News and notes from around town:
• There is still one dog bigger than all the others in Lawrence, and last night it decided to take the lead on this idea of a sports complex in northwest Lawrence.
At least that’s the feeling I was left with as Kansas University made an 11th hour announcement that it was dropping out of a deal to partner with the city and private development groups led by Duane Schwada and Thomas Fritzel on a sports complex project for the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the SLT.
Now KU Athletics and the Kansas University Endowment Association are clearly taking the lead on developing a new site that is north of the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the SLT.
Make no mistake, this latest development is a big stiff arm to Schwada, who got this whole process started by offering to donate 50 acres to the city for a recreation center. But the partnership clearly got bumpy. Multiple people behind the scenes tell me that Schwada and Fritzel did not see eye-to-eye on several issues related to how the property should be developed. I believe there was distrust on Schwada’s part that the city was getting as good a deal as it thought from Fritzel.
I think the city and KU often were caught in the crossfire, and then KU realized it had the biggest tank in town: an endowment association that coincidentally just announced another record fundraising year.
Anyway, it appears the chalkboard has been wiped clean, and new plans are a brewin'. Here are a few things to consider:
— We’re talking about a significantly larger site than what was once proposed. My understanding is an annexation and rezoning request is now at City Hall, so I’ll check that out to get specific numbers. But I believe we’re talking around 100 acres that KU would control. The previous proposal was 50 to 60 acres that the city would own. (UPDATE: According to the paperwork filed at City Hall, the site is 108 acres. In addition the city already owns approximately 40 acres that is adjacent to the site. It is a ravine piece of property that was donated as parkland several years ago. That already has to talk of a linear park with a walking/jogging trail through it.)
— The extra acreage allows KU to do three things instead of two. Although it hadn’t gotten discussed much publicly, KU says it long has had an interest in building a new softball stadium for its women’s program. This site will accommodate a soccer facility, track and field and softball. KU reminded everyone last night that it has active Title IX cases against both the soccer and softball programs. KU Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger in a letter also acknowledged that getting rid of the track around KU’s football field at Memorial Stadium is very important to him.
“The combination of these three facility issues is an embarrassment to KU alumni and student-athletes, past and present,” Zenger wrote.
— The city has multiple details to figure out about what this means to its proposed $24 million recreation center. It is clear the city wants to be next to KU, so the question of where to locate it is largely resolved.
Question No. 1 will be whether the city still pursues a partnership with Thomas Fritzel, where Fritzel would build the facility and the city would purchase it through a 20-year lease purchase agreement? Last night, city leaders said they didn’t know how this new development may affect that partnership. I believe them on that. This new twist happened very fast, and I don’t think the city had much time to talk with Fritzel.
My guess is Fritzel still will be interested in the partnership. If not, the city is in an interesting position. The city has said without the Fritzel partnership it can only afford about a $16 million center. The city has been led to believe that with Fritzel’s involvement the city will get something closer to a $24 million building that will be more effective in attracting national and regional youth sporting tournaments.
(UPDATE: The rezoning request at City Hall was filed by Lawrence architect Paul Werner. Werner is the architect that most frequently works on Fritzel projects. I chatted a bit with Werner and he said all information he has received is that Fritzel is still very much interested in working with the city and KU on a partnership to build the various facilities. I've talked to some city commissioners that indicate there is still an interest on the city's part too.)
Question No. 2, however, is how will the new site change the proposed center? My understanding is the land is different enough that the city may significantly change the design of the proposed center. That likely will change some parts of the cost equation.
— City and KU officials also will have to determine how much it will cost to extend infrastructure, such as streets, sewer service and water, to the site. They’ll also have to decide who pays for it.
Previously, the city was paying for most of those expenses. The city noted that it would be the owner of the land, and the landowner is generally the party responsible for paying to extend city infrastructure.
Under this new deal, it appears the city won’t be the landowner. But I suspect the city still will give strong consideration to paying for the infrastructure. The other thing the city has consistently pointed out is that KU is the largest employer in Lawrence and its largest magnet. I think many city leaders believe it is appropriate to give the university assistance in helping it complete a project that will add to the draw that KU creates in the community.
As for how much this infrastructure will cost, I think those numbers are in flux. But when the city was considering buying the property, which is owned by members of the Stultz family, it was estimated it would cost $5.74 million to serve the site, with the largest cost being an extension of George Williams Way and other roads. That was significantly less than the $10 million the city and state would have to pay to improve roads and utilities to the other site.
— And while we’re on the subject of the other site, what happens to it? Well, remember, the city already has annexed that piece of ground. It decided to do so before it had a deal finalized for the sports complex.
But the city did not rezone the property. That means the city will need to figure out how it ought to be zoned. The retail zoning that is proposed for the site seems to be on shaky ground. In fact, that is an interesting point. The city contended that the sports complex probably needed to be located on retail-zoned ground to accommodate some of the commercial uses that would be going on inside the proposed recreation center. It also said the sports complex would need additional retail zoning to accommodate hotels and other businesses that would want to be right next to it.
But KU is not seeking any retail zoning as part of its proposal. My understanding is the rezoning request is for an institutional zoning, which is common for schools and such. One difference is that this new site is immediately adjacent to the Mercato retail development, which will have space for big box stores, hotels and other amenities. A group led by Schwada owns that property.
What type of zoning Schwada gets for the northwest corner of the intersection will be interesting to watch. Before this whole sports complex idea emerged, the city’s plans called for it to be industrial and office space. It largely has been forgotten, but a report by a local group called ECO 2 several years ago identified that piece of property as the best industrial site in the county. That’s mainly because it is relatively close to city infrastructure, it is at the intersection of two state highways, and it is probably only a five-minute drive from I-70.
The city may not get a sports complex on the site, but, thanks to the annexation, which obligates the city to provide but not pay for the extension of service to the property, the city may have opened up a new western frontier for growth west of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Or perhaps the cost to extend infrastructure to the site will mean that it just sits for a long time. I’ve already heard one quip that the new zoning will be CC — not community commercial as proposed — but rather City Cow Pasture.
• The twist and turns of the recreation center caused a couple of other city actions last night to get shortchanged in coverage.
The city did indeed agree to request proposals for a citywide, curbside recycling service. The city should have a better idea by the end of this year how much such a service would cost and, consequently, how much would have to be added to the monthly trash bills of residents.
A couple of details worth noting from the discussion:
— The city will require companies submitting a bid to provide the service to explain how they could work with the approximately half-dozen small, private haulers that provide curbside recycling service in the city. There’s no guarantee any of the companies will come up with an acceptable plan to integrate those small haulers into the system, but the city at least wants to hear ideas about how to do so.
The city has expressed concern about putting those small haulers out of business, but the city also has said it needs to do something to increase the overall recycling rate in the city. It is estimated the city’s 2010 recycling rate was 38 percent. The city wants to be at 50 percent by 2020.
— The city is still holding out the option that city crews would run the curbside recycling service rather than contracting with a third party. The bid process is set up in a way that the city staff will submit a price to run the service also. The city’s proposal will be due at the same time private companies submit theirs.
— As we have noted before, even if the city decides it can afford a curbside recycling service, it won’t get started for quite awhile. A state law designed to protect private haulers requires an 18-month waiting period before the city can start the service. The earliest the city believes a citywide curbside program could begin is in June 2014.
• Also at last night’s meeting, city commissioners did agree to change the city’s guidelines for issuing debt. Commissioners unanimously agreed to the changes, although Commissioner Mike Amyx expressed a lot of hesitation to do so. The main change is that the guideline for the amount of per capita debt the city should have on its books grew from $1,100 per person to $1,500 per person. But the city also notes the definition of debt was significantly broadened. The city also notes it had not changed the city’s guidelines since 2002, meaning the numbers had never been adjusted for inflation.
The guidelines are just guidelines. My experience has been they’ve never drawn much attention from city commissioners when they are contemplating issuing debt. The state has some legal debt ceilings it places on the city, and those remain unchanged. The city is nowhere near reaching that debt ceiling.
The city discussed the guidelines last night because it issued new debt. The largest issuance was $24 million in one-year notes, and apparently the debt market still thinks highly of Lawrence. I believe there were six bidders on the notes, and the city ended up with an interest rate of about 0.25 percent.
• Finally, a quick note about a unique opportunity at City Hall. City staff members are working to raise money for the United Way fundraising campaign. From 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. this afternoon at City Hall, they’ll be operating a dunk tank. Some of the folks sitting on the hot seat may attract the interest of some residents who have regular dealings with City Hall. City Manager David Corliss, director of planning and development services Scott McCullough and director of public works Chuck Soules will be among the people in the dunk tank.
The fundraiser is geared toward city employees, but I bet a few members of the public could sneak a few throws in there for the right price.
So, if you see Duane Schwada driving a semi-load of softballs through town today, you’ll know why.