With an eye toward future growth, the Lawrence City Commission voted to build the city’s new $17 million police headquarters on a site in northwest Lawrence.
At their meeting Tuesday, commissioners voted 4-0, with Mayor Leslie Soden absent, to build the headquarters on a city-owned property at 5100 Overland Drive, which is behind the Walmart near Sixth and Wakarusa.
One of the key factors noted by commissioners in the decision was that the size of the property allowed for the headquarters to expand in the future. Though the possibility of keeping the police headquarters downtown came up, Commissioner Matthew Herbert said the decision had to make sense for years down the road.
“Forty years from now I don’t want a commission sitting here to say, ‘Man, they really screwed this up in 2017 when they packed it into a postage stamp when we needed something a lot bigger,” Herbert said.
As part of the decision, the commission voted to designate 16 acres of the 29-acre site at Overland Drive for the police headquarters. The county-owned Judicial and Law Enforcement Center located downtown is designed so that more floors could be added to it, but City Manager Tom Markus told the commission that would require relocating the staff and courts from that building and addressing the parking needs on the site.
Commissioner Mike Amyx said he would love to see the headquarters built downtown, but that he thinks the need to temporarily relocate made it an impossibility. He also said the added parking and traffic would have a negative effect on the neighborhood. He said he agreed with staff that the Overland Drive site is benefited by access to multiple arterial roadways and, though not centrally located now, will become more so as the city grows.
Amyx also said it was important that the designation of the site was just the beginning of the process, and that zoning changes would have to go through the usual planning commission review that would allow for input from the community.
“Having that public process and having us have to go through our own rules, I think, is important,” Amyx said. “So that the public has the opportunity to address any of the concerns that they have, whether it be on land use or site planning.”
Amyx also verified with city staff that the commission would be able to change its mind about the site even as that process gets underway. Vice Mayor Stuart Boley and Commissioner Lisa Larsen both agreed the site should be designated so the review process could begin. Larsen said she agreed with Herbert about the potential for growth and also liked that the designation is “not a done deal.”
The other property put forward by city staff is a city-owned site at VenturePark on the eastern edge of Lawrence near the Douglas County Jail. Commissioners didn’t note advantages to that location, and Herbert said the industrially-zoned business park is an economic development tool and not a place for municipal buildings.
The commission also voted unanimously to defer a decision on an ordinance that would allow the city to use a process that deviates from the standard sealed-bid procedure for future construction projects, including the police headquarters. City staff is proposing a charter ordinance — which requires four votes to pass — that would specifically enable the city to utilize alternative construction methods. The charter ordinance is required because state law calls for a sealed-bid process.
Amyx, whose term expires next month, moved that the commission defer the decision until the new commission is seated. With Soden absent, it would have taken all four commissioners present Tuesday to approve the charter ordinance. Amyx said he is not in favor of the idea, but that it was “probably unfair” for him to vote against it given the circumstances. He said he thinks the decision belongs to the next commission.
In explaining his opposition, Amyx pointed to the Baldwin Creek Sewer project, in which bids came in significantly lower than cost estimates that were initially provided to the city under a no-bid contract.
“I don’t see how this works, and so I’m having a hard time with even thinking about going with the design-build (method),” Amyx said. “In fact, I probably can’t, just to let you know, because of what I’ve been through in the past.”
In response, city utilities engineer Melinda Harger said an alternative method could have an “off-ramp option,” meaning the commission could consider the market and decide at any point to take bids.
Markus also said alternative methods are evolving and have probably gotten better since the Baldwin Creek project, which dates back to 2008. He pointed out that the city has used alternative methods in the past, and that the ordinance provides clearer authorization for the governing body to make that decision but doesn’t mean it has to do so. He said that in his experience, some of the alternative methods help avoid conflicts between the architect and contractor where the city would otherwise get caught in the middle.