City commissioners on a decisive 5-0 vote cleared the way for a multistory hotel and retail building to be built at Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
In a meeting that lasted until early this morning, commissioners said they believed there was no feasible and prudent alternative to the hotel project that had sparked concerns from a nearby neighborhood.
“Is there really someone out there who is going to write a check and make a different project here?” Mayor Bob Schumm asked of the lot that has been vacant for more than a decade. “I just don’t see them. I just don’t.”
Commissioners heard nearly an hour’s worth of public comment — both for and against — a proposal to build an approximately 90-room Marriott extended-stay hotel that also has first-floor retail space, a fifth-story rooftop restaurant and a below-ground parking garage at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
Opponents of the project, which included many neighbors who live in the historic neighborhood just east of the proposed site, argued there are multiple residential, retail and office projects that could be built on the site that are smaller and less objectionable to the neighborhood.
“Can a reasonable person really conclude this is the only feasible and prudent option available for the corner?” Ron Schneider, a Lawrence attorney hired by neighbors, asked commissioners. “I would suggest that just on its face, common sense says of course not.”
Schneider said developers had not adequately studied the feasibility of condominiums on the site, and had not studied retail, office and apartment uses that would not require the construction of an expensive underground parking garage.
Members of the development group, which is led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor, argued they already have reduced the size of the building from its original proposed height of 79 feet at the corner of Ninth and New Hampshire to 63 feet. The portion of the building closest to the neighborhood is about 35 feet on average.
The development group also pointed to a city-sponsored study by an outside consulting group that a smaller, three-story building wasn’t financially feasible. The development team also said it was convinced providing parking for the site — even though not required by downtown zoning — is required to make any project feasible.
“Who is going to build 30,000 or 45,000 square feet of building downtown and not provide parking?” asked Dan Watkins, a Lawrence attorney for the developers. “The better question is, who is going to rent it?”
The project actually drew more members of the public who spoke in favor of the project than against it. About 10 members of the public urged commissioners to support the project, arguing the development would bring more visitors and spending to downtown.
“Lawrence has known since the 1980s that if downtown is to grow, it will have to be vertically,” said Joe Flannery, president of Weaver’s department store. “This is an opportunity we should not let pass us by.”
City commissioners were sitting in a quasi-judicial role on Tuesday to hear a formal appeal related to a denial of the project from the city’s Historic Resources Commission, which ruled the project would negatively affect the historic neighborhood to the east.
Commissioners were told by staff attorneys that to allow the project to move forward, they had to find there are no “feasible and prudent alternatives” to the proposed project.
Commissioners also were told their decision on the matter may not be the final one. The commission’s decision could be appealed to Douglas County District Court. Commissioners hired a court reporter to create a transcript of the meeting with the idea that future legal action may be coming.
Schneider was not immediately available after the meeting to comment on whether his clients would appeal the City Commission decision to District Court.
Members of the development team said they also didn't have a firm timeline for construction to begin on the project, given the potential legal challenge.