City looks at options for new rec center property

This architect rendering of the proposed recreation center in northwest Lawrence shows the 172,000-square-foot fieldhouse. The drawing was provided by Paul Werner Architects and GouldEvans.

City officials confirmed they are looking at a new piece of property to house a northwest Lawrence sports complex, as negotiations drag on with private developers seeking to locate the facility at Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.

Mayor Bob Schumm said city officials have been studying the feasibility of an 87-acre site that is north and east of the intersection of Sixth Street and the SLT. Specifically, the property, owned by members of the Stultz family, is just north of where George Williams Way currently dead-ends.

So far, city commissioners have been focusing their attention on a 50-acre site at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the SLT. A group led by Lawrence developer Duane Schwada has proposed to donate the site, but thus far the city and Schwada haven’t been able to come up with an agreeable donation contract. Negotiations with a group led by Thomas Fritzel — which has proposed to finance and own the 181,000-square-foot recreation center and lease it back to the city on a 20-year lease-purchase agreement ­– also are not complete.

“We’re not there yet on the Schwada site,” Schumm said. “We have some issues on the donation agreement, and we have some issues on the construction of it. We are not in a position where we can offer the public a good, solid plan right now.”

But Schumm said he still believes the city’s top choice for the recreation complex, which would include the city recreation center plus a Kansas University soccer field and track stadium, is the Schwada site.

City Commissioner Hugh Carter also said he’s hopeful a deal can be finalized to secure the Schwada site at the Sixth and SLT intersection. But he said the 87-acre site to the north is a viable option.

“I’ll be very excited to move forward with the Schwada site, if the details are worked out,” Carter said. “If not, I will be very excited to move forward with the other site. I think we have two good sites.”

Site options

Carter said he believes the Schwada site needs to grow from 50 acres to 60 acres. The additional 10 acres are needed to accommodate parking. As currently planned, the site will have 800 paved parking spots plus another 817 temporary spots in grassy fields on the site. That’s more than 1,600 spaces, but plans call for the KU track stadium to have 7,000 to 10,000 seats.

If an additional 10 acres are added to the site, it could add another 1,450 temporary parking spaces to handle large crowds.

“I just feel like the site has to grow by 10 acres,” Carter said. “I don’t want to feel like we’re shoehorning something in there.”

At least one commissioner also wants to talk about a third site. City Commissioner Mike Amyx said he wants to discuss the feasibility of building just a city recreation center on property the city already owns near Wakarusa and Overland drives, near Walmart.

“Do we need to be on that large of a site out west? I’m not sure,” Amyx said. “I know I don’t want to have any shortfalls in the future of being able to pay for this.”

As proposed, the city would pay Fritzel’s group $24 million over 20 years as part of a lease-purchase agreement. The $24 million would come from an existing sales tax that has been used to pay for previous recreation projects and also the Lawrence-Douglas County Community Health Building. Debts on those projects are set to be retired, and commissioners are proposing to use the newly freed-up money on the recreation center.

To this point, the city’s cost of $24 million — plus several million dollars to extend infrastructure to the site — has held steady. But Schumm confirmed other details of the proposed agreement with Fritzel’s group have changed.

Previously, the city said Fritzel, who is an executive with Gene Fritzel Construction Co., had agreed that no Fritzel entity would bid on building the recreation center.

But now, according to Schumm, Fritzel has said he does want Fritzel entities to be able to bid on the project. In addition, Fritzel is proposing a nontraditional bid process. The city and Fritzel’s nonprofit entity, The Bliss Foundation, would have to mutually agree on the companies that would be invited to bid. The bids would be publicly released, but because Fritzel’s foundation technically would own the building, the foundation would have the final say in selecting the winning bidder.

New zoning category

On their Tuesday evening agenda, commissioners have a request to approve a new zoning category for the 146 acres at the northwest corner of Sixth and the SLT. The new zoning category would allow retail and commercial development on the property surrounding the recreation center.

Schumm, however, said he expects the zoning request to be deferred. He said he is not comfortable approving the zoning without first having proposed contracts with Schwada and the Fritzel groups.

But Schumm said he does plan on leaving the rezoning request on the city’s agenda so that the public can weigh in on the project.

“I think we need to air out where we are at on this project, and I think the public needs to tell us where it’s at on it as well,” Schumm said.

Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.