City Commission approves valet parking system for HERE Kansas

Brick work has started on the exterior of the HERE Kansas apartment and retail project, pictured Tuesday, March 29, 2016, at 1111 Indiana St.

Developers of the HERE Kansas apartment and retail project can have their 510-space valet parking garage and fill the under-construction apartment building near Kansas University to 88 percent capacity this August, the Lawrence City Commission decided Tuesday.

Commissioners also directed city staff to begin the process of amending city code to establish standards for valet parking garages, though the HERE Kansas garage will not be bound to that change. The 4-1 vote came nearly three months after developers first came to city commissioners seeking permission to reconfigure their parking system.

“I think the approach here is reasonable that the developer is proposing,” said City Manager Tom Markus. “I know I’m early in my career here, and this is not sitting well with a certain part of the population, and I get that. But I look at this and I see you have two choices: go down the path of trying to reach a reasonable settlement with this particular developer at this time…. Or give them way less parking and therefore way less occupancy.”

Mayor Mike Amyx voted against the new parking plan. Amyx said he wanted to recommend developers be authorized to have only the number of spaces in the parking garage that would fit when spaced wide enough to meet city code. Under the developers’ proposal approved Tuesday, spaces range from 7.6- to 8-feet wide, and city development code requires them to be 8.5 feet.

Numbers provided to the City Commission last week showed only 218 vehicles could fit in the parking deck under city code — meaning developers would be able to fill only 215 bedrooms, or 34 percent of the 624-bedroom apartment structure.

Amyx said the project should remain “code compliant.” He said he would’ve recommended an amendment to city code allowing valet parking and setting standards that HERE Kansas would have had to follow.

“All I want to be able to do is follow the code,” Amyx said. “I think we need to get it done and keep you code compliant throughout this entire process.”

But, after Markus said the project should not be tied up by a change to city law, commissioners voted to approve the valet parking proposal. With the approval, developers can fill 548 bedrooms and all of the structure’s 13,500 square feet of restaurant and retail space.

James Letchinger, president of JDL Development — the group behind HERE — said about 350 apartments have been leased so far. About 90 percent of those future residents have “expressed interest” in leasing parking spaces, which are approximately $50 to $60 per month and auxiliary to the apartment leases.

Letchinger said that the parking system at HERE did not meet city code when it was first approved in 2014. At the time, Letchinger had hired Boomerang Systems LLC to build a robotic parking garage on site. The company went bankrupt in October, triggering the need for developers to arrange a new parking system.

“This project previously received unanimous approval from this commission, and it never provided for cars to be parked to code,” Letchinger said. “If there was a time to contest that parking, that was the time to do so. Approving and permitting robotic parking — it was a leap of faith by the commission. I wish you would’ve pointed out to us our flaws then.”

Markus reiterated that point Tuesday.

“It seems to me they moved ahead with authorizations from this city,” Markus said. “To argue that we should have a valet ordinance before allowing them to move forward with what I think to be a fairly logical, reasonable approach I think would set up another hurdle.”

Tuesday’s approval came with several conditions, including that the City Commission receive a quarterly report on the development’s parking throughout the life of the project.

Commissioners also voted 5-0 to execute a new agreement with HERE Kansas, in part saying that developers secure the total number of parking spaces required to fill the entire development before they would receive tax rebates from the city. With the 510 valet spaces and 108 on-street spaces approved Tuesday, developers are 67 short of that mandate.

Letchinger said he was “days away” from announcing a parking solution that would create at least 69 more spaces. He would not give details Tuesday, but said “it is going to happen.”

Markus said he spoke with someone at Kansas University about the solution Letchinger is negotiating.

“The university reached out to me and said that’s moving forward, and they had every confidence it would be taken care of,” Markus said.

Letchinger said the additional parking would likely have to come before the City Commission for a vote.

Commissioners also voted unanimously Tuesday to establish the parking fees and fines for the development’s 108 on-street spaces. The fees were set at $1.50 per hour from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and the fine for violating the metered parking was set at $15.

Under an agreement between the city, KU and HERE Kansas, developers receive the parking fees. The city collects the fines and is responsible for enforcement.

After Vice Mayor Leslie Soden said last week that it was a “terrible decision” to let developers keep the meter revenue, Letchinger said Tuesday that HERE would donate $100,000 of that revenue to the city every year, in perpetuity. Though developers suggested it go to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, commissioners voted Tuesday that — because it’s parking revenue — the donation would go into the parking fund.