Saving a piece of the past will take more than a little bit of public money in the here and now.
City commissioners at their meeting Tuesday will consider authorizing more than $1.3 million worth of incentives and public improvements to help a Kansas City developer rehabilitate the former Poehler Mercantile Co. building and an adjacent 1880s structure near Eighth and Delaware streets.
City officials are touting the proposed development — which will add affordable apartments and artists studios — as a way to spark a revitalization of a significant portion of east Lawrence.
“We feel like this really is a reinvestment in our infrastructure in an important part of our community,” said Diane Stoddard, an assistant city manager who has been working on the project. “The benefits for our community will be to save a really important district in our city’s history, and to save an important structure that is in some real jeopardy.”
The Poehler Mercantile building is a 1904, four-story brick building that once was the centerpiece of the east Lawrence industrial district that runs along the railroad tracks and parts of Delaware and Pennsylvania streets. But the grocery warehouse company vacated the building in 1957, and the building has had a large amount of vacancy ever since. Currently, the building is boarded up and its roof is failing.
Kansas City-area developer Tony Krsnich has the property under contract. He plans to convert it into nearly 49 apartment units, with all but three of the apartments being entered into a rent-controlled affordable housing program. His group also has purchased the adjacent Kansas Fruit Vinegar Co. building, 810 Pa., to convert into about 40 artist studios, a gallery space and an outdoor exhibition and reception area.
Krsnich — who currently is finishing a similar apartment conversion of the old Chatham Hotel in Kansas City — said early on that he expected the $9 million project would need some financial assistance from the city. Now, city commissioners are putting forward their most detailed plan yet of how much that help may total.
Among the proposed improvements and incentives being recommending by city staff are:
• $800,000 to improve Delaware Street from Eighth to Ninth streets. Much of the street has deteriorated to the point that it is largely a gravel path. Plans call for all new pavement and stormwater collection systems.
• $300,000 to construct a new public parking lot along the new portion of Delaware Street and to improve the alley that runs adjacent to the property. The parking lot would be maintained by Krsnich’s group, and after 15 years his group would take over ownership of the parking lot for $1.
• $100,000 to install a new water line along Delaware Street between Eighth and Ninth streets.
• $85,000 to pay for up to 75 percent of the costs to install a fire sprinkler in the Poehler building.
• $73,538 to improve Eighth Street from Delaware to Pennsylvania streets.
• $36,980 to make sewer, water and fire line utility connections to the Poehler building.
No tax increase planned
City administrators have put forward a plan that would allow the project to be funded through new debt, water, sewer and stormwater funds. A tax increase isn’t called for to fund the project.
The project has not been run through the city’s traditional cost benefit model, which attempts to quantify how much in new tax dollars and other benefits the city will receive for every $1 it gives in incentives.
Stoddard said such an analysis likely would not produce a favorable result because the project is not the type that produces a large number of permanent jobs, and because most of the housing units will be rent-controlled it is not expected to generate a large increase in property tax revenue either.
But the project already has won some support on the City Commission. City Commissioner Hugh Carter said he thought the project had great potential to be a force for revitalization of the surrounding properties, and he’s particularly excited about the arts element of the development.
“There’s the historic preservation element and there is the affordable housing element, which we do have a need for, but the idea of furthering the cultural district sounds very appealing to me,” Carter said. “There are some elements in there that are hard to quantify.”
Krsnich said the investment from the city is critical to the success of the project.
“The majority of what we’re asking for is help with improving the existing public infrastructure,” Krsnich said. “We’re going to create an amazing space down there, but we just need people to feel comfortable coming to the area.”
Originally, the project had planned to ask for property tax rebates as part of the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. But Krsnich said that incentive no longer is being considered.
Commissioners will consider the request at their meeting at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.
There may be just four commissioners who vote on the project. Previously, Mayor Aron Cromwell recused himself from discussions on the project. The project is expected to include work to install a large number of solar panels on the roof of the Poehler building. Cromwell’s environmental engineering firm is expected to bid on that work.