Consider Lawrence city commissioners ready and willing to make a big bet on east Lawrence.
Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting agreed to $1.39 million worth of public infrastructure improvements and other incentives to aid a private developer’s plans to create an affordable housing and artist studio project near Eighth and Delaware streets.
“I know some people may believe this is a stretch,” said City Commissioner Bob Schumm. “I have gotten emails saying it is a very expensive project. And it is in total dollars. But some of this is work that we would have to do eventually.
But what this does for us now is establish a truly iconic opportunity for us to establish an artists community an strengthen the east Lawrence neighborhood.”
Kansas City-area developer Tony Krsnich is proposing to convert the vacant, four-story Poehler Mercantile Co. building into 49 apartments, with all but three of them entered into a rent-controlled affordable housing program. He’s also purchased the former Kansas Fruit Vinegar Co. building, 810 Penn., 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.
Among the improvements approved by commissioners Tuesday are:
• $800,000 to improve Delaware Street from Eighth to Ninth streets. Although currently a platted street, the road basically does not exist today.
• $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 waterline along Delaware Street between Eighth and Ninth streets.
• $85,000 to pay for up to 75 percent of the costs to install fire sprinklers 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.
Commissioners approved the request for incentives on a 4-0 vote. Mayor Aron Cromwell abstained from the vote because his solar engineering firm may end up being involved in a solar panel installation for the project.
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.
Commissioners did express concern about some of the incentives — particularly, the idea of building a public parking lot for the development — creating a precedent for other future developments.
But commissioners said they believed they could point to several unique factors with this project, including saving a 1908 building that is viewed to be a catalyst for future redevelopment of the area that includes several other underutilized early 20th-century industrial buildings.
“When it comes to re-investing in east Lawrence, I think this is a very good project,” City Commissioner Mike Amyx said. “We’re going to re-establish a part of a neighborhood and make it very usable.”
The city will not start any work on the improvements until a building permit has been filed for rehabilitation of the Poehler building. The city anticipates work beginning in early 2012.
In other news, commissioners:
• Approved a $25,000 “forgivable loan” to Chris Piper’s Grandstand Sportswear and Glassware. The loan will help the Lawrence-based company move into a larger building at the East Hills Business Park, which is expected to allow the company to add 84 jobs over the next 10 years. The company, which does screen printing for apparel and the international brew pub industry, won’t have to repay the loan as long as it meets certain job and investment targets over the next two years. Commissioners also finalized a previously approved 65 percent, 10-year tax abatement for the firm. Commissioners approved the items on a 4-0 vote. Commissioner Mike Dever abstained from the vote.
• Allowed a compromise to move forward regarding relocation of the Varsity House at 1043 Ind. Commissioners sent a development plan for a 50-unit apartment project back to the Historic Resources Commission for further review. The plan had drawn opposition from historic preservationists because it called for the prominent 1908 home to be moved from its corner location to a mid-block site. But Lawrence architect Paul Werner and leaders for the Lawrence Preservation Alliance announced that City Commissioner Mike Amyx had proposed a compromise that both sides could live with. The compromise involves moving the Varsity House south instead of north on the block. That will actually put the home closer to the corner, which preservationists said they support. The HRC is expected to review the new plan at its Oct. 27 meeting.