable than three- or four-bedroom apartments. But the city’s current zoning rules encourage three- and four-bedroom apartments. That’s because the city counts any size of an apartment as a living unit. The RM-32 zoning code allows up to 32 living units per acre. Developers want to maximize the number of people who can live in their apartments, so they build four-bedroom units instead of two-bedroom units.
What is being proposed is that in this RM-32 district, studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments will be counted as a 0.5 living unit for the purposes of determining the maximum number of units allowed. That means that a project that perhaps would have built 10 four-bedroom units will now build 20 two-bedroom units. Developers and city planners are recommending the change. They say the biggest thing to remember is that you’re talking about the same number of people in the same amount of space. They stress that the parking standard won’t change from what is required now.
Preservationists have argued that the changes may make apartment projects so attractive to developers that existing housing stock may be torn down to make way for apartments. But Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning, said there would still be various historic preservation reviews any project would have to go through, and he said the parking standards will still make large-scale projects challenging to do without providing underground parking. That’s expensive, but it will be interesting to see whether developers will go that route. It has been mentioned as a possibility for the former Varsity House at 1043 Ind. that has been bought by a group led by Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel.
But perhaps a more interesting question involves a theory that is floating around. Lawrence architect Stan Hernly pointed out to planners that nothing proposed changes the fact that it is legal for four unrelated adults to live together in any apartment unit, regardless of the number of bedrooms. So if a project has 10 four-bedroom units, 40 unrelated people would be the legal maximum number of people who could live in the building. If the same size of building had 20 two-bedroom units, 80 unrelated people would be the legal maximum.
Thus far, city planners have said they find that scenario unlikely.
“Theoretically, yes, that is correct,” McCullough said. “But practically, I’m not sure we can accept that argument. That’s not what we’ve seen happen with smaller apartments.”
• All right, are you still with me? Issue No. 2 is about boarding houses. Boarding houses are a special type of creature in Lawrence zoning code. If a house is located on a multifamily zoned piece of land, it can go through some steps and be declared a boarding house. That allows more than four unrelated people to live in the house legally. It also is different from a house that has been converted into apartments because a boarding house allows its residents to share a kitchen and bathrooms. Apartments require separate bathrooms and kitchens for each unit.
But owners of boarding houses do have to provide a certain amount of parking for their residents. That always has been a big catch, and has been the main issue limiting how many people can live in a particular boarding house.
Now planners and developers are recommending a change in the parking standards. It is a two-part change. (Hey, we thought this was starting to get too simple.) Boarding houses that are less than 3,500 square feet in size will have to provide 1 parking space per bedroom. Currently, they have to provide .75 parking spaces per occupant of the house. McCullough said he anticipates the net result will be that these smaller boarding houses will have to provide more parking than what is required today. But here’s an important point: The new regulations only would apply to new projects. Existing boarding houses would be grandfathered in. The second part of the change is basically for boarding houses that are more than 3,500 square feet. Those large homes would be required to provide 0.5 parking spaces per bedroom. That will result in less parking than what is required today. But McCullough said planners see this as incentive for people to save those old homes. The Oread Neighborhood has had a problem with large old homes decaying because owners haven’t been able to come up with a financially feasible way to save them. The lesser parking standards only would apply to large, existing homes. It would not apply to someone who wants to build a new structure that is more than 3,500 square feet.
• On the off chance that someone is still reading at this point, here’s one more issue about the Oread Neighborhood. Town Talk recently reported that one longtime resident wrote a letter to city officials alerting them to an effort to start a “residents association” because of concerns the Oread Neighborhood Association no longer represents the interests of residents of the neighborhood. Last year the association had a major change in its board, with a larger number of landlords winning spots on the board. The neighborhood predominantly is a rental neighborhood.
Well, the president of the neighborhood association, landlord and bar owner Rob Farha, contacted me and said he disagrees with several of the comments made in the letter. Farha contends Oread Neighborhood Association meetings are better attended now than before. He estimates anywhere from 12 to 25 people attend regularly, where before he said it was rare to have more than 10 people at a meeting.
But Farha said he really objected to the contention made by the letter’s author, Candice Davis, that landlords “hijacked” the association’s board.
“Apparently she doesn’t believe in democracy because it was a democratic election and it was all done by the rules,” Farha said.