Editorial: Strings attached

A local developer’s $50,000 good-will gesture shouldn’t influence the city’s decision on a $25 million recreation center project.

November 20, 2012


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.


David Holroyd 5 years, 6 months ago

I cannot believe that any sane person would write an editorial and really believe that house should have been brought back. Wm Allen white was right.. Even Dolph quoted him. Ask Dolph.

spiderd 5 years, 6 months ago

Okay, I'll say it again.
Dear Wilbur, The debate over bringing that house back is over and has been over for over a year. And... when they tore it down it was really, really over. That is no longer the point - no one cares what you or anyone else thinks about the house. The issue is that the developer has broken a deal with the city. Not only was this a deal regarding the legal site plan, but in this case literally a face to face handshake sort of deal on top of it made directly with a city commissioner. Said developer is now attempting to make this go away so that he can focus on the millions of dollars he's about to make at the no-bid recreation project that city tax payers will be funding. In my opinion, it's a weak attempt but like yours, my opinion is not worth very much.
Regards, spiderd

Lawrence Morgan 5 years, 6 months ago

This is an excellent editorial!

It's the kind of reporting the Journal-World should do much more often, and bloggers should be able to contribute thoughtful, decently thought out articles on these subjects as well.

I continue to think that Journal-World editorials should be signed, as should all comments on the Internet for any blog, letter or article.

somebodynew 5 years, 6 months ago

Heck, Fritzell is just taking a play from college athletics...... How many times have schools "self-punished" during an NCAA investigation and everybody knows that is just to lessen the penalty the NCAA will impose. Good enough for the NCAA, surely the City will buy it, right ???

And while I somewhat agree with Wilber (that is scary to even write) in that "old" doesn't neccessarily mean "historic", I do agree with this editorial. The timing of this just smells and it lays out some of the history and the "what if" when it comes to the rec center (rock chalk folly).

lawrencereporter 5 years, 6 months ago

Thomas Fritzel has no experience with projects like the city's recreation center or the stadium and competition fields for KU. Why is KU insisting the city use a first-timer for the most expensive public building this city has ever considered. Why is KU insisting the city use a no-bid fixed price set by KU's builder.

Vice-mayor Dever said during the last city commission meeting this sports park project could be a $100 million dollar project.

Fritzel is a no-win for the Lawrence community. Let him go, the city would be overwhelmed with qualified experienced bidders for the recreation center.

When the Zenger-Fritzel honeymoon is over, it'll be time for an annulment.

victor_lustig 5 years, 6 months ago

Thomas Fritzel has committed multiple site plan violations, not just destroying the old Varsity house intentionally. If the wall along the alley is three feet to tall that would make building to tall, added landscaping retaining walls to reduce the over building height when measured from the top instead of from ground level and many other violations. The city should have stopped all work on site until this was completely resolved. Thomas Fritzel has worked overtime to finish the exterior of this apartment project. he learned a lesson at Tuckaway at Frontier apartments, its impossible for the city to make you remove astro turf after its installed. Compromise for Fritzel is a win. At Frontier he was told to stop installing astro turf, he kept going until it was complete, the city let him off.

Thomas Fritzel is hoping to be cleared of his wrong doing by offering to assist in fund raising for the donation of $50,000 which as stated in the editorial would be tax deductible, another win for his family, who will benefit from such tax deductions.

The community should insist the the city make Thomas Fritzel admit he violated the site plan agreement and fine him personally. The fine should be paid directly to the city. As far as fine dollar amount goes, if the building is to tall and violates the height ordnance is the building safe for occupancy. Building height being to tall along the alley, will it allow for proper access in an emergency.

Make him admit to the violations.

Pepe 5 years, 6 months ago

So let me get this straight. The developer who took the city's money for the varsity project and screwed that up is now offering to donate $50k (on his own terms) to fix the problems with the varsity project? This sounds like a settlement of potential claims by the city, not a donation. He is probably only giving back a portion of the money he pocketed by cutting corners in the first place.

Further, the city is now going to give $25 million of taxpayer to the same developer to build a rec center that the developer has absolutely no experience in building? Plus, we are giving more money to the developer who cut corners on the first project -- do we not expect him to cut more corners on the rec center project? The "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" expression comes to mind. This would be comical if this were happening in some other city -- however, it is painful to witness when it involves our own city and our own tax dollars.

Anyone commissioner who votes for this should be voted out of office next term.

homergoodtimes 5 years, 6 months ago

I watched the city commission meeting on TV last week. Mayor Schumm times the public speakers, at three and half minutes he rings a buzzer at four minutes he tells you to sit down. four or five minutes is not enough time for most to be heard. But, the most amazing thing about Mayor Schumm's leadership is that he never offers answers to the questions asked by public speakers. Why don't the commissioners answer or have the staff answer questions during the meeting in public. Its obvious Schumm has decided which way he is voting long before any public meetings. Corliss as city manager should insist the public be heard fully and answered immediately or prior to any action taken by the commission, once they vote the public's questions and answers no long matter.

Closed door decisions should end careers of public employees and shorten elected officials terms. It's time these people be held accountable.

Lawrence Morgan 5 years, 6 months ago

When I contacted Bob Schumm via email about a reader's blog that I had written - http://www2.ljworld.com/weblogs/kansas-150th-birthday-is-almost-over/2012/mar/24/a-new-vision-for-lawrence-scooters-pedes/

I got a reply from Mr. Schumm that "I don't read the blogs on the JW." Best, Bob Schumm

Readers have often had very good ideas with reader's blogs - but Schumm isn't interested.

Now, reader's blogs are no longer even on the front page, so citizenship journalism at the Journal World has almost stopped, unlike other papers in Kansas and elsewhere where there are many blogs available by the readership.

For most Journal-World readers, the blogs are now nonexistent. And that on top of a mayor who never reads any blogs whatsoever - I wonder if he even reads the Journal-World at all!

lawrencereporter 5 years, 6 months ago

Revising a site plan "after the fact" to make the violations committed by the owner Thomas Fritzel somehow now acceptable is unlawful.

lawrencereporter 5 years, 6 months ago

A real estate developer, the mayor, and the city commission in Junction City, KS recently had a scandal. One of the developers busted in Junction City was also involved with the recent KU ticket scandal. Some of the people involved were sent to jail.

Thomas Fritzel was in Junction City developing home sites at that time. Very few homes were ever built and sold, most of the homes are now rentals, the majority of his lots remain vacant with taxes unpaid for the last three years. He over built his development and charged Junction City excessive amounts of money for the work he preformed.

If Junction City would have used competitive bidding from experienced contractors for these infrastructure projects they would have saved millions of dollars compared to what they actually paid. A very expensive lesson for Junction City.

homergoodtimes 5 years, 6 months ago

Watching on TV. Carter is bought and paid for.

homergoodtimes 5 years, 6 months ago

Watching on TV. The threat of a legal battle in court by Thomas Fritzel has frozen the city of Lawrence. The commissioners are forecasting the city would lose in court and accepting Fritzel's proposal is best for the community. Dever, Schumm, and Carter don't want to go to court because they would have to tell the truth under oath. They would then be forced to inform the community of the depth of which they are involved with Thomas Fritzel, the truth would be damaging. Bought and paid for....

lawrencereporter 5 years, 6 months ago

Hugh Carter is not competent and should not be a city commissioner. Mike Dever is just a follower. Aron Cromwell means what Schumm tells him to mean. Mike Amyx is a barber. Bob Schumm is an embarrassment to our city.

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