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News and notes from around town:
• Maybe Jayhawks will naturally gravitate to a restaurant called Freebirds.
I’m hearing rumblings that we may soon find out. There is talk in various business circles around town that Freebirds World Burrito is finalizing a deal to take over the former Maurices location at 739 Mass.
I haven’t gotten confirmation on the deal, so take it for whatever you think it is worth. But my understanding is a deal is in the works for the entire Maurices space to be leased, but Freebirds would only occupy a portion of it. That would mean the Maurices building, which has one of the larger storefronts on Massachusetts Street would be divided into smaller spaces.
Freebirds is a growing national burrito/Mexican restaurant chain. According to the company’s website, the chain got started by a couple of “ex-hippies” in Santa Barbara, Calif., and then expanded into College Station Texas, where it became popular with Texas A&M; students.
I’ve heard the place described as a sort of organic version of Chipotle. (I’ve never been, so I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure my chances of getting hired as a marketing genius for Chipotle are fading.)
Freebirds’ website does tout that it uses hormone-free, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken. The restaurant offers up steak, chicken, and pork versions of burritos and tacos. It looks like they also offer up nachos and salads, and a dessert specialty they call “pot brownies.” Maybe this group really has researched the local market. (They swear they are legal. The restaurant serves them in a black pot. I’m sure that’s the only thing the ex-hippy founders are trying to imply.)
Freebirds appears to be on a pretty rapid growth curve. The company has six new restaurants scheduled to open between now and the end of the August. That includes a new store in Mission, which will be the company’s first in Kansas.
It will be interesting to see what other businesses may land in the remodeled Maurices building. That large building has set vacant since the summer of 2009. I’m sure there are several folks pleased the space is being filled, but I can’t help think that some retailers are disappointed that there apparently wasn’t a retail group sufficiently interested in taking a large floorplate in downtown Lawrence.
When I hear of a formal announcement about the Freebirds project, I’ll let you know.
• Well, it will be interesting to see if Tuesday night’s City Commission meeting gets messier than a refried bean burrito. It has the potential.
City commissioners at their weekly meeting are scheduled to finally hear an appeal related to a controversial multi-story hotel/retail building at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets. If you remember, the city’s Historic Resources Commission has rejected the project because it believes the building is too tall to co-exist with the historic neighborhood immediately east of the site. But a simple three-vote majority of the City Commission will allow the project to move forward.
Here’s a reminder of some of the details:
— The city’s planning staff is now recommending approval of the project. That wasn’t always the case. A previous plan did not get a positive recommendation from the planning staff. But this new plan essentially has shrunk by about one story in height, which was a key factor in winning favor from the planning staff.
— As for height, the building has varying heights. It has been described as being largely a five-story building as you get closer to New Hampshire Street and a four-story building as you get closer to the neighbors on the east. In terms of specifics, the building will be 63 feet at the corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets. Along the alley, which is adjacent to the neighborhood, the building will be 40 feet tall. I believe another portion of the building, the part that abuts the Lawrence Arts Center will be 44 feet tall.
— The project is proposed to have 90 hotel rooms that would be part of a TownePlace Marriott extended stay hotel. The project also would include a restaurant on the fifth floor and retail space on the ground floor. In total, the building would be 121,908 square feet.
— What commissioners will be asked to decide is whether there is a “feasible and prudent alternative” to the project. If they find there is a “feasible and prudent alternative” to the project, then legally, they are not supposed to allow the project to move forward.
What does state law mean by a “feasible and prudent alternative?” Well, I’ve heard people say this is one of the great flaws in our historic resources process. City commissioners are asked to make rulings on projects based on a phrase that is extremely broad. So, in short, I don’t have a definition for you. Of course state law defines the phrase but it essentially defines it by replacing the phrase feasible and prudent with the phrase “sensible and realistic.” Gee, thanks for clearing that up.
Anyway, there will be arguments about that. Already neighbors are starting to present their own plans to city commissioners as evidence that there is a “feasible and prudent” alternative. The most detailed one seems to be from Town Peterson, who lives behind the proposed site. He’s put some numbers together arguing for a three-story 30,000-square-foot building that would have apartments, offices and retail space.
The gist of his argument seems to be that there are feasible and prudent alternatives, if the developers drop the idea of building an expensive underground parking garage on the site. It is true that the downtown zoning does not require the developers to provide any off-street parking for their projects. But whether a bank would loan money on a multimillion-dollar apartment and retail project that offers no place for tenants or customers to park, is probably another question. The 901 Building across the street was built without its own parking, but it also has a direct connection to the city-owned parking garage. See how fun it is to determine “feasible and prudent.”
As I’ve said before, I think the project has an inside track to approval. I say that because Mayor Bob Schumm and Commissioner Mike Dever seemed to spend a lot of time negotiating with the development group — led by Doug Compton and Mike Treanor — to reduce the height of the building. It would be surprising if those two spent all that time negotiating a deal only to not vote for the project in the end.
But anything can happen on a Tuesday night, especially when the room is full of angry neighbors.
• The fun with this Ninth and New Hampshire project likely will stretch on for weeks. Commissioners on Tuesday just will be deciding the historic resources issues related to the project.
But they also will be moving the process forward to decide whether city financial incentives should be offered to the project.
The development group has asked for Tax Increment Financing and a special 1 percent sales tax district to help pay for this project and for a proposed 7-story apartment/office building on the northeast corner of the intersection.
Well, there is a new report out on that subject. Unlike the previous reports, this one gives a fuller accounting of how much money the project will need in terms of city incentives.
The total — according to a report commissioned by the city — is $11,821,644.
All the money would come from one of three sources:
— Property taxes charged to the new development on the sites. The city, county and school district all would give up their share of new property taxes created by the development for the next 20 years. They would continue to receive the property taxes they are currently paid on the property taxes.
— New sales taxes generated by the new development. Any new sales taxes over and above what is already generated on the sites would be part of the incentive pool for approximately the next 20 years.
— A special 1 percent sales tax would be charged on all goods sold at the hotel/retail project. The special 1 percent sales tax would not apply to the seven-story building proposed for the northeast corner. Proceeds from the special 1 percent sales tax would be part of the incentive pool for the next 20 years.
All the incentive money would be used to pay for the two underground, private parking garages that would be built as part of the projects and other infrastructure-related improvements such as street lights, sidewalks and similar items.
The $11.8 million amount, however, also includes the interest expense the development group would incur for financing those improvements. The city wants the development group to finance the projects rather than issuing bonds in the city’s name to pay for the improvements. That provides the city protection against the project failing. If the developer finances the improvements, they are only reimbursed as long as the project produces the tax revenues that have been estimated. If the project fails and the tax revenues aren’t produced, the city would not have any obligation to pay for the improvements. If they city issued bonds, it would have an obligation to pay for the improvements, even if the project failed.
The development group has not objected to the “pay-as-you-go” proposal, but it does want to be reimbursed for its interest costs.
Commissioners will receive the report at their Tuesday meeting, but aren’t expected to make any decisions about financial incentives for the project until mid-July.