Lawrence City Commission votes to lease part of Riverfront Plaza for city operations

photo by: Journal-World FIle Photo

The west side of Riverfront Plaza is pictured in this file photo from 2012.

The City of Lawrence will soon be expanding its footprint in the Riverfront Plaza building.

At its meeting Tuesday, the commission voted unanimously to lease the western part of the building’s top floor for its Planning and Development Department and municipal court. The 10-year lease includes a right of first refusal for the purchase of the building, which used to house the Riverfront Mall.

City Manager Tom Markus told the commission that though City Hall is a good location, its space is limited. He said leasing part of the Riverfront building, which is adjacent to City Hall, gives the city the chance to try out the building and identify any potential issues before considering purchasing it.

“You have the ability, with this proximity over the long run, to really cement your future locations for any expansion that you have as this city continues to grow to be on this campus,” Markus said. “And I think that’s kind of what drove it.”

The lease will cost the city tens of thousands of dollars more per year than the current arrangements for housing Lawrence Municipal Court and the Planning and Development Department. Part of that department — the development division — is already housed in leased space elsewhere in Riverfront, specifically on the bottom floor on the east side of the building. The rest of the department — the planning division — is currently located in City Hall, and the city leases a building on New Hampshire Street for its municipal court operations.

City staff told the commission that the new arrangement will provide about 40 percent more space for planning and development and the court. Commissioners spoke in favor of consolidating city operations into fewer buildings and keeping open the option to buy the property. Commissioner Matthew Herbert said the city needs to think about its long-term plan for its facilities.

“I do want to make sure that our long-term future, especially for a city this size, is that we are not renters,” Herbert said. “A community this size, we ought to own our own municipal court, we ought to own our own structures.”

The city already owns the land the Riverfront building sits on, and the building itself is owned by the Simons family, the former owners of the Journal-World. Under the Riverfront lease, the city will pay an average rate of about $275,000 per year over the 10-year lease agreement.

The city currently pays about $187,000 annually to lease space to house the municipal court and the development division. The city will also have to pay significant amounts to improve the area.

To accommodate city operations, city staff estimates the building would require about $850,000 in tenant improvements, which would come from the city’s capital improvement plan and equipment reserve fund, according to a city staff memo to the commission. As part of its meeting Tuesday, the commission also voted unanimously to authorize the city manager to enter into an agreement with TreanorHL for architectural design and construction management services at a cost not to exceed $64,000.

In other business, the commission:

• Voted, 4-1, to approve a request to rezone approximately 1.685 acres in the 1300 block of Research Park Drive from Industrial Business Park District to Limited Industrial District to allow for a climate-controlled self-storage facility. Commissioner Leslie Soden cast the lone dissenting vote. The commission provided direction to staff to bring a text amendment back before the commission dealing with interior storage and look at the city rezoning this property in the future

• Voted unanimously to approve the police department’s request to temporarily prohibit rooftop access along Massachusetts Street during the upcoming Elite Eight and Final Four weekends of the NCAA Tournament.

• Approved changes that would allow an area development group to build an automatic tunnel car wash at 3900 W. Sixth St., which is the site of the now vacant Applebee’s in front of Hy-Vee.

• Approved a preliminary development plan for a multifamily residential development, Beckhaus Townhomes, near the intersection of Sixth Street and Queens Road.

• Approved a request to rezone approximately 1.8 acres located at 1105 E. 23rd St. from single-dwelling residential district to commercial strip district. The rezoning allows for the development of the 8N Business Center, which calls for three multitenant buildings to be built on a vacant portion of the site.