Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”

Home sales up; housing construction hits recent high; sales tax numbers strong but create some budget worries at City Hall

As a quick homework conversation with my seventh-grade son confirmed, junior high math has surpassed me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still do some calculations to determine the state of the Lawrence economy. So, here’s a look at the latest batch of numbers.

The housing market in Lawrence remains strong. Homes sales through July are up 18 percent, according to a new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. Lawrence home builders are even getting in on the good news. Sales of newly constructed homes are up 21 percent for the year. The newly constructed home market has been one that has been slow to bounce back in Lawrence.

The statistic that shows how hot the Lawrence market is right now has to do with the number of homes on the market. Real estate agents measure how many homes are on the market versus how quickly they are selling. A balanced market between buyers and sellers normally has about four to five months worth of homes on the market at any given time. Currently, there are 1.9 months worth of homes on the Lawrence market. It is a seller’s market right now. Negotiating for a house in Lawrence right now probably would remind me of my efforts to get a date for prom. You have to be prepared to sweeten the offer. (I had to promise we would super size the meal.)

Thus far for the year, the median number of days a home is sitting on the market before it sells is 24. That’s down from 34 at this point in 2014 and 42 in 2013. One other statistic of note: Real estate agents have sold $160 million worth of residential real estate in Lawrence thus far in 2015. That’s up from about $129 million during the same time period a year ago. That’s a nice boost for the Lawrence economy.

The uptick in the home construction market is becoming very clear when you look at the city’s building permit totals. Through July, the city has issued 152 building permits for either single-family or duplex homes. That’s up from 60 such permits at this time last year. It also is well above the recent averages. From 2009 to 2014, the average number of permits at this time of year was 75. My seventh-grade son tells me 152 is more than double the average.

With projects both near campus and in downtown, the apartment construction market also has been strong. The city has issued permits for 431 new living units. Since 2009, the average for this time of year has been around 150 living units. So, there had better be a lot more people wanting to live in Lawrence.

The other big trend is in the building sector is that there have been a lot of big-dollar projects. The city has issued permits for $167 million worth of projects thus far. There have been four projects in 2015 that have checked in at more than $10 million each: the $45 million Here apartment/retail building near the KU campus; an $18 million apartment/office building at Ninth and New Hampshire; $13.3 million in work for the city’s new sewer plant south of the Wakarusa River; and $12 million for a new independent living unit at Pioneer Ridge in west Lawrence.

As we have reported before, we’re on pace to set a new building record in the city. Since 2009, the average amount of construction for this time of year has been $63.5 million. I would tell you how much more $167 million is than the average, but I’m afraid it would require my son to take off his shoes and, trust me, you don’t want a seventh-grade boy doing that.

Lawrence’s retail sales numbers are a bit like a rib dinner: There’s plenty to like, but the barbecue sauce in your ear can cause a problem.

The sales tax report from the state shows that Lawrence’s sales tax collections are up about 5 percent thus far. That’s good, and actually is better than the showing of several other large retail centers in the state.

But the issue is City Hall budget makers are counting on sales tax collections to grow by 5 percent in 2015 to make the budget work as planned. The last few reports from the state have shown that sales tax collections are growing at a rate slower than what was happening in the beginning of the year. If that trend continues, it could put pressure on both the 2015 and 2016 budgets.

Bryan Kidney, the city’s finance director, told me that it now seems likely the city won’t hit its 5 percent growth estimate for 2015. He said it is still too early to predict how short the city may come up on that projection. It has the potential to cause city officials to reduce expenses in the general fund both for the 2015 and 2016 budgets. The reason it would affect both the 2015 and 2016 budgets is because the recently approved 2016 budget was built with an assumption that there would be a surplus of revenue in the sales tax fund at the end of 2015 that would carry into 2016. In order for the 2016 budget to work properly, the surplus needs to be there. So, that could result in some expenditure cuts in the last part of 2015.

Cuts could be necessary in 2016, if the sales tax growth doesn’t hit projections during that year. The city is banking on sales tax collections growing by at least 3 percent in 2015. We’ll see. That could be close.

So, there are some budgeting challenges, but from a big picture standpoint, recent sales tax numbers have been a strong sign for the Lawrence economy. At the moment, we're at 5 percent growth, and that is better than really any other major retail area in the state. How much that growth rate slows is the key question for budget-makers.

The state should be releasing new sales tax numbers very soon, and I’ll work to get those reported in a more timely manner. (We’ve had other things going on to report at City Hall this month.) But here’s a look how Lawrence’s sales tax collections are stacking up with other major communities.

— Johnson County: up 1.3 percent

— Kansas City: up 4.1 percent

— Lenexa: up 4.9 percent

— Manhattan: up 2.5 percent

— Overland Park: down 2.4 percent

— Salina: up 3.2 percent

— Sedgwick County: up 2.3 percent

— Topeka: up 0.8 percent

Reply 1 comment from Lawrence Freeman

Stoddard won’t be candidate for Lawrence city manager post; Chick-fil-A sets date for South Iowa street opening

This news just in from Lawrence City Hall: Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard won’t be a candidate for the open city manager’s position in Lawrence. Stoddard sent out a message to employees updating them on several City Hall matters.

In that message she said “after significant reflection and discussions with my family, I have decided that the timing now isn’t right for me personally to apply for the position.”

Stoddard, though, said she does intend to remain as an assistant city manager upon the hiring of a new city manager.

“Once the new city manager is hired, I will return to my capacity of assistant city manager and will work to assist the new city manager in whatever way that I can to ensure a smooth and successful transition and continue all of the great public services and exciting projects currently underway in our community,” Stoddard wrote.

Lawrence Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard talks with the Lawrence city commissioners during a special meeting Friday, Aug. 14, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of Mayor.

Lawrence Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard talks with the Lawrence city commissioners during a special meeting Friday, Aug. 14, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of Mayor. by Mike Yoder

Stoddard, in the memo, briefed city employees on the process for filling the vacant seat left by former Commissioner Jeremy Farmer’s resignation, following financial irregularities at his previous employer. Stoddard did not go into any more detail about that situation, and the upheaval it has created at City Hall. She did not indicate that upheaval played a role in her decision. And to be fair, she had told me at the time of David Corliss’ resignation — he took a similar job in Colorado — that she wasn’t sure whether she would apply for the position. And that was before all of this upheaval created by Farmer’s resignation.

But there were certainly reasons to think Stoddard may apply. She is an experienced city executive, and she grew up in Lawrence. She’s gained a strong reputation for being able to help communities through complex economic development deals.

“This is an outstanding city, and an outstanding opportunity,” Stoddard said of the city manager’s position.

Stoddard’s decision certainly increases the likelihood that City Hall will have an unfamiliar face as its leader in the future. Stoddard is the most senior member of the city manager’s office. There certainly could be other candidates from Lawrence City Hall who will apply for the position, so I don’t want to discount their chances. There also are a number of people who previously have worked at Lawrence City Hall who have gone on to leadership positions in other cities. One of them may return.

The past two city managers in Lawrence were promoted from inside City Hall. When Buford Watson died while serving as city manager, Mike Wildgen — his assistant — was promoted to the top job. When Wildgen resigned after a long tenure, Corliss — one of Wildgen’s assistants — was promoted. So, it has been a while since a true outsider has taken the reins of City Hall’s top administrative post. The odds of that happening seem a bit greater now.

•••

My doctor already has prescribed the handcuffs, the chains and the shock collar. I guess he thinks it really wouldn’t be a good idea for me to try to win a year’s worth of free Chick-fil-A as part of the fast food chain’s grand opening in Lawrence. But maybe the battery in your shock collar is running low. If so, I’ve got a date for Chick-fil-A’s Lawrence opening.

The company plans to open its store on South Iowa Street on Sept. 2, a spokeswoman for the restaurant’s PR company told me. Like it does in all of its markets, Chick-fil-A will host a giveaway where the first 100 people in line when the doors open at 6 a.m. on Sept. 2 will receive one Chick-fil-A meal per week for a year. My understanding is that in many markets, lines start to form about 24 hours in advance, and the parking lot of the restaurant looks a bit like a tailgate with tents, grills and chants of “wait ‘till basketball season.” (Maybe that last one is just a local tradition with tailgates.)

In case you have forgotten, the new Chick-fil-A is located in the parking lot of the shopping center that houses Dick's Sporting Goods at 27th and Iowa streets. If you have forgotten what Chick-fil-A is, ask the doctor to turn the collar down one notch. Regardless, the restaurant bills itself as the “home of the original chicken sandwich.” The menu includes several versions of a chicken sandwich, chicken strips, chicken wraps, chicken salads, and a host of side items and ice cream desserts.

The restaurant is part of a national chain, but the franchises are independently owned and operated. According to the company’s website, the Lawrence store is operated by Denise Martinek. According to a spokeswoman for the chain, the Lawrence store will employ about 80 people.

As part of its grand opening, the restaurant also will be hosting a book drive for the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, and a food drive for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, according to the spokeswoman. I'm still waiting on a press release with additional information about those events.


In other news and notes from around town:

• South Iowa Street remains as hot as a well-used deep fryer. I believe there are a lot of companies giving the street a look for a potential location, and there are a lot of property owners along the corridor repositioning themselves.

One is the group that owns the property near 25th and Iowa streets. The shopping center that houses Office Depot, Tuesday Morning and that used to house Discovery Furniture has filed to rezone the property in a manner that will make it easier to attract big-box development at the site.

In addition, a related development group owns property across 25th Street: the shopping center that includes Paisano’s Ristorante and other smaller businesses. That shopping center also has applied for the same type of zoning designations.

Both parcels of property won a recommendation for approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on Monday. Now, the rezoning requests will go to the City Commission for final approval in the next few weeks.

I’ve got calls into members of the development groups to find out what their latest thinking is on the properties. The rezoning request is to change the properties’ zoning from Neighborhood Commercial Center to Commercial Strip. Planning staff members in their analysis have noted that the proposed zoning category allows a wider range of uses that would be more consistent with what people would expect along South Iowa Street, which has grown into the city’s largest retail district.

Bottom line, the zoning should make it easier to redevelop both sites. Whether the property owners have plans to do a complete redevelopment, I do not know. As I’ve previously reported, there is speculation that Hobby Lobby has been looking for a new location that could accommodate a larger store. There are a multitude of other retailers we have mentioned that are looking at the property south of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange: Academy Sports, Old Navy, Designer Shoe Warehouse, to name a few. So, interest seems to be strong.

I think the area between 23rd and 25th streets on the west side of Iowa will be interesting to watch. That is a large area with a lot of traffic that goes by it every day. There is quite a bit of vacant space or underutilized space in the development. Some of the buildings are starting to show their age. It could be an area where significant retail redevelopment occurs.

Reply 15 comments from David Holroyd Samantha Martin Michelle Fales Paul Beyer Fred Whitehead Jr. Stacy Napier Chase Blackwood Bill McGovern Joe Blackford II

Planners looking at trading some downtown parking spots for additional bicycle parking; Alvamar redevelopment recommended for approval by planning commissioners

Maybe it is time to start trading some car parking spots in downtown Lawrence for some bicycle parking spots. Maybe it is time for me to start wearing my cowboy hat and chaps when riding a bike to downtown. There is an idea floating around that could lead to both scenarios.

I’m talking about bike corrals. If you are not familiar with the concept, bike corrals basically are big bike racks that take over an on-street parking spot rather than being placed on a crowded sidewalk. (I’ve now discovered you don’t have to wear traditional corral apparel to use these. I’ve also discovered chafing.)

City planners are actively considering the idea of placing some bike corrals in downtown Lawrence. Yes, that would mean there would be fewer car parking spots in downtown.

“A lot of communities are finding that it is a good way to bring legitimacy to biking as a transportation mode,” said Jessica Mortinger, a transportation planner for the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department.

It also may be a good way to spur complaints from motorists, who during busy time periods complain about not having enough good parking options already.

But here is something to remember: You don’t have to have four wheels to complain about parking in downtown Lawrence. Mortinger said the idea for bike corrals came about after a business made a request for more bike parking. Bicyclists that come to downtown have expressed concerns about about finding safe, convenient parking spaces.

You may think it would be easy enough to just park your bike on the sidewalk. But Mortinger notes that is becoming more difficult for a variety of reasons. The new parking meter poles are big enough that a traditional U-lock for a bike won’t fit around them. Plus, there are concerns that bikes take up too much room on the sidewalks, especially when you factor in that sidewalk dining areas already are eating up a significant amount of space that once was reserved for pedestrians.

Two dozen bicycles were spotted parked on or near Massachusetts Street around 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015.

Two dozen bicycles were spotted parked on or near Massachusetts Street around 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. by Mike Yoder

Mortinger also points out one other factor: the city law that prohibits people from riding their bikes on downtown sidewalks.

”They can’t ride their bikes on the sidewalks downtown, but that is where the parking is,” she notes.

It is not, however, that downtown doesn’t have any designated parking spaces for bicycles. There are traditional bicycle racks on the sidewalks near the midblock area of most Massachusetts Street blocks in downtown. There are also other bike racks scattered throughout downtown.

In total, there are 271 bicycle parking spaces in downtown, Mortinger said. There are 4,042 parking spots for cars in downtown. Mortinger notes that in most new developments in the city, one bicycle parking spot is required for every 10 traditional parking spots. If that standard were followed in downtown, there would be a little more than 400 bicycle parking spots in downtown. It is worth remembering, though, that downtown parking is a special breed in Lawrence. Unlike other developments around town, businesses aren’t required to provide their own parking. City-owned parking is instead the norm.

Whether there is enough parking — or it is in the right places — has long been a debate in downtown. It will be interesting to watch how the idea of taking some parking places for bike corrals will be received. Planners are still trying to figure out the right number and location, Mortinger said. She said one near the Lawrence Public Library makes a lot of sense because on many days the bike racks near the library are full.

A bike corral is pictured Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in front of the parking garage near the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

A bike corral is pictured Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in front of the parking garage near the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St. by Nick Gerik

She said planners are also looking for a location on Massachusetts Street and a couple in the 100 blocks of side streets just off of Massachusetts Street. Each corral can usually accommodate about 10 bikes, depending on the design. The city has not decided what type of design to use yet, but you can see several examples here. Planners have had some discussions with Downtown Lawrence Inc. How that group responds to the idea probably will go a long way in determining what type of political reception the idea gets at the Lawrence City Commission, which ultimately will be asked to approve a bike corral pilot project in the future.

“I think they like the idea of additional bicycle parking,” Mortinger said of her conversations with Downtown Lawrence Inc. leaders. “As always, though, there is a limited amount of space downtown and always concern about how we use it.”


In other news and notes from around town:

• The idea of more residential development around the Alvamar golf and country club got a positive response from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on Monday evening.

The Planning Commission — on a 9-0 vote — recommended approval of a plan that would add about 300 additional apartments, condos and other multifamily units near the course. The idea of an expanded banquet facility with about two dozen overnight guest rooms also received a thumbs-up from the planning board. Now the plans — which have been proposed by a local group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel — will go to the City Commission for approval. A date hasn’t been set, but the earliest it would arrive at the commission is Sept. 8, a planning department official told me.

As we previously reported, the plans for the redevelopment shrank a bit in the last couple of months. At one point, there were plans for a large assisted living and independent living facility just south of where the clubhouse area sits today. That component was removed from the most recent plans.

The largest residential component in the new plans is to the north of the existing clubhouse area. The plans — which are being designed by local architect Paul Werner — call for up to 292 multidwelling living units, which would be in up to nine buildings. The buildings — ranging in size from two stories to four stories — would be along the existing section of Crossgate Drive north of the clubhouse area. The buildings likely would contain a mix of apartments and condos, Werner said. Some rearranging of golf holes will be required to accommodate the new development, but plans still call for Alvamar to maintain 36 holes of golf.

None

The latest plans still call for a new public street to be built south of Bob Billings Parkway and west of Crossgate Drive. The new street would become the new northern entrance for the country club, and also would serve the new multifamily development. I’m still a little unclear on when that street would be required to be built. I’m checking on that today and will update when I get more info.

The development also would include a 15,000 square-foot banquet facility that would be built near the current location of the public pro shop. The banquet facility would include 24 guest rooms that could be rented as part of wedding parties or by golfers.

Reply 32 comments from Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Noel Rasor Monty Scott Thomas Shorock Carol Bowen Fred Whitehead Jr. Theodore Calvin Christopher Frederick Chris Tilden Marilyn Hull and 7 others

How controversial killing of Cecil the lion may boost local start-up company; get ready to add Haskell Lane to your city map

A Douglas County startup company may receive a boost from, of all things, that infamous Zimbabwe hunting trip that killed Cecil the lion.

Don’t get me wrong: Dennis Steinman, founder of Lecompton-based Iron Mountain Products, isn’t advocating you go kill a beloved lion. But if you do, you should do it with the aid of his company’s high-tech Game Vector system.

That marketing strategy isn’t quite as catchy as “Don’t squeeze the Charmin,” but it might work.

How you feel about the death of Cecil probably depends on how you feel about hunting in general. But one thing hunters and non-hunters likely agree upon is that if an animal has been shot and wounded, it shouldn’t suffer for long.

That’s what Steinman’s product is all about for bow hunters. Steinman, who is a former executive in the printed circuit board industry, has developed a small transmitter that fits around the shaft of an arrow. Upon impact, the transmitter attaches to the hide of the animal. The transmitter sends out an RF signal that can be picked up by a proprietary, handheld receiver operated by the hunter. The transmitter and receiver have a range of about two miles.

All this is important to a hunter because when an animal has been shot by an arrow, it may still flee. Sometimes it flees so far it can be difficult for the hunter to find in a timely manner. Reportedly, Cecil the lion was tracked for 40 hours before he was found and put out of his misery.

“It is a terrible feeling when that happens,” Steinman said. “Bow hunters in general are pretty ethical, and to have something like that happen can be devastating.”

But if you think Steinman is planning on making his money by selling to folks who hunt lions with a bow and arrow, you perhaps have been spending too much time squeezing the Charmin. Selling to archers who hunt deer is the big market.

“We think there are about 5 million bow hunters in the U.S., so we think there is a lot of potential,” Steinman said. “We think there is a lot of potential around the world.”

The company’s Game Vector system, which includes the transmitter, the receiver and everything you need to mount and balance the device on the arrow, sells for a retail price of $265. Indeed, if the little Lecompton company could tap into just 10 percent of the U.S. market, that is more than $130 million in retail sales.

The company is currently selling the products, but not nearly that many. Game Vector has been on the market since late 2012, but it primarily has been sold online and through about 40 smaller retailers. The company is now at the point where it has worked out the details with its Nebraska-based manufacturing partner that it is ready to make a push to get into major retailers like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops.

“We’re making some real progress on that front,” Steinman said.

Steinman got the idea for the company after he agonized over a lost whitetail deer he shot with his bow and arrow. Steinman had about 30 years of experience in the electronics industry. He was the founder and president of Chanute-based PC Boards, which made circuit boards for Cessna and other clients. The company sold in 2007, and he moved to Douglas County about five years ago. He’s since developed a small team of engineers and financial professionals to build the company and the product to its current state.

“We feel like we have a good opportunity here,” Steinman said. “We’re the only ones that are really very active with a product like this. Others have tried it but haven’t been able to perfect it.”

Game Vector should be an interesting startup to keep an eye on. Douglas County is not really considered the hunting capital of Kansas, and Lecompton is not really considered the tech hub of Douglas County. But as Mr. Whipple can attest, stranger things have happened.


In other news and notes from around town:

• Maybe I can attach one of those transmitters on the Ford Taurus at my house. If I did, it would show that someone in my household really likes the new 31st Street and the time it cuts off on trips to the South Iowa Street shopping district.

Surely you already know that 31st Street is fully opened, including a new section of 31st Street that runs between Haskell Avenue and O’Connell Road. If you are coming from the east, there is a brand new, easy way to get to Lawrence’s largest shopping district.

Among the changes that happened with that project is a portion of Haskell Avenue was rebuilt and relocated farther to the east. But that left a stretch of the old Haskell Avenue in place. It remained in place because there are several businesses including United Rentals and the fueling station run by Capital City Oil. The stretch of old Haskell that remains basically is from 29th Street to just south of the new 31st Street.

Well, I bring all this up because that stretch of street soon will have a new name: Haskell Lane. City commissioners will approve an ordinance naming the street Haskell Lane at their meeting on Tuesday. I bring it up so that you don’t get in an argument with the lady inside your GPS when she mentions Haskell Lane. (I hate those arguments. Her voice always remains so calm, even though I know she must be seething from my skilled oratorical volleys.)

Technically, there’s a small section of old 31st Street that remains in place. Commissioners are going to rename it 30th Terrace. But don’t argue with Mrs. GPS over that. The street currently has no businesses on it. If you are on that street, you really are lost.

Courtesy: City of Lawrence

Courtesy: City of Lawrence by Chad Lawhorn

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More details emerge on application process to fill vacant City Commission seat; new plans filed for redevelopment around Alvamar golf courses

Your mother was right. You should have spent a little less time being a yahoo and little more time listening to your English teacher talk about the finer points of writing a good essay. Why? Because if you want to fill the vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission, you’re going to be asked to write a 500-word essay on the most important issues facing the city.

Details are starting to emerge on how commissioners plan to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Commissioner Jeremy Farmer. Those details include a questionnaire, a planned public forum and several other items. Commissioners are set to approve the selection process at their Tuesday evening meeting. The process lays out a schedule that would culminate with a selection of a new commissioner on Oct. 6.

Here’s a look at key details, as currently proposed:

— Candidates would have until 5 p.m. on Sept. 9 to apply for the vacant seat. As part of the process, they would fill out an application form. It includes questions about the person’s education, work history, length of time in Lawrence, community involvement, a 500-word essay on “your approach to governing” and a 500-word essay on top issues facing the city. In addition, candidates will be required to complete a statement of substantial interests, which discloses any ownership interests the person has in businesses or other investments, positions of leadership with boards or other organizations, and details about other compensation they receive in addition to their primary salary.

— A 12-member advisory board will be appointed to review all applications and make a recommendation of six candidates to be considered by the City Commission. Members of the board haven’t been identified, but I expect they soon will be. Each of the remaining four commissioners will appoint three members. Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard told me this morning that her office currently is confirming that the recommended appointees are Lawrence residents and registered voters. Their names are expected to be released later today.

— The advisory board would hold a meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 17 to review all applicants and select 12 semifinalists. All meetings of the advisory board would abide by the Kansas Open Meetings Act and the Kansas Open Records Act, meaning all candidate applications will be a matter of public record.

— At a 6:30 p.m. meeting on Sept. 24, the advisory board will host a public forum and select six candidates to forward to the City Commission.

— The four remaining Lawrence city commissioners will hold a special meeting at 5:45 p.m. on Oct. 1 to interview applicants and discuss the candidate and vacancy.

— City commissioners by a simple majority vote will select a candidate to fill the vacancy at the Oct. 6 City Commission meeting. The new commissioner will be sworn into office at that time.

The Lawrence city commissioners from left, Stuart Boley, vice mayor Leslie Soden, Mike Amyx and Matthew Herbert  hold a special meeting Friday, Aug. 14, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of Mayor.

The Lawrence city commissioners from left, Stuart Boley, vice mayor Leslie Soden, Mike Amyx and Matthew Herbert hold a special meeting Friday, Aug. 14, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of Mayor. by Mike Yoder

We have interesting times ahead of us. City officials apparently are expecting strong interest in the position, given that they plan to narrow the field down to 12 semifinalists. Such thinking may be warranted. The most recent City Commission elections that were concluded in April attracted a field of 14 candidates, which was the largest field in at least a decade. Most years, though, fewer than 12 people file for a seat on the commission. It will be interesting to see if the numbers increase now that candidates don’t have to go through the full election process and the fundraising that goes with it.

In case you have forgotten, click here to see a list of the candidates who filed for a seat in the April election. Perhaps some of those will file again. In case you have forgotten (your mother tells us that is a trend), former Commissioner Terry Riordan was the fourth-place finisher in the April elections. That means he was the person who received the most votes without winning a seat. He finished about 1,500 votes out of third place and about 130 votes ahead of fifth-place finisher Stan Rasmussen.

That distinction has led to some discussion around town about whether Riordan should be given the seat, as the person who was next in line in the election. I haven’t heard that type of discussion from commissioners, yet. Commissioner Leslie Soden already has said she doesn’t think the vacancy should be filled by someone who was on the previous commission. Voters had a chance to re-elect two of the three commissioners who had expiring terms, and they didn’t do so. Whether other commissioners feel the same way, I don’t know.

To be clear, I have not heard whether Riordan has any interest in the position either. There are too many possible candidates to check in with everyone. We’ll know soon enough who is interested. The release of names for the advisory board today also should be instructive. I expect it could include some former city commissioners and other community leaders. If their names are on the advisory board, that means they won’t be a candidate for the vacancy.

We’ll post the advisory board names when we get them.

UPDATE: The city has released the names of the 12 members who will serve on the advisory board. They are: Michelle Fales, Mark Preut, and Dustin Rimmey, appointed by Commissioner Matthew Herbert; Dennis Constance, Brenda Nunez, and Melinda Toumi, appointed by Commissioner Leslie Soden; State Rep. Boog Highberger, Njeri Shomari, and Shirley Martin-Smith, appointed by Commissioner Stuart Boley; and Tom Christie, Joe Harkins, and Joanne Hurst, appointed by Mayor Mike Amyx. Constance, Highberger and Martin-Smith are all former city commissioners.


In other news and notes from around town:

• Mark your calendars for Monday, if you are interested in future development at the Alvamar golf and country club in west Lawrence. Planning commissioners at their 6:30 p.m. meeting on Monday at City Hall are scheduled to discuss the latest redevelopment plans for the property.

We’ve previously reported on plans that have included large amounts of new apartments north of the clubhouse area and assisted living and independent living units south of the clubhouse area. Well, there has been a tweak to the proposal. The several hundred units of assisted and independent living south of the clubhouse area have been removed from the plans.

There had always been some uncertainty about whether that portion of the project would proceed, so the development group decided to remove it from the plans. If the idea re-emerges at a later date, it would be required to go through the full planning and approval process.

As you recall, a group led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel has reached a deal to purchase the golf and country club, contingent on winning approval to add some additional residential units and amenities near the course.

Lawrence architect Paul Werner is designing the project. He told me he thinks the proposed improvements can do a lot to make Alvamar a more viable operation for the future.

“Everyone that speaks to us is really positive about the project,” Werner told me via email. “We know it will come with some hurdles in dealing with construction and construction traffic, but at the end, this can revitalize Alvamar. The people who live on the course and are members really get it.”

Among the big changes proposed for the area:

— up to 292 multidwelling living units on property that is north of the current clubhouse area. Plans could still change, but one proposal has called for nine multistory buildings, ranging in size from two stories to four stories, that would be along the existing section of Crossgate Drive north of the clubhouse area. The buildings likely would contain a mix of apartments and condominiums. Some rearranging of golf holes will be required to accommodate this portion of the development, but plans still call for Alvamar to maintain 36 holes of golf.

— The latest plans still call for a new public street to be built south of Bob Billings Parkway and west of Crossgate Drive. The new street would become the new northern entrance for the country club, and also would serve the new multifamily development. But Werner said there are questions about the timing of when that street would need to be built.

— A 15,000 square-foot banquet facility would be built near the current location of the public pro shop. The banquet facility would include 24 guest rooms that could be rented as part of wedding parties or by golfers. The Planning Department is now labeling this part of the development as a small hotel.

— The recently filed plans to mention the possibility of tearing down the existing clubhouse and banquet area at Alvamar in a future phase. Werner clarified that is a possibility “way down the road.” He said all other facilities would be built and in operation before that was considered. Plans also are unclear about what that portion of the property would be used for. It would be required to go through the full planning and approval process if a new use was proposed for that portion of the property.

— Plans call for two to three swimming pools, three cabanas, a nearly 12,000 square-foot fitness and wellness center, 1,200 square feet of space for the Kansas Golf Hall of Fame and other amenities.

Ultimately, city commissioners will have to get in on the approval process for any major changes at Alvamar. But first it is the Planning Commission. It will be an interesting project to watch. Alvamar has been an anchor for west Lawrence for a long time. With the downturn the golf industry has taken, I think there are genuine concerns about the long-term direction of the golf courses. The fate of this proposed multimillion dollar renovation will be an important one not just for golf fans, but really for the entire west Lawrence area.

Reply 11 comments from Richard Heckler David Holroyd Paul Jones Teri Griffin-Guntert Cathy Tarr Oliver Finney Thomas Moore

City Hall prepares to debate proposed shopping center south of SLT and Iowa interchange; library wins national designation

There are a multitude of reasons why Lawrence City Hall may be interested in a few more coins. Sure, there are the obvious budgetary reasons. But these days just as important is that an extra quarter may come in handy for flipping to break 2-2 ties on a shorthanded City Commission. See Tuesday night. Regardless, city commissioners soon will have to decide whether a proposed shopping center south of the South Lawrence Trafficway is a good way for the community to get a few more coins.

As we previously have reported an out-of-state development group has filed plans to build a new shopping center at the southeast corner of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange. The project would have about 250,000 square feet of space for new retailers and restaurants. No official word on the proposed tenants, but previously the development group has said Academy Sports, Old Navy, Marshalls/Home Goods, Designer Shoe Warehouse and other smaller retailers want to come to the site.

The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will hear arguments for and against the project at its Monday evening meeting at City Hall. The big news on the project this week is that the city’s professional planning staff is recommending approval of the project. But that and a quarter will get you a tie-breaking device at City Hall and a really, really bad cup of coffee. Ultimately, city commissioners — whether it be four of them or five of them — will make the final decision on whether the project wins the necessary rezoning and planning approvals.

There are lots of issues with this one. So, let’s take a look:

• The latest documents at City Hall provide a better idea of the tenant mix that North Carolina-based Collet real estate hopes to bring to the center.

— Two stores in the sporting goods and hobby and books category totaling 117,000 square feet. Academy Sports would seem to be one of those.

— Five restaurants — three of the sit-down variety and two fast-food restaurants — totaling 30,500 square feet. Could this be the shopping center that finally lands the elusive Olive Garden or Red Lobster? Developers have not said, but certainly that rumor is out there.

— Two furniture and home furnishing stores totaling 28,000 square feet. It would seem Marshalls/Home Goods may be one of those retailers.

— Three clothing stores totaling 24,900 square feet. Old Navy seems to fit into that category, as does Designer Shoe Warehouse.

— Two food and beverage retailers totaling 22,300 square feet. This one will be an interesting category to keep an eye on. Organic grocers have been a hot addition to the Lawrence market, but the square footage seems small for another specialty grocery store, like a Whole Foods or one of its competitors.

— Two general merchandise stores totaling 17,500 square feet. At one point there had been at least some interest from Sam’s Club in the site. But at 17,500 square feet, that’s not enough space to even contain Sam’s wallet. We’re obviously talking about smaller general retailers at this point.

— Two office or medical-oriented businesses totaling 4,900 square feet.

— One health and personal care retailer totaling 1,900 square feet.

• The development group is highlighting that one of the stores is an existing Lawrence store that is looking to move to a new location. I don’t have any word on who that is. I can tell you there certainly has been speculation in the Lawrence retail community that Hobby Lobby is looking for a new home. I think the former Discovery Furniture location near 25th and Iowa Street, however, could be a possibility for Hobby Lobby too.

• The development group has prepared a study that estimates the project will generate an extra $1.2 million in sales tax collections for the city of Lawrence alone in 2019 when the development is fully built. This study will create debate in some circles. The study is commissioned by the developers, so that is one factor to consider. Plus, there will be an argument that some of the shopping that occurs at this center will be shopping that would have happened at other retailers in Lawrence, which means the sales tax dollars aren’t really new. There will be a counter argument, however, that the mix of retailers will slow the number of people who leave Lawrence to go shop in Kansas City and elsewhere. There also will be an argument that the center will attract some out-of-town shoppers. No, the center likely won’t cause people from K.C. or Topeka to flock to us. But it might cause shoppers from Ottawa to make the short drive into south Lawrence. What seems most certain is there will be an argument.

• The city staff has done its own study of how the project may impact the local retail market, in particular vacancy rates. The short analysis is that staff did not find anything in the study to cause them to recommend denial of the project. But really, the study shows how flawed the city’s system is at the moment. The foundation of the study is a citywide retail vacancy rate that was compiled in 2012. The study makes no attempt to determine what the actual vacancy rate is in the city today. To be clear, this isn’t the city staff’s fault. I’ve heard the staff tell previous commissions that they don’t having the staffing power to update the vacancy rate each year, but commissioners have never done anything to address the situation. That’s fine. There are competing priorities for limited resources at City Hall. But why require city staff to do the study at all for a project like this, if you are going to use data that changes frequently and is now three years out of date? Try picking stocks this way. Use one quarter’s worth of data from three years ago, and then make your decision based on that. I’ll come visit you in your green van down by the river and we can discuss how it worked out.

• The staff’s study, though does make an important observation about what to expect in the future. “If this project is approved, other approved, yet undeveloped commercial nodes may have to extend their development time frames in order to attract retail tenants, thus potentially underserving these areas of the community,” the report finds.

This is probably the key political point on this project: How much will it delay development in other parts of town? In particular, there is a concern about whether this development will slow development around Rock Chalk Park. There was a definite concern when this south Lawrence site was proposed for development last year. That proposal — which was significantly larger than this one — never won approval, in part, because city leaders were concerned they would be jeopardizing the more than $20 million investment they made in Rock Chalk Park. There appeared to be a lot of political pressure applied from supporters of Rock Chalk Park on city leaders to deny the south Iowa Street project.

It is an interesting and important question. It is reasonable to think that if this south Lawrence project is approved that it will make it more difficult for the already commercially zoned area around Rock Chalk Park to attract major retailers in the near term. But it also is a fair question to ask whether major retailers are going to be attracted to the Rock Chalk Park area without the south Lawrence project. The development has struggled to attract retailers. Thus far there are none out there, despite the area being zoned for commercial uses for years.

Plus, south Lawrence is not the only area Rock Chalk Park has to compete with. If retailers are interested in west Lawrence, there’s the possibility they may want to locate at the new interchange at Bob Billings Parkway and the SLT. Retailers like either being next to other retailers — which is why South Iowa is a hot commodity — or they like being next to lots of homes. There is some new home and apartment construction underway near Rock Chalk Park, but there are legitimate questions about whether the area north of Rock Chalk park will ever develop significantly with residential homes because the area is outside of the Lawrence school district. There are not those questions at Bob Billings and the SLT. I’ve heard several people say the area west of the SLT at Bob Billings is poised for significant residential growth.

I don’t have the answers to all those questions, but they are some of the bigger ones facing the Lawrence City Commission right now. And that’s saying something, because the group has a lot of questions on its plate.

Planning commissioners meet at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at City Hall.

Full Disclosure: A member of the Simons family, which owns the Journal-World and LJWorld.com, previously was part of a group that had an option to purchase the proposed development site. The member is no longer involved with the proposed development.


In other news and notes from around town:

• The new Lawrence Public Library building has won a major award. The publication Library Journal has named the building a Landmark Library as part of its 2015 contest. The library was one of 11 named to the list. The publication looked at 80 libraries that were completed between 2010 and 2014.

The magazine describes landmark libraries as those that “have reimagined services, space, collections, and programming in ways that engage communities and celebrate creativity.”

It looks like the September issue of Library Journal will include a complete profile of the Lawrence Public Library.

If you remember, voters approved an $18 million expansion and renovation of the library at Seventh and Vermont streets, and the new facility opened in July 2014.

Reply 6 comments from Sue McDaniel David Holroyd Floyd Craig Richard Heckler Kingfisher Kristine Bailey

Large new pool hall, bar to open near Ninth and Iowa; national jewelry store chain opening store in south Lawrence

There’s a new business opening in Lawrence where I can resume my imitations of Minnesota Fats, and no — put your bibs away — it is not a grand all-you-can eat buffet. Instead, it is a grand pool hall.

A pair of Lawrence businessmen are opening Empire Bar & Billiards near Ninth and Iowa streets. Chad Landis and his business partner, Cody Henry, have signed a lease for the space that previously was home to The Pool Room.

Landis and Henry were longtime managers at Lawrence’s other long-standing pool hall, Astros, which is near Sixth and Kasold.

“We will try to be a little bit more upscale than the previous room,” Landis said. “We’ll have lots of craft beers and high-end bourbons and whiskeys.”

Landis estimated the establishment will carry about 40 import and craft beers, plus a large selection of bourbons, ryes and whiskeys.

There also will be plenty of pool. Landis has been one of the chief organizers of pool leagues and tournaments in the city for years. He said Empire will feature 16 coin-operated tables that will play for 50 cents a game, and one nine-foot table that can be rented by the hour. Plans call for eight-ball and nine-ball leagues, and tournaments on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“We want to walk that fine line between running a real pool hall and being a bar where anybody can come in and feel comfortable,” Landis said.

Landis and Henry have spent the last several weeks cleaning and renovating the former Pool Room space. The space is one of the larger bars in town at about 10,000 square feet. Landis said Empire currently is not using the large back room of the business, but may consider using it for banquet or event space. The business also isn’t yet using the kitchen that came with the space, although Landis said the business hopes to expand into the food business at some point.

Landis was a manager at Astros for about 15 years, and Henry worked at the pool hall for about seven years. Landis said he decided he wanted to have his own establishment, and the opportunity arose after The Pool Room went out of business after about 25 years in operation.

For those of you who don’t remember where The Pool Room was, it was right behind The Merc. (I once tried to do an imitation of Douglas County Slim by taking my Merc-bought organic carrots and kale and running a few racks of nine-ball at The Pool Room, but that didn’t go so well.) For those of you who like actual addresses, the business is at 925 Iowa St., Suite P.

Landis said the business hopes to have a soft opening today.


In other news and notes from around town:

• Whenever I try to imitate Minnesota Fats at a pool hall, one of two things usually happens: 1. I win some money, come home late, and then must go to a jewelry store and spend a good amount of money. 2. I lose some money, come home late and then must go to a jewelry store and spend a great amount of money.

Well, good news, there’s a new jewelry store opening on south Iowa Street. Signs are advertising that Kay Jewelers will open in the space previously occupied by RadioShack at 3221 Iowa St. That’s the strip center right in front of SuperTarget.

Kay currently doesn’t operate a store in Lawrence, but the national chain has us surrounded. The company has locations in the Legends, Oak Park Mall, The Plaza, Zona Rosa, Westridge Mall in Topeka and a couple other locations in the Kansas City metro area.

According to its web site, Kay Jewelers has about 900 stores across the country, and is part of the larger Signet Jewelers, which bills itself as the largest specialty retail jeweler in the world.

No word yet on when the store may open, but renovation work appears to be underway.

Reply

Signs point to Amyx as next mayor; questions about whether commissioners need city credit cards; neighbors expressing safety concern near New York Elementary

It sure looks like Mike Amyx is going to once again be Lawrence’s mayor. City commissioners at their meeting tonight are expected to choose a new mayor to replace Jeremy Farmer, who resigned his seat on the commission last week amid financial questions.

I’ve chatted with Commissioner and Acting Mayor Leslie Soden, and she has indicated that she’s open to the idea of Amyx serving as mayor during these unusual times.

“I’m very much interested in doing what is best for the city,” Soden said. “Experience, continuity, predictability is what is best for the city right now.”

There have been some questions about who the next mayor would be. Soden, who is vice mayor, has been serving as acting mayor since Farmer’s resignation. City tradition says the vice mayor is next in line to be mayor. But no one was anticipating that it would be this soon. Soden was expected to take over as mayor in April, when Farmer’s term was scheduled to end. The issue that has been raised is that Soden has been on the commission for only about five months.

Then there is Amyx. The longtime owner of a downtown barber shop has served as Lawrence’s mayor five times, dating back to 1985. His latest stint as mayor was from April 2014 to April 2015. At the moment, Amyx is the only member of the commission who has more than five months of experience as a city commissioner.

Vice Mayor Leslie Soden and City Commissioner Mike Amyx greet each other before a special commission meeting Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of mayor.

Vice Mayor Leslie Soden and City Commissioner Mike Amyx greet each other before a special commission meeting Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of mayor. by Mike Yoder

I’ve spoken with Amyx, and he said he’s willing to serve as mayor.

“If my colleagues ask me to serve, I would be very proud to serve,” Amyx said. “It is a position I have been very proud to serve in, and it is a job that I take as serious as anything I do.”

Make no mistake, though, Soden is still interested in serving as mayor. She was the top vote winner in the April elections, which traditionally has been an assurance that you’ll get a chance to serve a one-year term as mayor. Soden, however, would rather have that term begin in April 2016 as originally planned.

“In the future, I’m interested in serving as mayor, and April would be a good time to start,” Soden said. “I think it is important to allow the process to work. Part of the process is serving a year as vice mayor to become prepared to be mayor.”

So, I expect picking Amyx as mayor won’t be too difficult at tonight’s meeting, which begins at 5:45 p.m. at City Hall. I suspect commissioners will agree to make his term run into April 2016.

At some point, though, commissioners will have to decide whether to change the traditional term of the mayor. The traditional starting date for a new mayor has long been April because it matches up with the city’s election cycle. Every two years, there is a citywide election to elect three city commissioners. Those commissioners take office in April, and the commission selects a new mayor as part of the first meeting of the new commission.

But state legislators — who are apparently the experts in good government — decided it would be better to change the time frame for local elections, hopefully to boost voter turnout. So, in the future, new city commissioners will take office in January. That process will begin in January 2018.

It is reasonable to think that the City Commission may want to change the term of mayor so that the term begins as new commissioners join the commission. If so, that would mean somebody is going to get a shortened term as mayor. That somebody could be Commissioner Stuart Boley who was the second place finisher in the April elections. By tradition, he would be in line to serve as vice mayor next year and then serve as mayor from April 2017 to April 2018.

But right now April 2017 seems like a long time away. Commissioners have plenty to figure out in the here and now.


• It will be interesting to see how much discussion commissioners have about the idea of credit cards for city commissioners. Part of the fallout from Farmer’s resignation has been his use of a city-issued credit card. He placed some personal expenses on the city credit card because he said his personal cards had become compromised. The personal expenses were discovered by city staff members, and interim City Manager Diane Stoddard questioned Farmer about the expenses. Farmer ended up reimbursing the city for about $1,100 worth of personal expenses.

When I talked to Amyx, he said he wasn’t sure why city commissioners were recently issued city credit cards.

“At least for myself, there does not need to be a credit card issued in my name,” Amyx said. “I’ll be honest with you, that doesn’t need to happen for me.”

City Commissioner Mike Amyx speaks during a special commission meeting Friday, Aug. 14, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of Mayor. From left are commissioners Leslie Soden, serving as vice mayor, Stuart Boley, Amyx and Matthew Herbert.

City Commissioner Mike Amyx speaks during a special commission meeting Friday, Aug. 14, to take formal action on the resignation of Mayor Jeremy Farmer and receive public comments on filling the vacancy and filling the position of Mayor. From left are commissioners Leslie Soden, serving as vice mayor, Stuart Boley, Amyx and Matthew Herbert. by Mike Yoder

My understanding is the city in the past did not issue city credit cards to commissioners. Instead, there was a single city credit card that could be checked out to a commissioner to use in an emergency situation while traveling on city business. Before, I believe commissioners paid for expenses they incurred on city business, then sought reimbursement from City Hall.

Commissioners in April, though, were each given a city credit card with his or her name on it. Since this incident with Farmer, my understanding is that all the credit cards have been returned to City Hall. Stoddard has told me that Farmer was the only commissioner who had used a card since they had been issued in April. He also was the only commissioner who had done overnight travel for city business since April.

At the moment, I don’t think the credit card issue is one that is going to bloom into a controversy for city staff. What I’ve heard from commissioners thus far is that they have been pleased with how staff members handled the issue. They spotted questionable expenses on Farmer’s card, and Stoddard had the conviction to question him about it.

But the issue does seem like it may spark a review of what is included in the city of Lawrence’s travel policy. A look at some of Farmer’s expenses that weren’t personal in nature may raise some eyebrows. Farmer frequently used valet parking at Kansas City International Airport and at various hotels. There were times Farmer had a rental car but also had taxi expense on the same trip.

Based on the documents the city has released, it appears Farmer on at least two occasions took advantage of the fuel service program that rental car companies offered. You know the service: The rental car folks will fill the car up with gasoline so you don’t have to when you return. But that normally comes at a pretty good price. It appears the city paid $8.99 a gallon for gasoline as part of that service while Farmer was renting a car in San Antonio.

I don’t think using those types of services is particularly prohibited in the city’s travel policy — the policy says employees are “expected to use the most economical means available with reasonable consideration given to the time and distance involved.” Whether the policy needs to become more specific may get some consideration from commissioners.

“Most people would not spend that type of money on gasoline,” Amyx said. “Those are clearly things that are going to raise eyebrows, and probably should.”

But Amyx said he thinks the city’s staff has done a good job of handling the matter.

“I believe staff was right on top of this,” Amyx said. “I was made aware of the situation last week. They were doing what they needed to do to get the matter settled.”


• There is other city business to discuss, and commissioners will have a good, old-fashioned neighborhood concern to deal with at tonight’s meeting. I’m hearing from some residents near New York Elementary School that they plan to be at tonight’s meeting to express concern about the construction project the school district has underway at New York Elementary.

Area resident Eric Kirkendall tells me there are two concerns: 1. Neighbors don’t believe there has been adequate fencing placed around the construction site. 2. Neighbors don’t feel they had adequate notice about a portion of the district’s plans that calls for angled parking to be added along New Jersey Street near the school.

On the parking issue, Kirkendall — who lives near the new parking area — said he realizes it is probably too late to eliminate the parking from the plans. But he said neighbors are concerned the additional parking will create more traffic on New Jersey Street, and the nature of the parking could create some safety concerns with people backing out into traffic and such.

Neighbors want commissioners to consider making the 900 block of New Jersey Street one way, allowing only southbound traffic. Also the neighbors would like the city to add some traffic-calming devices — like speed bumps —additional landscaping along New Jersey Street and signs that designate the parking spaces for school parking only.

The construction fencing issue has an interesting twist. As we reported last week, an 8-year old was seriously injured after the child and a babysitter went onto the playground of the school, which is an active construction site. The child fell and suffered a traumatic head injury.

Contrary to city codes, no safety fencing was in place when an 8-year-old Lawrence boy was injured in an Aug. 13 fall at New York Elementary. It has since been installed.

Contrary to city codes, no safety fencing was in place when an 8-year-old Lawrence boy was injured in an Aug. 13 fall at New York Elementary. It has since been installed. by Mike Yoder

Kirkendall said city code requires construction fencing around the site. But here’s the twist: The school district projects are not being built under the city’s building code. Instead, the city and the school district agreed to exempt the school from city building code requirements. Instead, the district is meeting state building standards for codes. That saved the school district considerable money on building-permit fees. In an email about the matter, Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning and development services, said issues related to the fencing were not in the city’s purview on this project.

“The city does not permit or inspect school building projects at this time,” McCullough wrote in an email that was forwarded to Kirkendall. “Any safety concerns related to the school district’s property should be directed to district officials.”

No word yet on whether the school district plans to put up additional fencing on the construction site. UPDATE: I've had a chance to check with neighbors at the site this morning, and there is additional fencing work underway at the site. UPDATE NO 2: Julie Boyle, communications director for Lawrence public schools, has told me that permanent fencing on the south side of the project site and temporary fencing on the north side of the project is scheduled to be completed by Wednesday.

Reply 18 comments from Stephanie Hull Scott Quenette David Holroyd Chris Bohling Mike George Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Barb Gordon Mike Wasikowski Douglas Thompson Lawrence Freeman and 1 others

The latest proposal for a multistory Vermont St. building and plans for luxury condos; NAACP urges minority representation in vacant city seat; Kasold lane-reduction discussion delayed

It wasn’t that long ago that luxury living in downtown Lawrence meant being lucky enough to get one of the patio seats at Free State Brewery, or maybe getting a Mass. Street parking meter with a good half hour still left on it. But now there are actual luxury living units in downtown, and a proposed multistory project on Vermont Street is looking to up the stakes.

We reported in late June that former City Commissioner Bob Schumm had filed plans for a new multistory building in the 800 block of Vermont street that would house a mix of retail, offices and condos. Well, he’s tweaked those plans, and one of the tweaks involves the addition of a new 2,500 square foot, penthouse-style condominium overlooking downtown.

“I’m not going to say it is a luxury condo, but it definitely is in the upscale range,” said Schumm, who has been a longtime downtown property owner.

Schumm added the large condo — at 2,500 square feet, larger than a typical ranch-style home in the city — after trying to address some design concerns that came up regarding his previous proposal. The project is proposed for the two vacant lots just south of the Lucy Hobbs Taylor building at 809 Vermont St. That historically significant building dates back to 1871, which means Schumm’s project must pass a historic design review.

Here’s a look at the new design, with the the previously proposed design following for comparison purposes.

The latest renderings for a building at 815 Vermont Street. Courtesy: Hernly Architects

The latest renderings for a building at 815 Vermont Street. Courtesy: Hernly Architects

Previously proposed design for building at 815 Vermont Street. Courtesy: Hernly Architects

Previously proposed design for building at 815 Vermont Street. Courtesy: Hernly Architects by Chad Lawhorn

“I think this design looks far superior,” Schumm said. “We tried to stair-step it back in front. I didn’t like the feeling of a big, blocky structure. We think it is less imposing and feels better.”

The stair-stepping of the building, though, meant the fifth floor became much smaller. So, Schumm decided instead of trying to put multiple small condos on the fifth floor, he would build one large one. Plans for the three-bedroom condo check in at 2.529 square feet, with access to a rooftop pool and three rooftop terraces.

The project, designed by Lawrence-based Hernly Associates, also will have 10 additional condos, ranging from an approximately 740 square-foot one-bedroom unit to an approximately 1,900 square-foot two bedroom condo. Other than the one fifth-floor unit, the other condos will be on floors three and four.

The second floor is planned to house a significant amount of office space. Plans show space for approximately 30 small offices that would share a lobby, a conference room and other amenities. Offices range from about 160 square feet to about 300 square feet. Schumm, who owns other office space in downtown, said he’s seeing strong demand for small office space as Lawrence’s startup business community gains momentum.

The ground floor is designed to accommodate up to three retail or office tenants. Schumm previously has said he’s in discussions with a bank — he hasn’t disclosed which one — to take one of the spots. Plans show the ground-floor spaces ranging in size from about 1,500 square feet to about 4,000 square feet.

The project also would include an underground parking garage that would accommodate 22 vehicles and would use a car elevator system rather than a traditional series of parking garage ramps.

The first step for the project is to win approval from the Historic Resources Commission. The project is scheduled for review at the 6:30 p.m. meeting on Thursday at City Hall. But it will be interesting to see if the project also ends up before the Lawrence City Commission seeking incentives. It has been tough for other projects to build an underground parking garage in downtown without seeking tax increment financing, industrial revenue bonds or other similar types of city incentives. Schumm hasn’t told me whether he plans to seek those types of incentives from City Hall.

If he does, it will be interesting to see how commissioners respond. Some on the commission have expressed concern about previous deals that have provided tax breaks for upscale apartment projects. But, there also has been a general theme at City Hall to create more living units in downtown, in hopes of making it a more vibrant 24/7 destination.

As for the idea of luxury living units in downtown, that trend also will be interesting to watch. Schumm’s project is a large one, but it is not the only one. The new Marriott hotel building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets includes two condo units on its top floor. Based on the real estate listings I’ve seen, there is an approximately 1,750 square-foot unit and a about a 1,300 square-foot unit. Of course, there’s also the Hobbs Taylor Loft building in the 700 block of New Hampshire Street that has several large, upscale condo units.

Here’s another look at another design rendering of the proposed Vermont Street project.

Courtesy: Hernly Architects

Courtesy: Hernly Architects by Chad Lawhorn


In other news and notes from around town:

• Here's a new twist to the issue of filling Jeremy Farmer's vacant seat on the Lawrence City Commission: The local chapter of the NAACP is urging the commission to use the appointment as a chance to put a minority on the board for the first time in a long time.

The NAACP has sent a letter to city commissioners urging them to use the upcoming appointment as a way to "change the face of Lawrence."

"Including the expertise and lived experiences of African Americans in the development of policies promotes a healthy city," board members write in a letter to city commissioners. "The commission cannot, indeed must not ignore the fact that while whites make up 78% of the Lawrence population, whites comprise 100% of the commission. At large voting does not contribute to a diverse commission — you can. Seize the opportunity."

(Actually, the numbers I see from the Census Bureau put Lawrence at about 82 percent white, while blacks and Asians make up about 5 percent each of the population. American Indians are about 3 percent.)

The lack of minorities on the City Commission has been an issue that has come up before. I've noted on several occasions that, for example, there has never been a black mayor in Lawrence's history. In the nearly 25 years I've covered the commission, there has never been a black city commissioner either. Rarely have minorities ever sought a seat on the commission.

City commissioners will discuss the appointment process at their regular weekly meeting at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.


• One item that won't get discussed at Tuesday's meeting is a plan to reduce the number of lanes on a portion of Kasold Drive. Commissioners originally had planned to discuss a plan to reduce from four lanes to two lanes the stretch of Kasold between Eighth Street and 14th Street. But when the City Commission appointment item was added to the agenda, commissioners decided to delay the Kasold Drive discussion. No word yet on when that issue may be back up for consideration. We'll keep you posted.

Reply 17 comments from Tim Foley David Holroyd Lawrence Freeman Bob Forer Carol Bowen Thomas Moore Clara Westphal Mike Wasikowski Scott Quenette Fred Whitehead Jr. and 3 others

City to consider reducing number of lanes on portion of Kasold Drive; new info on pending appointment of commissioner; report estimates Rock Chalk tourneys add $4.4 million to economy

I know there have been times when I’ve been a passenger in my family’s Ford Taurus — like when we go around the curve at 31st and Kasold — that I’ve thought about becoming a full-time pedestrian. But then the G-forces subside, and I again become a bit uncertain about the notion that Lawrence residents are going to be less reliant on cars in the future. But maybe they will. City commissioners on Tuesday will be trying to figure that out.

Commissioners are receiving a recommendation from engineers to reduce the number of lanes on a portion of Kasold Drive when it is rebuilt next year. City engineers are recommending that the section of Kasold Drive between Eighth Street and 14th Street be reduced to one lane of traffic in each direction, down from the current configuration of two lanes of traffic in each direction. The road would include a center turn lane. Engineers also are recommending a single-lane roundabout at Harvard Road and Kasold, which further will reduce the capacity of the road.

It has not been the norm for growing cities to reduce the size of their major streets, but engineers say the numbers back them up on this one. There just aren’t going to be that many more people driving on this section of Kasold Drive over the next 20 years, engineers say. The current peak hour traffic volumes for this section of Kasold are 651 vehicles per hour. By 2040, that peak hour demand is only expected to grow to 736 vehicles per hour. Engineer say a single-lane road can carry up to 1,900 vehicles per hour, although that number drops to closer to 1,250 per hour if the road includes a single-lane roundabout.

Either way, engineers say those numbers point to a single-lane road being able to handle the projected traffic volumes for the next 20 years. Engineers also are estimating that reducing the number of lanes on the road will make it more feasible to build bike lanes and pedestrian features. The concept plan for this stretch of Kasold calls for bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the street. Pedestrian advocates also will like that having fewer lanes means it should be easier for pedestrians to cross the street.

Engineers are estimating reducing the number of lanes on the street will result in savings of about $1 million in construction costs. That’s certainly a number that city commissioners will like. But the number that probably deserves the most scrutiny is whether traffic volumes on this section of Kasold will actually grow by less than 1 percent per year. If traffic volumes grow at a more significant rate during the next two decades, commissioners may regret the decision to reduce the size of the road.

I’m no traffic engineer (I’m pretty sure my efforts to reinforce the handle I hold onto while in the passenger’s seat don’t count,) but engineers are expressing confidence in the projections. They note that traffic volumes on that stretch of Kasold from 1995 to 2013 have grown by about 0.4 percent per year. They’re using a projection of 0.5 percent growth per year for the next 20 years.

In case you are wondering, the section of road has about 14,000 to 15,000 vehicles per day on it, according to Kansas Department of Transportation figures. But it is worth noting that the numbers have been a little unpredictable over the years. In 1998, for example, traffic volumes were near 18,000 on portions of the road. In 2004, they were near 17,000. If the road starts seeing those type of volumes again, that could change the long-term outlook for the corridor.

The city has had a meeting with neighbors and businesses in the area. The reaction to reducing the road to one lane in each direction has been mixed. Some have liked the idea of making the road more pedestrian friendly and the slower speeds that would come with the one-lane road. Others, though, have said it will make it difficult for people who have driveways along the road, and they note that currently traffic flows on that road very well.

Commissioners will sort it out at Tuesday’s meeting, which begins at 5:45 p.m. at City Hall.


In other news and notes from around town:

• Commissioners of course will be meeting before then. There is a special meeting at 2 p.m. today to formally accept the resignation of Jeremy Farmer, the former executive director of Just Food who resigned that job after conceding he had failed to pay about $50,000 in federal withholding taxes for the food bank.

Commissioners also will get an update on some credit card charges that Farmer incurred on his city-issued credit card. We reported on that yesterday, and we’re still sorting through those documents, and we’re also attempting to get more information from Just Foods leaders about the extent of the financial issues that the important nonprofit is facing.

But commissioners today will primarily be figuring out how to fill Farmer’s spot on the five-member commission. City Hall officials this morning posted this presentation spelling out some the guidelines and regulations related to filling a vacant position.

Probably the key takeaway from the presentation is that city code does not address the method for selecting a commissioner. Instead, the code provides discretion to the remaining members to come up with a selection process. The presentation provides only one example of how Lawrence has replaced a commissioner in the past. In January of 1970, Dr. Robert Hughes resigned from the commission. The remaining commissioners nominated and selected a former commissioner and mayor to replace Hughes on the commission. That all happened on the same day that the commission received Hughes’ resignation. The new member was sworn in at the next regularly scheduled meeting, which was three days later.

I don’t expect this to go that fast, but I think figuring out how quickly the commission can proceed will be a topic of discussion today.


• This item probably deserves more attention than I’m able to give it at the moment, but the city has a new report out that estimates the economic impact of tournaments held thus far at the recreation center at Rock Chalk Park.

The city estimates the 29 tournaments that have been held at Sports Pavilion Lawrence since late December have pumped $4.4 million into the local economy. The numbers are based on interviews the city has conducted with tournament organizers to determine the number of people who attend the tournaments and also the number of attendees who are staying overnight in the city.

The hotel spending has been significant, ranging all the way from about $3,500 to a high of $121,000 for a 98-team volleyball tournament in March. The city then uses a multiplier figure to estimate how much attendees are spending on other expenses while in Lawrence. Those figures have ranged from about $45,000 to a high of about $500,000 for an 80-team basketball tournament in late July.

I’ve certainly heard from some restaurants and others business owners that they notice when large tournaments are at Rock Chalk Park. City budget makers also should notice too. If the center has pumped an additional $4.4 million into the local economy, the city and county should collect about an additional $110,000 in sales tax revenues, with several hundred thousand more going to the state.

Reply 68 comments from Carol Bowen John Hampton George Lippencott Jake Hess Bob Forer Michael Napier Sue McDaniel Bob Smith Brent Mowery Chris Tilden and 20 others

City commissioner says some travel expenses by former Mayor Jeremy Farmer have drawn questions; city expected to release details today; Soden talks about pending appointment

I’ve gotten word this morning that Lawrence City Hall will be releasing some information about some travel expenses from former Mayor Jeremy Farmer.

Commissioner Leslie Soden, who is serving as acting mayor for the city following Farmer’s resignation yesterday, told me she is directing City Hall to release information about some travel expenses of Farmer that have been called into question. I had received a tip that there may be some questions related to some travel expenses, and I was in the process of preparing an open records request to City Hall. Soden said after Farmer’s resignation and the mounting questions related to finances at Just Food — see our article about its 2014 tax return — she decided that the city needed to be proactive in addressing the travel expenses with the public.

I don’t yet have the full details related to the travel expenses, but Soden confirmed that Farmer has repaid the city for some travel expenses that previously were paid for through city funds. I don’t know what type of amounts we are talking about. Soden said City Hall staff members had been working on resolving the travel expense issues with Farmer for the last month or so. She said commissioners were just recently notified of the issue.

I put a call into Farmer this morning, but had no luck in contacting him.

I think it is important that we recognize where we are at with this story at the moment: Details are few, and we don’t yet understand the extent of what questions the expenses have created. But these are very unusual times at City Hall right now, and I felt it is important that you know that City Hall officials, in addition to Just Food leaders, are looking into financial matters related to Farmer.

Soden expects the city will release information at some point today, but she’s just now begun working with city staff on crafting a release.

I also had a chance to talk with Soden about her thoughts on the selection process of a new commissioner to fill the vacant term of Farmer. She said she very much favors a process that can be wrapped up in a relatively short period of time. We had an article yesterday where Commissioner Matthew Herbert speculated that it could take 60 to 90 days to fill the position. Soden said she thought that time period was too long.

“I think the sooner the better,” Soden said. “I don’t think drawing this out is going to help the situation. We just need to find someone who we all can like.”

Soden said it is important for the commission to find a candidate who can receive unanimous support from the remaining four commissioners.

“We don’t need a split vote on this,” Soden said. “That would put the new person in a terrible position.”

Soden offered no names for consideration during our conversation, but she said finding someone with experience would be important. That could be a past city commissioner, a past county commissioner, or maybe even someone who has served on key city boards, such as the Planning Commission.

Soden, however, said she doesn’t think it is feasible to consider anyone from the previous City Commission that left office in April.

“I’m not looking for anyone who had served on the most recent commission,” Soden said.

Mike Dever, Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm all left that commission following the April elections. Riordan and Schumm both sought re-election but lost. Dever did not seek a new term, which would have been his third.

It is not surprising that Soden has concerns about tapping someone from that commission. Those three commissioners all were supporters of the Rock Chalk Park project, while the three newly-elected commissioners — Soden, Herbert and Stuart Boley — all campaigned on a platform that change was needed following that controversial public-private partnership.

We’ll let you know what other details develop today.

Reply 37 comments from Jan Brocker Richard Heckler Derek Coyne Hudson Luce Paul Silkiner Bob Forer Sarah Johnson Tim Foley David Holroyd Richard Crank and 13 others

East Lawrence coffee shop seeks to add liquor, bistro concept; city tries to restart stalled project to address North Lawrence flooding

I don’t know how many glasses of chardonnay it will take to make The Kaw look like The Seine, but we may soon find out. An East Lawrence coffee shop has filed plans to convert itself into a French-style bistro, complete with alcohol.

Decade, the coffee shop at 920 Delaware St., has filed for a drinking establishment license, and city commissioners are scheduled to give the license its necessary approvals at tonight’s meeting.

Louis Wigen-Toccalino, owner of Decade, said the plan is to broaden the concept of the approximately one-year old coffee shop.

“The model is very much like a Parisian-style, French bistro where people come together to share conversation and ideas, and you do it around food and drink,” Wigen-Toccalino said. “We opened with coffee because that is the tone we wanted to establish.”

Louis Wigen-Toccalino owner of Decade Coffee and Espresso, 920 Delaware Street, pours hot water into an AeroPress to make a single cup of coffee. Coffee is steeped for between 10-50 seconds and then forced through a filter by pressing the plunger through the tube.

Louis Wigen-Toccalino owner of Decade Coffee and Espresso, 920 Delaware Street, pours hot water into an AeroPress to make a single cup of coffee. Coffee is steeped for between 10-50 seconds and then forced through a filter by pressing the plunger through the tube. by Mike Yoder

But Wigen-Toccalino said not everyone wants coffee at all hours of the day, so he’s seeking a liquor license so he can serve a selection of wines, beers and cordials. In addition, the coffee shop will expand its food menu. The shop already has started serving a sandwich menu for lunch — a fancy ham and cheese with white cheddar and pickled corn is one example — and plans to have an evening food menu as well. Wigen-Toccalino said in addition to sandwiches, the menu will include meat and cheese plates, a host of bar snacks, salads, and some steamed dishes or stew in the fall and winter.

Wigen-Toccalino said hours of the shop probably will be extended to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. on most nights. But he said he doesn’t have plans to operate a traditional bar that stays open until the early morning hours.

“We want to stay a neighborhood establishment,” he said. “We want to keep the same atmosphere we have today.”

That’s probably been a key reason the proposal hasn’t yet run into neighborhood opposition. Another key point is that the establishment will have some regulations it will have to meet in regard to how much liquor it can sell. Scott McCullough, the city’s planning director, told me the property’s current zoning allows for a restaurant but not a bar use. The city defines a restaurant as one that makes at least 55 percent of its revenue from the sale of food rather than alcohol. Businesses that make more than 45 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales are considered bars or lounges, and they aren’t allowed in the limited industrial zoning district where Decade is located. So, bottom line, the city will have to monitor the sales tax and liquor tax receipts of Decade periodically to determine whether it is consistently meeting the minimum food sales requirement. (Coffee counts as food, is my understanding.)

City commissioners are dealing with a slightly different issue a little more than a block away. At Eighth and Pennsylvania streets, the developer of the Warehouse Arts District is seeking to open a bistro in a small building next to the Poehler Lofts and the Cider Gallery. But the development group there is seeking an exemption from the 55 percent food sales requirement. The proposed building for the bistro is a small one, and won’t have a kitchen space. But plans call for at least one or more food trucks to be set up outside the business, allowing patrons of the bistro to buy food from the trucks and consume it in the bistro, along with the drink of their choice. The development group has said it wants food to be a major focus on the new bistro, but it has struggled to find an operator for the bistro that is willing to invest the considerable money needed to open the business with the possibility that the city could close the business if it falls below the 55 percent food requirement.

Some neighbors have objected to the Eighth and Pennsylvania proposal. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission has recommended approval of the bistro plans, but it is unclear whether the project has the three necessary votes on the City Commission.

The City Commission is tentatively scheduled to discuss the Eighth and Pennsylvania proposal at its meeting next week.


In other news and notes from around town:

• Whether you call it The Kaw or The Seine or just a whole bunch of muddy water, the folks in North Lawrence know quite a bit about the problems unwanted water can cause. The area is prone to storm water flooding, and fixing the issue has been on the city’s to-do list for quite some time.

One of the larger projects to help control storm water flooding in North Lawrence has been a planned pump station at Sixth and Maple streets. The project was one that was highlighted by the city as a reason voters should approve a new 0.3 percent infrastructure sales tax in 2008. The project, though, hasn’t yet been built. Other projects, mainly road projects, got in line ahead of the pump station, and then rising construction costs delayed the project again.

But commissioners will take some action tonight to get the project restarted. Commissioners will set a bid date of Sept. 1 to bid the project. North Lawrence leaders likely will be watching that closely to see if the project comes in at a more budget-friendly number. In March, the city bid the project and received only two bidders. One bidder pegged the project at $7.5 million while the other came in at $8 million. Engineers had estimated the costs at $5.1 million. That’s when the city decided to go back to the drawing board and see if they could make some design changes to lower the costs.

There are several changes that have been recommended, but the long and short of it is that the city is now proposing a less powerful pump station for North Lawrence. The new plan calls for a pump station that can handle 100 cubic feet of water per second. That’s down from the original design of 195 cubic feet per second. Engineers said they’re comfortable with the change after they “re-evaluated the hydrologic criteria.” It seems like a significant change, but thus far North Lawrence leaders have not objected.

Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. tonight at City Hall.

Reply

Neighbors concerned about stalled construction near Peterson and Monterey; city, KU transit system named tops in state; a bus hub question for Centennial Park

Neighbors are wondering why the weeds are so tall. This is the point that I usually stammer, panic and blurt out something about the flux capacitor being broken on my lawn mower. But for once, we’re not talking about my yard. Several Lawrence residents instead are concerned about why construction seemingly has halted on a multimillion dollar elder care complex at Peterson and Monterey Way in northwest Lawrence

As we’ve previously reported, Columbia-Mo.-based Americare has filed plans to build a new assisted living/retirement community at the southwest corner of the intersection. Dirt work on the project began several months ago, but work at the site has been halted for several weeks now. I got calls from multiple neighbors wondering whether the project was still happening, or whether the vacant ground was destined to become a weed patch.

No worries on that front, an Americare official told me. The project is still very much alive, but is awaiting its building permits from the city, said Neal Slattery, a staff engineer for Americare. He said the company expects to receive the building permits in a matter of days, and construction of the actual buildings will begin right away. You don’t need building permits to do dirt work on the site, so the company started that process early, and had hoped the building permits would be ready at the time it was completed. But there was a bit of a gap.

“It is soon going to be full speed ahead,” Slattery said. “We’re absolutely doing the project.”

In case you have forgotten, the project will focus on providing Alzheimer’s and other memory care to residents. But the project also will include several units of independent and assisted living for seniors, plus a clubhouse to host activities and such. The project ties in with the latest concept of allowing people to age at a single development, but move to different facilities as their needs change.

In terms of size, the last plans I’ve seen for the project were filed in January. They called for a large assisted living building that has 30 one-bedroom units, a separate facility with a mix of about 15 one- and two-bedroom units that will be for the memory-care portion of the development. In addition, there is an area that would house about six duplex structures.

Slattery believes neighbors ultimately will be pleased with the final product.

“They’re all single-story buildings, so it will be very residential in nature,” he said. “It should fit in seamlessly. Any traffic generation the project creates will be pretty minimal.”

Slattery said Americare — which operates senior living facilities throughout the Midwest — hopes to have the project open in about a year.


In other news and notes from around town:

• Lawrence’s public transit service has won a top statewide award. The T and Kansas University’s bus service have been named the fastest growing urban public transit system in the state, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

The federal officials looked at the ridership numbers during the federal government’s 2014 fiscal year — that’s an October to September time period — and found that Lawrence’s ridership numbers grew by 4 percent during the period to a total of 124,338 rides. That number includes riders on both city buses and university buses. Federal officials look at the city and university services as one system, although Lawrence and KU officials refer to it more as a “coordinated system” because the two entities share some costs but keep others separate.

“By working together, the city and university transit systems have been able to provide service that is working for bus riders in Lawrence,” Robert Nugent, the city’s transit administrator said in a release.

As I’ve noted before, it is an interesting time for the transit system. The city is likely going to need to put a sales tax question on the ballot in 2018 to replace the sales tax that currently funds the transit operations. The current sales tax is set to expire in 2019.

But also of note is that this City Commission, compared with past commissions, has had more discussions about whether the transit system is working adequately. There are concerns about the frequency of routes, and whether the current system makes riders go through the equivalent of going through Denver to get to Dallas.

Transit leaders have said they envision major changes to the city’s route system, if city commissioners will settle on a location for a transit hub. A new hub that is more centrally located — a hub is just a way saying a main transfer point for the bus system — would allow for greater route frequency. But commissioners are really struggling to find a location they can agree on. Last month they rejected a staff recommendation for a hub near 21st and Iowa streets on land that Kansas University Endowment is willing to provide to the city on a no-cost lease.

This latest award may provide some evidence that the bus system may be working better than some commissioners believe. But it probably would be useful to look at the ridership numbers in more detail. For example, how much of the ridership increase has come through service on city-operated buses versus how much has come through KU buses? That may provide a slightly different picture. However, it also may spark an important conversation. Does the community essentially have one bus system these days? You can catch a city bus and transfer to a KU bus. It would be an interesting discussion because I have heard some rumblings that some people think the transit system is too geared to KU. Others I’ve heard have said KU is the obvious and natural driver of ridership in the community.


• While we’re speaking of transit hubs, you might recall that one suggestion from Commissioner Stuart Boley was to consider whether a portion of Centennial Park near Ninth and Iowa could be used as a transit hub.

I recently had a reader make a keen observation about that idea. The reader pointed out that the city’s website includes some history about several of the major parks in Lawrence. On the section for Centennial Park, it mentions that the land for Centennial Park was sold “to the city of Lawrence for $1 on the condition that the property be eternally preserved as a public park.”

I haven’t done any research on the actual covenants on the land, but it looks like that would be an issue the city would have to research if there is any real interest in using Centennial for a bus hub location.

Reply 4 comments from Betty Bartholomew Mark Kostner David Holroyd Clara Westphal

Payless Furniture owner who said ‘Goodbye Obamaville’ back selling furniture in Lawrence; City Hall spends $2,500 on friendship garden

Perhaps you remember the flamboyant goodbye to Lawrence that came from the owner of Payless Furniture. If you don’t, I can give you the family-friendly version of that event: Payless owner Robert Fyfe in May parked his furniture delivery truck along the store’s busy Iowa Street frontage and plastered it with signs that proclaimed Lawrence the “commie & candy (rear-end) capitol of Kansas.” He also had a big one that said “Goodbye Obamaville.”

Well, I guess goodbye doesn’t mean what it used to because Fyfe is back peddling mattresses and other such furniture in Lawrence. Hey, even candied rears need a cheap mattress to rest upon, and you can’t blame a good communist for wanting a particle board coffee table. (What, are you going to just throw the manifesto on the floor?)

Fyfe, however, isn’t selling items under the Payless Furniture name, or at the store’s former Iowa Street location. He’s selling furniture out of a warehouse he owns on Bullene Avenue in eastern Lawrence. But the furniture is just stuff that he couldn’t sell at Payless before he closed.

I stopped by and asked Fyfe why he was still trying to sell goods in a town that he so clearly didn’t like. He was honest: money. It would cost him too much to ship the furniture somewhere else to sell. I asked him if he thought people might be mad that he was still trying to make a buck in a town that he essentially gave the one-finger salute to. He pulled no punches in that answer either.

“I couldn’t give one rat’s (rear end), to tell the truth,” Fyfe said. “(Expletive) Lawrence.”

But, hey, if you need a mattress . . .

Fyfe also tried to give me a bit of a hard time about bringing up his former business, Payless Furniture. He noted that he didn’t have that name anywhere on any of his signs advertising this “wholesale mattress and furniture sale.” I told him I happened to notice that. I asked him if he thought that omission might actually make some people more upset. How many folks may think they’re just getting a cheap mattress without knowing they’re supporting someone who gets their kicks trying to anger a whole host of people? (In addition to the political stuff, his signs in May also disparaged the developmentally disabled, the homeless, teachers and others.)

“They can kiss my (rear end),” Fyfe said. “If they don’t like it, (expletive) them.”

I’m sure if I would have stayed longer, the shtick would have gone on with the same old tired lines. That’s what you can count on from Fyfe: Despite a goodbye, it never really ends.


In other news and notes from around town:

• You really don’t have to worry about Fyfe reopening his store at 2800 Iowa St. As we’ve previously reported, Dale Willey Automotive has bought the property to expand its auto dealership. If you have driven by lately, you’ve noticed the building has been gutted and is getting a whole new exterior look.

I ran into one of the general managers of Dale Willey at last weekend’s 4-H livestock auction at the Douglas County Fair. He said he hopes to have the new showroom — which will house used cars — open in September.

Speaking of the livestock auction, I’ve meant for the last several days to say a thank-you to all the businesses and other buyers who supported the 4-H kids at the auction. (Full disclosure: That includes my two pig-raising kids.) The auction is just one of many worthy fundraising events that happen in Lawrence. This year’s auction had 145 animals that were sold and raised $183,809 for the 4-H kids who owned the livestock. That is kind of astounding.

Some other charities benefited as well. For example, Dale Willey continued its tradition of buying a couple of hogs and donating the meat to the food bank operated by Just Food, and I know at least one area church was the beneficiary of a large donation of meat as well. There were probably others, and I apologize for not knowing all of them. If you know them, feel free to list them below.


• I hope you take time to read Sara Shepherd’s piece on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Also, take time to read some of the articles that web editor Nick Gerik pulled together from the archives of the Journal-World during that time period. It gives you a sense of just how new and how many questions were emerging as the world tried to understand the Nuclear Age.

One article predicted that in a few years we all would be driving cars that had engines the size of “your hand.” We haven’t quite seen that yet, (unless you guys have larger hands than I think you do) but we have seen the world change a lot. There was one small reminder of that at Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission meeting.

The timing was just coincidental, on the week that we’re remembering the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, city commissioners agreed to spend $2,500 for a “friendship garden” in the homeland of our other great enemy in that war, Germany.

Lawrence has long had a sister city relationship with Eutin, Germany. Eutin is hosting the state garden show for the German state of Schleswig-Holstein in 2016, and as part of the event it plans to build a friendship garden honoring its relationship with Lawrence.

Commissioners, at the request of the Lawrence Sister Cities Advisory Board, agreed to donate $2,500 to the cause. The local Friends of Eutin group plans to raise another $1,500. Together, the Lawrence contribution will cover about half of the cost of the Eutin garden.

Plans call for the garden to have sunflower, prairie grasses, and some silhouettes of bison, prairie dogs and other animals that are native to the range. (Note to self: Round up some prairie dogs for Mass Street before the next Eutin group comes to visit. We don’t want to disappoint them.)

I’m sure the garden will be neat. What’s even neater, though, is to think about what can grow, if given 70 years of peace.

In addition to Eutin, Lawrence also has a sister city relationship with Hiratsuka, Japan.

Reply 14 comments from Sheila Couchman Archibald Katz Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Chris Phillips Richard Ballard Barb Gordon Rick Masters Bob Smith angie crenshaw Andrew Dufour and 3 others

Downtown retailer of 20 years closing Lawrence store; rumors of a new chicken chain on West Sixth Street; a Facebook flap at City Hall

Perhaps you don’t know it, Lawrence, but for the last 20 years you’ve been influencing how people across the country take baths. Yeah, now that I say that, it does sound creepy. But don’t worry, it is all fine, and it is also almost all over.

Bloom, the bath and body store at 704 Massachusetts St., is closing after 20 years in business. That’s notable in itself, but, come to find out, Bloom is more than just a little retail shop that you go to for bath products to get marinara sauce out of your beard. (The shop is right above Rudy’s Pizzeria, so I assume it gets the marinara question frequently.) Bloom also has been the test market store for a set of multimillion dollar bath and body brands that are manufactured in Colorado.

“Lawrence has definitely been where we test ideas,” said Lisa Sanders, manager of the Lawrence store. “It is interesting because what is popular in Lawrence doesn’t always end up being popular nationwide. Lawrence is pretty unique.”

Cover Photos - Bloom Bath and Body | Facebook

Cover Photos - Bloom Bath and Body | Facebook by Bloom Bath and Body

But the company’s founders have their roots in the area. They are Baker University graduates, and Sanders is a longtime friend who has run the Lawrence store for the last 15 years. But Sanders said she has decided to take another career opportunity in the Kansas City area, and the business’ owners decided that was probably a good time to close the store.

Sanders said a date for the store to close hasn’t been set, but she said it could be soon. It will be dependent on the store’s inventory, and it is dwindling quickly. Sanders said the store has been very popular in drawing shoppers from the Kansas City area and elsewhere to downtown. She said many customers are coming in to say their goodbyes.

“We had one woman come in who said her husband was just devastated,” Sanders said. “He said he didn’t know where he was going to do his Christmas shopping anymore.”

Lisa Sanders, manager at Bloom, 704 Mass, rearranges product display in this file photo from 2012.

Lisa Sanders, manager at Bloom, 704 Mass, rearranges product display in this file photo from 2012.

To be clear, though, only the store is closing. The brands that store’s parent company produces are still very much alive and well. Sanders said for years the company has made the bulk of its money from its manufacturing business. The Lawrence store is the only one the company operates. The company’s products, however, are sold in retail outlets internationally, ranging from Neiman Marcus to boutiques.

Its bath, body and fragrance brands include TokyoMilk, Love & Toast, and Lollia, which is probably its most famous after Oprah named its bubble bath to her most favorite things list a few years ago.

Makes sense. Oprah is a mess with marinara sauce.


In other news and notes from around town:

• From sauce to a crispy, fried breading: I’m getting news that a new fast food chicken restaurant is coming to Lawrence. But I don’t know which one yet. A representative with the Bauer Farm development at Sixth and Wakarusa told me that a fast-food, chicken-oriented business is finalizing a deal for the lot next to the Burger King that is in the development. Are we on a Popeyes alert? Or maybe a Church’s Chicken watch? I really have no idea, but those are a couple of the larger chicken chains that don’t already have a presence in Lawrence.


• Let’s end this today with the tastiest of all morsels: a Facebook flap. City Commissioner Matthew Herbert has a discussion going on his Facebook page about how he’s unhappy with the process the city used to give preliminary approval to the budget last night.

In particular, he’s concerned that Commissioner Stuart Boley proposed a $100,000 change to the city’s budget after the official public hearing for the budget had been closed. The $100,000, as we reported from last night’s meeting, is for a transitional housing program. Herbert thinks Boley should have brought up the change prior to the public hearing so people could have commented on it if they so chose.

“The process was awful,” Herbert said.

Screenshot from the Facebook page for Lawrence City Commissioner Matthew Herbert.

Screenshot from the Facebook page for Lawrence City Commissioner Matthew Herbert.

I checked in with Boley about it this morning, and he had a different view. First, he noted that he spent 10 minutes talking about the $100,000 for transitional housing at the July 21 City Commission meeting. He was ready to add it to the proposed budget at that point, but his fellow commissioners said they wanted to wait until last night’s meeting to address the issue.

Secondly, Boley notes that prior to last night’s meeting, he had staff members add documents from the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority to the budget portion of the city’s online agenda — which is accessible to the public. He said he had those documents added because he clearly intended on talking about the issue during the budget process. He forecast that at the July 21 meeting. He said it seemed reasonable to him to hear from the public, and then have a commission discussion about how it wanted to structure the budget.

“I didn’t feel like it was a big secret that I was looking for $100,000 for that program,” Boley said. “But I’m new. It is important to me that we do things in the right way. I care about process. I really do.”

Herbert also is a first-year commissioner. One of the new elements he’s bringing to the position is he’s working hard to create conversations about city business on Facebook. If you remember, he was the commissioner that got a lot of attention for his comments about the city of Topeka and its sewer plant.

His Facebook discussion on the topic includes some comments from city residents about how they were throwing things at the TV during last night’s proceedings and how the process is “jacked up” and how we “might have to make some noise” about this issue.

So, some folks are fired up. I would point out two more things: 1. This was the preliminary approval of the budget. It doesn’t become final until it is approved one more time on second reading by the commission, likely next week. There will be an opportunity for the public to comment on the budget again before the vote is taken. Commissioners can easily eliminate the $100,000, if that is the will of the commission. 2. The City Commission does not have a strict policy on public comments anymore. That has been a hallmark of Mayor Jeremy Farmer’s tenure. He routinely lets people make a comment even after the official public comment portion of an item has ended. My understanding is no one sought to make such a comment, although I also understand several members of the audience left the meeting before Boley brought up the $100,000 item.

We’ll see how big this morsel becomes.

Reply 13 comments from Kendall Simmons Lee Saylor Lawrence Freeman Bob Forer Colt Haines David Holroyd Melinda Henderson Cindy Bell Will White Barb Gordon and 3 others

Facts and figures to help you figure out whether to gripe or not to gripe about Lawrence’s property tax rates

Complaining about local taxes is easy. Figuring out whether we have a good gripe is hard because it requires lots of numbers, an abacus and stretching exercises. (I can’t count on my toes without the exercises anymore.) But as local governments get ready to approve their new tax rates, I’m limber and full of figures. So, let’s take a look.

As a reminder, we’re in the midst of budget seasons for the Lawrence City Commission, the Douglas County Commission and the Lawrence school board. City commissioners tonight will give preliminary approval to a budget that holds the property tax rate steady. Douglas County commissioners have reached a consensus on a budget that holds the county’s property tax rate steady as well. The Lawrence school board is considering a budget that would increase the property tax rate by about 1.6 mills, or about $30 on a $160,000 home.

The numbers I have for you take a look at what we’re paying in property taxes right now compared with what residents in other large cities in the state pay. I could just list the property tax mill levies for each city and call it good. Local government leaders would be pleased because the total mill levy paid in Lawrence is quite a bit less than in some other cities. Lawrence’s combined property tax mill levy is approximately 129 mills. Compare that with Kansas City’s at 174 mills or Topeka’s at 161 mills or Manhattan’s at 135 mills.

But I think there are two other factors you have to look at to get a full picture: the average value of a home in a community and the average wage for a full-time worker. The price of the home directly affects the size of your tax bill, and your wage affects your ability to pay it. I use home values from the 2009-2013 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, and I use a Census figure from the same source that estimate the median wage for a full-time, year round, male employee. I use that number because it factors out the thousands of college students who aren’t really in Lawrence to earn any money at the moment. I wish the Census Bureau made a combined male-female average year round wage available, but it is not in the tables that I’m looking at this morning.

Hopefully what these numbers will show you is if you are the Average Joe living in an average home in each of these communities, this is how much you will pay in property taxes, and this is how much of your paycheck it will take to pay those taxes. Obviously, everybody’s situation will be a bit different, but this is a math exercise aimed at making some fair comparisons.

So, here’s a look at Lawrence and the other nine Kansas communities with populations greater than 45,000 people:

— Lawrence: Property tax rate: 129.796 mills. Median home value: $178,500. Average earnings: $45,359. Total property tax: $2,664. Percent of earnings: 5.8 percent

— Kansas City, Kan.: Property tax rate: 173.412 mills. Median home value: $90,400. Average earnings: $37,844. Total property tax: $1,802. Percent of earnings: 4.7 percent

— Lenexa: Property tax rate: 106.193. Median home value: $218,900. Average earnings: $62,901. Total property tax: $2,673. Percent of earnings: 4.2 percent

— Manhattan: Property tax rate: 135.436 mills. Median home value: $180,800. Average earnings: $42,078. Total property taxes: $2,815. Percent of earnings: 6.6 percent

— Olathe: Property tax rate: 124.917 mills. Median home value: $193,800. Average earnings: $60,410. Total property taxes: $2,784. Percent of earnings: 4.6 percent.

— Overland Park: Property tax rate: 112.459 mills. Median home value: $223,800. Average earnings: $67,205. Total property taxes: $2,894. Percent of earnings: 4.3 percent

— Salina: Property tax rate: 133.852 mills. Median home value: $114,300. Average earnings: $38,251. Total property taxes: $1,759. Percent of earnings: 4.5 percent.

— Shawnee: Property tax rate: 121.407 mills. Median home value: $196,100. Average earnings: $59,981. Total property taxes: $2,737. Percent of earnings: 4.5 percent.

— Topeka: Property tax rate: 161.690 mills. Median home value: $95,600. Average earnings: $41,641. Total property taxes: $1,777. Percent of earnings: 4.2 percent.

— Wichita: Property tax rate: 119.844 mills. Median home value: $117,500. Average earnings: $45,288. Total property taxes: $1,619. Percent of earnings: 3.5 percent.

So, what to make of those numbers? Lawrence and Manhattan have higher tax rates compared to income than the other communities. Maybe that is because university communities have higher expectations for service levels from government. Maybe it is because the thousands of students drive up the price of real estate. Maybe it is because both communities don’t receive any property taxes from their largest employers — the universities. Maybe neither community captures enough retail sales, and thus they have to garner a larger percentage of their budgets from property taxes instead of sales taxes. Maybe it is because neither community has done enough to attract high-paying, high-tech jobs. I don’t know. But it is noteworthy, although not really new. I’ve done this type of figuring before, and the numbers consistently show Lawrence residents pay a bit of a premium to live here.

Most communities on the list end up having taxes that are somewhere in the 4 percent range of the average full-time wage of the community. If Lawrence could get taxes down to, let’s say, 4.5 percent of the average wage, that would result in a savings of about $600 per year for the Average Joe.

Another interesting tidbit from the numbers is that, evidently, there is a lot more that goes into making a community than its property tax rate. Both Lenexa and Topeka have taxes that are about 4.2 percent of the average earnings of a full-time worker. But Lenexa and Topeka are two very different communities, and many would argue are on different ends of the prosperity scale.

And then there is Wichita. It clearly has a lower tax rate than the others. But, like in any community, you have to look at whether you feel like you are getting a good value for what you spend. I’m not hating on Wichita, but the financial services firm WalletHub kind of is. The company this week put out a list of the best and worst large cities to live in. Wichita ranked near the bottom — 57 out of 62 cities that are greater than 300,000 in population. (Kansas City, in case you are wondering was No. 28) Wichita fared second to last in the education category, which is a big part of what your property tax dollars fund.

So, do Lawrence residents have a good reason to gripe about taxes? I don’t know, and furthermore I’ve got griping of my own to worry about. Complaints are mounting here. I think I’m going to have to put my shoes back on.

In other news and notes from around town:

• If you like talking about tax numbers and what the community should and should not become, then perhaps being part of the Lawrence chamber of commerce’s Leadership Lawrence program is your cup of tea. The chamber is wrapping up applications for the next multimonth session. The deadline to apply is 5 p.m. Aug. 10. You can find details about the cost and application process at LawrenceChamber.com.

Reply 3 comments from Stacy Napier Bob Forer Richard Heckler

Food trucks banding together to create new hub/restaurant along 23rd Street

Lawrence is getting creative with food and trucks, and I’m not just talking about my method for eating biscuits and gravy while still safely making the Kasold Curve. No, four area food trucks have joined forces to lease space along 23rd Street for a unique food truck hub.

The operators of Torched Goodness, Drasko’s, The Purple Carrot and Wilma’s Real Good Food have reached a deal to take over the spot formerly occupied by Granddaddy’s BBQ at 1447 W. 23rd St.

The new venture will be called Fork to Fender, and it will be a little bit restaurant and a little bit food truck. Chefs from each of the four food trucks have committed to have at least a portion of their food truck menus available each day at Fork to Fender. In addition, there will be certain days of the week where all the food trucks — plus some guest trucks from Kansas City — will be parked outside. Customers will be able to order their food from the trucks and then have the option of taking the food inside the Fork to Fender space.

The concept behind the idea is unique but simple, said Julia Ireland of Torched Goodness: Lawrence diners need to know there is a consistent location where they can always get food truck grub.

“Lawrence is a good town for food trucks, but we need to band together to get more of an awareness for food trucks,” Ireland said.

The joint location also will offer another benefit: the opportunity to have a liquor license. Food trucks in Lawrence aren’t allowed to have a liquor license. But by having a storefront, the businesses will be able to sell craft beers, wines and other alcoholic beverages at the inside location.

The storefront also will serve as a space for some vendors of the Lawrence Farmers' Market to sell their items year-around. Ireland said the store plans to stock some of the honey, jams, jellies and even the locally raised meat.

“We’re trying to make it a small business hub of local artisan food vendors,” Ireland said. “We want that local community feel.”

Ireland said the businesses took possession of the storefront last week and have begun renovations. She said they hope to have the business open sometime in September. But there are still hurdles to meeting that date. The business has created a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising $9,000 to help cover the cost of the liquor license and some additional kitchen equipment.

As for the type of food to be served, Ireland said it will be an eclectic mix. Drasko’s is known for down-home comfort food and barbecue dishes. The Purple Carrot is a vegan food truck that does things like avocado smoothies, veggie burgers and other such fare. Wilma’s Real Good Food — which recently was named the best food truck in Kansas City by KC Magazine — makes dishes such as meatball sliders, homemade bratwursts and fried grits. Torched Goodness plans to expand its menu from its dessert theme to include meat pies, such as Shepherd’s Pie and chicken pot pie, plus frittatas and other dishes.

But don’t worry, Torched Goodness also will continue making its creme brûlée, and will continue to have its stand downtown and also at the Saturday farmers' market.

That’s good news because, as I have learned, I need a really wide berth when I’m going around Kasold Curve with a handheld kitchen torch.

Reply 3 comments from Lawrence Freeman Tom Thomson Barb Gordon

Plans call for pair of buildings to be demolished near Ninth and Iowa to make way for high-tech car wash; Zarco owner launches tech product for convenience store industry

They say the best way to make it rain is to wash your car. Given that we already have had a lot of rain, I’m a bit worried about what will happen when a Lawrence businessman starts construction on what he’s calling one of the more advanced car washes in the country.

Look for the project near Ninth and Iowa streets. Plans have been filed at City Hall to demolish the Sandbar sub shop and the gas station/convenience store that is immediately north of the sandwich shop. The two lots will be combined to make way for a large tunnel car wash.

Scott Zaremba, an owner of the Sandbar restaurants and the Zarco convenience store chain, is the man behind the car wash idea. He said the car wash will include new technology unlike any other in the region.

“It will be the next generation of car wash,” Zaremba said. “It will have the coolest stuff, that is for sure.”

But Zaremba wouldn’t provide details. Until further notice I’m going to assume it will have a special thingamajig to get the Crispy Creme frosting off my steering wheel, an advanced whatchamacallit to find the taquito that rolled under the seat last month, and a proprietary doohickey that will allow the F150 to double as a hovercraft.

The project, which is being designed by Lawrence-based Paul Werner Architects, also will include about 25 vacuum stations, and will include a place for a food truck to regularly park. (A man who would sell me a juicy, dripping sandwich right after I’ve cleaned my vehicle is a man who understands the business cycle. If he offered a necktie cleaning service, Bill Gates would be jealous of his genius.)

If you are confused about the location of the proposed project, it is near the southeast corner of Ninth and Iowa. Zaremba owns an American Fuels station that is right at the southeast corner of the intersection. That is the one that includes the Scooters drive-thru coffee location. No changes are planned for that fueling site or the Scooters. Just to the south of that location, Zaremba owns another convenience store/fueling station. It will be torn down as part of the project. Just to the south of that location, Zaremba owns a building that previously was a gas station but since has been converted into a brightly colored Sandbar Sub Shop. It also will be torn down as part of the project.

Zaremba has filed for site plan approval at Lawrence City Hall, but he said it was too early to predict when construction work may begin on the project.


• A car wash isn’t the only project Zaremba has going on. Bill Gates indeed may end up interested in Zaremba at some point because Zaremba has launched a new technology company. Zaremba’s American Fuels stations at Ninth and Iowa and East 23rd Street have new technology at the fueling pumps that Zaremba says is the first of its kind in the country.

The pumps have been retrofitted to include a special touchscreen tablet that allows you to place an order for a sub sandwich that will be made inside the store while you are busy putting gas in your car. The sandwiches, though, are just the beginning, Zaremba said. The touchscreen can be used to sell basically any item in the store. The tablet allows you to pay for the items at the same time you are paying for your fuel, so it adds an extra element of convenience. It also helps the convenience store industry with a problem they have created: Pay-at-the-pump technology has cut down on the number of customers who enter the store.

“There is a huge percentage of customers who don’t come inside the store,” Zaremba said. “This lets us sell almost anything at the pump.”

The bigger potential, though, is that the tablets aren’t items that Zaremba has purchased and added to his pumps. Instead, it is technology that his company has developed. He’s now working to sell the technology to other convenience store chains across the country. He said he has two tests going on in other states.

“They are large chains that potentially could use more than 5,000 screens,” Zaremba said.

Zaremba said he used local programmers and technology developers to create the new tablet application. He said he and partners have been working on the project for about eight years.


In other news and notes from around town:

• We might as well stay in the gasoline world for a moment. Lawrence has a new convenience store brand. The station at 19th and Haskell has become a Valero station, which I think is the first one in Lawrence. The location has added new pumps, and the convenience store portion of the business has been advertising that it is under new management.

I’ll beat someone to the question that frequently comes up when I talk about gas station brands: I don’t have any news on whether Casey’s General Store plans to open a location in Lawrence. More than a year ago, I had reliable sources tell me that Casey’s was close to signing a deal for a location in northwest Lawrence along Sixth Street. But then that deal never materialized. No word on whether the company still has an interest in Lawrence or whether the market is a bit big for the company, which operates in a host of small towns.

Reply 8 comments from Mary Lee Norris Eric Ryan Tim Quest Rick Masters Jake Davis David Carson Richard Andrade Curtis Lange

Pace quickens on Lawrence home sales in first half of 2015; city spending $85,000 for ADA playground upgrades

If you are looking to buy a home in Lawrence, you had better lace up those running shoes. Home sale statistics for the first half of 2015 show that buyers need to be ready to move to keep up with what is becoming a tight home market.

For the first six months of the year, home sales in Lawrence are up nearly 20 percent, compared with the same period a year ago. But an emerging trend in the market is how quickly homes are selling. The days of you and your spouse or roomie having the time to debate whether this room or that room is big enough to house the chocolate fountain are coming to an end. (I’m assuming that is the big debate in your house too.)

The median number of days a home sits on the market before it sells is now down to 25. That’s down from 34 days at this point in 2014 and down from 47 days in 2013. The pace seems to be quickening as well. When you look at just the homes that sold in June, the median time those homes sat on the market before selling was 13 days. Wow. It takes us 14 days just to hear back from the architect on how much it will cost to strengthen the floors of the various closets we’ll use to house shoes. It is a crazy market if people are buying homes before knowing that cost.

In all seriousness, it has been a good year thus far for the Lawrence real estate market. Here’s a look at some statistics from the most recent report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors:

• A total of 627 homes have been sold through June. That’s up almost 20 percent from the same period a year ago. More impressive is the 2015 totals are up about 12 percent compared with the 2013 totals. Last year was a bit of a down year for the local real estate market, but 2013 was a strong year with more than 1,000 homes sold that year. If the market stays on its current pace, it could sell more than 1,100 homes in 2015.

• Sales of newly constructed homes are showing some signs of new momentum. A total of 33 newly constructed homes have sold thus far in 2015. That’s up from 30 during the same period a year ago, but still down from 51 during the period in 2013. More encouraging, though, is that 11 newly constructed homes sold in June. That’s up from four newly constructed home sales in June 2014. The median number of days a new home is sitting on the market before it sells also has improved dramatically. The median now is 76 days, down from 168 days in 2014.

• One of the reasons homes are moving quickly is because the inventory of homes on the market is tight. At the end of June, there were 334 active listings. That’s down more than 25 percent from 2014 levels and down more than 20 percent of 2013 levels. It will be interesting to see if builders see those numbers as being tight enough to start increasing the number of new homes they are constructing each month. Whether that will happen is still an open question. At the end of June, there were 42 newly constructed homes on the market. That’s down from 49 new homes that were on the market in June 2014.

• With a tighter market, selling prices are starting to creep up. The median price of homes sold thus far in 2015 is $165,000. That’s up from $160,000 at the same point in 2014. Whether that is a sign of price pressures in the market or just a difference in the type of houses that are being sold this year compared with last year isn’t clear. But it would stand to reason that overall home values will see some appreciation, if the market remains tight.


In other news and notes from around town:

• Look for some changes at a couple of Lawrence playgrounds. The city is set to spend about $85,000 to put in a rubberized play surface for the playgrounds at the East Lawrence Center and at Watson Park.

It may be the first of several such project that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department undertakes. Changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2012 created new requirements for playground surfaces to make them more accessible to people with disabilities.

The new rubberized surface is expected to be a lot easier for folks who use wheelchairs, walkers and other devices than the current wood-chip surface that exists at most city playgrounds.

“The wood chips have to be really compacted to work well,” said Mark Hecker, the city’s assistant director of parks and recreation.

But figuring out how to pay for a surface upgrade to every city playground may be difficult. The city has 35 playgrounds across the community. Hecker said his initial goal is to try to get six or seven playground surfaces replaced in the next few years. He plans to choose playgrounds in different geographic areas of town to increase the odds that everyone will have relatively easy access to at least one of the newly surfaced playgrounds.

Cost is an issue, though. The city spends about $3,000 to $4,000 to put wood chips in a playground area, and then probably another $1,000 a year to ensure the playgrounds continue to have enough wood chips in place. Based on these most recent prices, the rubberized surface is costing a little more than $40,000 a playground. Hecker expects the rubberized surfaces to last for 15 years or more.

Whether the city will get pressure to become more aggressive to replace the wood chip surfaces with the more ADA-complaint rubberized material is unclear. Thus far, Hecker said the department has been working with local ADA advocates, and they have been understanding that the city will likely have to tackle the issue in phases.

“They just want us to keep moving forward,” Hecker said.

As for the material, it is coming from a Kansas City-based company called Eco Turf. Hecker said the department is still in discussions about the exact product they’ll install. Hecker said the city wants to install some brightly colored material rather than the more traditional brown or black. The city also looked at a product that looked like grass, but Hecker said it was less certain how it would withstand the wear and tear of a playground.

An example of a rubberized playground surface, as shown on the Eco Turf web site.

An example of a rubberized playground surface, as shown on the Eco Turf web site. by Chad Lawhorn

Other parks that may get consideration for upgrades include high-usage playgrounds at South Park, Holcom Park and Centennial Park, Hecker said. Some of those parks also are due for replacement of playground equipment.

“We may find ourselves in a situation where we spend $30,000 on playground equipment and $35,000 on surfacing,” Hecker said. “That’s where it can get a little tricky from a financial standpoint.”

Reply 2 comments from Carol Bowen Steve Jacob

West Lawrence restaurant plans major expansion; details on a Ninth and New Hampshire mishap; Kansas school system gets high ranking

You bet I’ve got a chop house on my mind, and it is not just because I’ve already spent a good part of my week “helping” my 4-H kids wrangle their hogs at the Douglas County Fair. I’ve got news of a large expansion of a west Lawrence restaurant that specializes in steaks and chops.

I briefly mentioned last week that I had heard the Six Mile Chop House and Tavern was expanding at its Sixth and Wakarusa location. Well, now I’ve got details, and they show the expansion will make it one of the larger restaurants in the city.

Brad Ziegler, an owner of Six Mile, told me that he has struck a deal to take all 6,500 square feet of space that previously was occupied by Famous Dave’s BBQ. Six Mile currently occupies space that is adjacent to the former Famous Dave’s location.

Ziegler said a big part of the expansion plan is for Six Mile to get into the banquet business. That means wedding receptions, corporate events, big birthday parties, and bon voyage parties for a certain pair of pigs. (Well, maybe that last one is a tiny niche.)

“We want more room for private events and banquets,” Ziegler said. “We turn down a lot of events because we just don’t have the size.”

That won’t be a problem following the expansion. Six Mile and Famous Dave’s occupied space that originally served as the Lawrence location for the Hereford House. It was frequently said that the Lawrence Hereford House was the largest restaurant in the state of Kansas, just in terms of square footage.

Ziegler said the expansion will allow for a significant increase in general seating for diners as well.

“We don’t know the final number yet, but we’ll definitely double our capacity for dining,” Ziegler said.

Plans also call for an additional bar and lounge area to be added to the restaurant. But Ziegler — who is a longtime bar owner in Lawrence — said he’s not planning on using any of the space to create a large nightclub.

“We’re just talking about a casual place to have a cocktail,” Ziegler said.

What won’t change much is the restaurant’s menu. It will still have a heavy emphasis on steak, with some seafood, pork chops, lamb chops and other meaty entrees. Ziegler said the idea of a local steakhouse has been well-received by Lawrence diners. He said with the larger location he will try to attract a larger customer base by adding a few mid-range cuts of Angus steak in order to offer the option of a lower price point. But plans also call for the restaurant to keep its selection of prime cuts of beef. The restaurant currently offers nine cuts of prime beef ranging from a 17-ounce Bone-In Cowboy Ribeye to the traditional Kansas City Strip. Ziegler said a significant expansion of the restaurant’s wine list also is planned.

Ziegler hopes to have the expansion — which for the moment is focusing just on the main floor space, not the basement of the building — completed in October. But construction work hasn’t yet begun. Ziegler said he’s awaiting the necessary permits from City Hall.


In other news and notes from around town:

• I can guess one group that wasn’t thrilled with this morning’s rain storm: The construction crews that are trying to build the multistory office and apartment building at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.

Robert Green, president of Lawrence-based First Construction, told me the project is a little more than three weeks behind schedule due to the amount of rain that the area has experienced this summer.

I also wanted to let you know of one other detail about the project, in part, to clear up some potential confusion. I’ve gotten several calls from people concerned that construction crews were dumping unused concrete in the sewer system at the job site. That hasn’t been happening, but there was a significant mishap involving a city sewer line at the job site.

Both First Construction and city officials confirmed that a subcontractor on the job accidentally damaged a city sewer line as part of the site work for the building. As part of the shoring process, a steel pin inadvertently punctured a sewer line. Part of the shoring process included the injection of grout, and the sewer line became filled with grout.

The only way to fix the problem was to replace a large section of the sewer line, Dave Wagner, the city’s director of utilities told me. Both Wagner and Green assured me that the cost to replace the line was paid by the contractor for the building, not by the city. The work to replace the line took place a few weeks ago, and the sewer system is working fine in the area, I’m told by Wagner.

As for the building project, as we previously have reported, it will add about 115 apartments to the downtown scene. Its ground floor will be the new headquarters for Great American Bank, which previously operated in the city as Lawrence Bank. Green said he is hopeful crews will make up for lost time and have the apartments ready to open by the fall of 2016.


• We may not always know where the next check is coming from to fund it, but Kansas’ educational system is one of the better ones in the country — at least according to one new report.

The study is from WalletHub, a financial website that does a lot of data crunching to create “best of" lists. The new study found Kansas has the 12th best “school system” in America. The report primarily looked at K-12, public schools, and examined metrics such as dropout rates, math and reading scores, SAT scores, student-to-teacher ratios and other such measures.

Kansas ranked just ahead of Iowa and just below Virginia. Kansas appeared to excel in a couple of categories in particular. Kansas had the third best pupil-to-teacher ratio in the country, and was tied for fourth in the “safest schools” category. That metric is based off of data that tracks the number of students in the ninth-12th grades who report being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property.

Other rankings for Kansas included:

— 8th for math test scores;

— 10th for dropout rate;

— 10th for average SAT scores.

— 21st for percentage of high school graduates who complete the ACT;

— 25th for bullying incident rates;

— 25th for reading test scores.

In case you are confused, a ranking of 1 is best and 51 (we count both the District of Columbia and Missouri, for some reason) is worst.

Most of the data that WalletHub used to compile the rankings came from the U.S. Census Bureau, or other reputable organizations such as the rankings of U.S. News and World Report, the College Board, and the National Center for Educational Statistics. You can see the complete report here.

And yes, I know you want to know the top 5 and the bottom 5, so, here you go:

  1. Massachusetts

  2. Colorado

  3. New Jersey

  4. Wisconsin

  5. Kentucky

The bottom five:

  1. Lousiana

  2. Arizona

  3. Nevada

  4. District of Columbia

  5. Alaska

As for other neighbors not already mentioned, Nebraska ranked No. 17, Missouri was No. 28, and Oklahoma was No. 33.

Reply 3 comments from Scott  Morgan Randolf Fellows Bailey Perkins

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