With a few revisions, the $50,000 donation that developer Thomas Fritzel is offering to settle issues related to the handling of the Varsity House property may be an acceptable deal for the city — if city officials learn some important lessons in the process.
At tonight’s meeting, the Lawrence City Commission is set to consider Fritzel’s offer to address the Varsity House issue by seeking approval for a revised site plan on the project and by agreeing “to raise and/or guarantee pledges for donations” totalling at least $50,000 to the Douglas County Community Foundation to further historic preservation in the community. The pledge could be a good deal for the city but it does come with strings attached. Fritzel stipulates in his letter to the city that the funds would be raised or pledged during 2013 and distributed through the community foundation “as determined jointly by Carol von Tersch (a local preservation advocate) and us.”
So, not only would Fritzel have more than a year to solicit funds or simply pledges for the $50,000 — likely tax-deductible — donation, but he wants to maintain a measure of control over how that money is distributed. The city shouldn’t accept those terms. Even if officials permit the proposed timing of the gift, the distribution of the money should be controlled by the city or by a group like the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, not Fritzel.
The timing of Fritzel’s offer also is notable because the city is actively involved in negotiations with the Kansas University Endowment Association for construction of a $25 million city recreation center, which would be built by Fritzel on a no-bid contract. Whether or not Fritzel intended for the $50,000 to influence the city’s decision on the rec center project, the city shouldn’t take the Varsity House offer as evidence that they don’t need to keep a close eye on Fritzel, who is known for doing whatever he wants to do on local projects and dealing with any fallout after the work is done.
In fact, the staff report attached to this item on tonight’s agenda notes three aspects of the Varsity House apartment complex project that don’t conform to the approved site plan: walls along the alley that are three feet taller than shown in the plan, retaining walls along 11th Street that weren’t included in the plan and minor items related to sidewalks and retaining walls in other locations. These issues may be fixable, but they are nonetheless indicative of a pattern with this developer. It’s true that the city wouldn’t be obligated to accept the new recreation center from the Endowment Association until it is satisfied with the completed construction, but what happens if some aspect of the building doesn’t meet with the city’s approval and would be impossible to fix without great expense? Such a circumstance could create an ugly situation between city and KU officials.
A $50,000 donation that can be raised through other parties won’t be particularly painful to an operation the size of Fritzel’s, so it’s questionable whether that loss will provide any deterrent to future actions. City officials, on the other hand, should have learned a lesson about documenting changes such as the ones Fritzel said he discussed with city staff about Varsity House. The planning staff never discussed the changes with city commissioners, and there is no written record of the conversation with Fritzel, which puts the city in a weak position in seeking redress on the project.
It’s good that the city is trying to hold Fritzel responsible for drastic changes in the plans to “rehabilitate” Varsity House. However, whether or not they accept Fritzel’s $50,000 offer, city commissioners must be mindful of this developer’s history of noncompliance as they consider moving forward on the recreation center plans.