Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
North Lawrence call center closes, moves operations to California ; large south Lawrence apartment complex sells
It was a little more than two years ago that local leaders were celebrating the opening of a new North Lawrence call center that had plans for employing more than 100 people in the former Tanger mall facility. Well, word has come that the call center has closed its doors and is moving to California.
A spokeswoman with the Rezolve Group confirmed that the company on Wednesday closed its call center in the I-70 Business Center and eliminated 21 positions in the process.
The company operated a call center that helped people, for a fee, fill out their student federal aid applications. But Mary Fallon, a spokeswoman for Rezolve, said business conditions caused the company to make a decision to move the Lawrence call center functions to an existing call center in Sacramento, which is where the company is based.
Fallon said the company will continue to have a "core group of employees" who will work from Lawrence on marketing, technical issues and other matters. But Fallon declined to say how many employees those operations would involve. Fallon also said the future of the significant amount of square footage it leases at the I-70 Business Center was uncertain. Back in 2011, I had reported the company had about 20,000 square feet of space in the center.
The closing actually marks the end for what had grown into a Lawrence success story. Rezolve in 2007 bought a Lawrence startup company called Student Financial Aid Services Inc. At the time it had seven employees, but by 2011 it had grown to 70 employees and was operating a call center in the Golf Course Superintendents Association building in West Lawrence.
When the company in late 2011 made the move to North Lawrence, it tripled its space and said it had plans to grow to 175 employees. I'm not sure how large the employee total ever got in Lawrence. It was 70 in 2011, but Fallon recently said many of those were likely seasonal employees. As noted, there were 21 people who lost their jobs on Wednesday, but I had heard from other sources that other layoffs had taken place at the company in recent weeks.
Fallon said the company's CEO was in Lawrence on Wednesday to make the announcement to employees, and she said a severance package was provided to employees.
I'll keep my ears open for any news about what may go into the I-70 Business Center space. Up until the announcement, the former mall property actually was pretty full. It is home to the headquarters for Protection One, a call center for a home oxygen supplier, and a few other smaller tenants.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It is difficult to keep up with all the real estate sales that happen in the Lawrence apartment market, but the recent land transfers from the Douglas County Courthouse appear to have a big one in south Lawrence.
According to records filed at the courthouse, an entity controlled by San Diego-based PEP-Cactus Student Housing has bought the large apartment complex known as The Reserve, 2511 W. 31st St. Based on a company website, PEP is short for Pierce Education Properties. According to the website, PEP is one of the larger buyers of student housing properties in the country, having completed about $370 million worth of deals since 2007. It currently has apartment complexes totaling about 5,000 beds in major university communities across the country.
The Reserve previously was owned by an out-of-state entity called EDR Lawrence Limited Partnership, which is part of EDR, the publicly traded real estate trust.
Lawrence retail sales off to strong start for 2014; key rural intersection set for closure this weekend
I thought Walgreens seemed busy on Christmas Eve. So many savvy shoppers with our Chapstick holiday gift packs, and a variety of products with a seal even more meaningful than the Good Housekeeping one: "As Seen On TV." (It says not only do we care, but we also saved a bundle on shipping and handling.)
Now there is a new City Hall report that suggests I was right. Lawrence shoppers finished the final days of the Christmas shopping season on a strong note, as retail sales for the period were up about 4 percent compared with a year ago. Technically, the report also covers the first few days after Christmas, so let's not forget the importance of post-holiday shopping to those numbers. (It is meaningful, as I still have a slight concussion from the avalanche of discounted wrapping paper, bows and snow globes that hit me when I opened the wrong closet door.)
The latest City Hall report represents the second of 12 sales tax payments the city will receive from the state in 2014, and thus far the numbers are painting a healthy picture of the city's retail scene. Taxable sales in Lawrence are up 5.2 percent for the year, compared with the same period a year ago.
Most of those numbers have been driven by holiday sales. As you may remember, many retailers complained that the holiday shopping season got off to a slow start but then picked up steam late. So, I thought I would take a look at several of the past reports to determine if the overall holiday shopping season was better or worse than normal.
When you combined the December 2013, January 2014 and February 2014 sales tax distributions, you get a pretty good picture of the entire holiday shopping season. (The reports measure spending that took place about a month and a half earlier.) Those reports show Lawrence recorded $369.4 million in taxable sales during the period. That's up from $349.4 million during the previous holiday season, an increase of 5.7 percent. So, all in all, it appears it was a decent holiday season for Lawrence retailers.
There were some big winners in other retail markets as well. The large retail cities of Overland Park, Topeka, and Wichita (Sedgwick County), all have posted large increases, according to the 2014 reports. Lawrence's performance, at a 5.2 percent increase, has it among the larger gainers as well. Here's a look at several of the state's big retail markets and how their year-to-date collections compare with the same period a year ago.
— Dodge City: down 1.1 percent
— Garden City: up 3.8 percent
— Hays: down 22 percent
— Hutchinson: up 3.2 percent
— Junction City: down 0.4 percent
— Kansas City: up 3.9 percent
— Leawood: up 1.9 percent
— Lenexa: up 6.7 percent
— Manhattan: up 3.9 percent
— Olathe: down 1.5 percent
— Overland Park: up 9.7 percent
— Salina: up 5 percent
— Shawnee: up 3.9 percent
— Topeka: up 7 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 7.2 percent
In other news and notes from around town:
• A question about sales tax collections came up at a recent City Commission meeting. Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said he was curious to know whether Lawrence's sales tax collections have truly been growing or simply rising as the result of inflation. As some readers may remember, I occasionally do such a calculation, but haven't for a few months. (Bernanke and I use the same inflation calculator, and he misplaced it when he was cleaning out his desk.)
But I'm ready to go now, so let's do some calculating. Here's how we'll do it. In 2013, the city had taxable sales of $1.38 billion. So that's our baseline. We'll convert everything to 2013 dollars using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator. Here's what taxable sales look like once they are adjusted for inflation:
2013: $1.38 billion
2012: $1.37 billion
2011: $1.34 billion
2010: $1.31 billion
2009: $1.36 billion
2008: $1.38 billion
So, as we've previously reported, 2013 was a significant year because it marked the point that we finally had regained the losses that we suffered as part of the recession. As the numbers show, the low point was in 2010. Adjusted for inflation, we lost about $70 million in retail sales and other taxable sales in Lawrence from 2008 to 2010. Then we started a slow climb back up.
But I think Farmer was interested in taking an even longer look back to determine how our numbers have stacked up against inflation. Remember, our baseline number is $1.38 billion, at the amount of taxable sales in 2013. Let's see if our inflation-adjusted totals from years gone by are higher or lower.
2005: $1.41 billion
2000: $1.39 billion
1998: $1.37 billion
1995: $1.28 billion
So, have taxable sales in Lawrence grown faster than inflation? Well, it just depends on when you start measuring. From 1995 to 2013, taxable sales grew by 7.8 percent, once adjusted for inflation. From 2005 to 2013, they have declined by 2.1 percent, once adjusted for inflation.
• We had news in the paper today about the latest construction work on the South Lawrence Trafficway. Well, now I have some news about the unofficial East Lawrence Trafficway. I don't know what you call it, but lots and lots of motorists every day get off of Kansas Highway 10 at the County Route 1057 interchange and then use a combination of Old K-10 Highway, Noria Road and North 1500 Road (15th Street extended) to get into East Lawrence and downtown. So, I call it the East Lawrence Trafficway. Regardless, don't take that route this weekend. Douglas County officials are planning to close the intersection of North 1500 Road and Noria Road from 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Crews, weather permitting, will be replacing the pavement at the intersection.
The work is being done as part of the improvements needed to prepare the intersection for the heavier truck traffic that will be coming from the expanded Penny's Sand Plant that is along the Kansas River just north and east of the intersection. Penny's is paying for the work.
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Four companies express interest in bringing superfast broadband service to city; Wicked has plans to launch cable TV service in Lawrence by June
And you thought the fight over the remote control during the NCAA Tournament was going to be fierce. Well, it looks like another type of technology battle is brewing at Lawrence City Hall.
Four technology companies are interested in undertaking a multimillion-dollar project to bring super-fast Internet service to Lawrence, on par with what Google Fiber is doing in Kansas City. But, no, Google Fiber is not one of the companies interested.
If you remember, the city in February issued a request for information from companies interested in partnering with the city on establishing an enhanced broadband network in the community. Four companies responded: Lawrence-based Wicked Fiber, which previously has operated as Lawrence Freenet; Baldwin City-based Free State Broadband; national giant AT&T; and ISG Technology and Twin Valley Telephone, which operates a host of largely rural telephone and Internet systems in north-central Kansas.
You can see the full responses here, but here's a quick summary.
— Wicked Fiber: The company, owned by Lawrence school board member Kris Adair and her husband, Joshua Montgomery, got this process started months ago. Wicked was seeking a $500,000 economic development grant from the city, plus the waiver of multiple city fees, in exchange for undertaking a $1 million pilot project that would bring 1 gigabit broadband service to downtown and much of East Lawrence. City commissioners balked at approving Wicked's request, and instead put the call out for more information.
Wicked's proposal is largely unchanged from those terms, although more details have been provided. Those details include Wicked now is asking the city to also underwrite its $500,000 loan it will need to build the pilot project. The company also is estimating that it will cost about $30 million to build a high-speed broadband network for the entire community. The company is projecting that once the pilot project is successful, it will be able to raise $10 million in equity financing and secure $20 million in long-term debt to build the project.
The company also is highlighting that the network it would build in Lawrence would have the capacity to host other Internet service providers. In other words, Wicked could use the system, but so could somebody like Google Fiber or another provider. Other providers would pay Wicked a publicly listed wholesale price to use the network. Wicked also is suggesting that the city receive 5 percent of all gross revenues generated by the broadband network. Wicked says such a system will promote competition and thus benefit consumers.
— Free State Broadband. The company currently is working on a project to bring advanced broadband service to Baldwin City. As part of that deal, the company has some agreements with the city of Lawrence that will run fiber through Lawrence to serve the Baldwin City customers.
Free State officials said they currently are conducting market studies to determine the feasibility of bringing high-speed Internet, phone and video service to Lawrence. If feasible, the company would want to expand its current licensing agreement with the city to include access to existing fiber optic lines that the city already owns. Free State is estimating that it will cost nearly $70 million to build a high-speed network that could serve the entire community. That's far different than the $30 million estimate from Wicked Fiber. I don't have the technical ability to compare the two estimates, but it seems that will be one of the big issues city officials will have to figure out.
Free State is not asking for a $500,000 economic development grant, but it does want an "easily accessible lot and a 3,000 square foot building" in the city's new Venture Park, which is the business park that is being developed on the site of the former Farmland Industries property.
— AT&T. The company said Lawrence now is among the cities it is studying to add 1 gigabit Internet service to its offerings. If the company decides to move forward, it said it would be responsible for all the financial requirements of the project. The help it would seek from the city would include: a dedicated city staff member who would work as a coordinator for the project; a joint community education program with the city; access to the city's infrastructure, including light poles, traffic signals and city buildings; city assistance to negotiate a deal with Westar Energy to allow AT&T access to some of Westar's infrastructure, such as power poles; a waiver of certain city permits, or an expedited review of city permits.
AT&T would build any Lawrence network in phases, and would select areas for service based on "neighborhoods in which demand is expected to compensate for the cost to deploy" the network.
— ISG/Twin Valley. Twin Valley touts itself as the largest privately owned communications company in Kansas. ISG is a subsidiary of Twin Valley, and is a "data center and IT infrastructure partner." In addition to operating a fiber optic network in north central Kansas, the company is highlighting a partnership with Columbia, Mo., where ISG provides broadband and data center services by using a fiber optic network that is owned by the city of Columbia.
The city of Lawrence owns a significant amount of fiber optic cable in the community, and all the respondents have indicated an interest in accessing that fiber optic network.
ISG/Twin Valley was not specific in what assistance it may require from the city. The company's proposal stated it wanted to "collaborate and further discuss" the city's goals.
As I mentioned, Google Fiber did not submit a proposal to the city. City officials have told me they made sure Google Fiber was aware that the city was seeking information from technology companies. There was one other notable company that didn't submit a proposal: WOW, which is currently the largest cable and Internet provider in the city.
I don't yet have a timeline for when the city will evaluate these proposals and make a decision about how to proceed. But I would think the process will get started relatively soon.
In the meantime, I've got plenty to figure out with securing this remote control. All right, I have the log chain attached to my wrist. I've got the chain attached to the remote. I'm set . . . oh, crud. Is that an acetylene torch she has?
In other news and notes from around town:
• There was an interesting side issue brought up in Wicked Fiber's proposal to the city. Company officials stated in the proposal that Wicked plans to begin offering a robust package of cable television service, beginning in June.
The proposal states "Wicked Broadband has entered into an agreement to provide television services to Lawrence. The company is in the process of launching its first TV product, which is expected to debut in June of 2014." That language leads me to believe that the service isn't dependent upon the company receiving incentives from the city, but I've got a call into Wicked officials to confirm that and other details.
The proposal goes on to say that one service will be a 27-channel service for $19.99 a month. A second service will offer 94 channels for $49.99 a month. The proposal includes a list of channels. They appear to be your standard major channels, although the plan currently does include premium channels such as HBO and Showtime.
Another detail I'm hoping to confirm is whether the service will be available citywide or only in select areas. Currently, Wicked provides service to more than 3,000 residents in the city, it says, with many of them at apartment complexes and greek living houses. I'll let you know if I hear more.
Look below for a list of the proposed channels.
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Roof being installed on city’s Rock Chalk Park recreation center, tournament times filling up at the facility
I know the question that is on all of our minds today: Does a green stain on your tie count as St. Patrick's Day spirit? Oh, that's not the question. You want an update on the city's 181,000-square-foot Rock Chalk Park recreation center. Well, fortunately, I have both stains and information.
Roofing work on the large building is underway, and leaders with the city's parks and recreation department said they've been told by contractors that the building should be completely enclosed by the end of March. Look below to see some pictures city officials took at the site.
Once the building is enclosed, weather becomes much less of a factor in slowing down the project.
"The contractors hope to have gym floors go in during May," said Mark Hecker, the assistant director of parks and recreation. "That is when you will know that we are nearing the end, when you start seeing the wood go into the building."
As we have previously reported, a key date for the center is Sept. 2. That is when the city's fall parks and recreation classes are set to begin, and the center is scheduled to be a host for many of them. The construction contract for the center calls for the facility to be completed by July 15, but weather delays have created concerns about the feasibility of that date.
Another date to circle on your calendar is April 27. That's when the Parks and Recreation department's next activities guide is released to the public. The guide will provide the first glimpse of all the new classes and leagues that the department plans to offer now that it has more space.
Parks and Recreation leaders aren't providing any details yet, but they are saying the number of new offerings will be signifiant. For example, Roger Steinbrock, the department's marketing supervisor, said he's in the process of laying out the guide now. Historically, the department's recreation program's supervisor provided him about 17 pages of recreation class offerings. This year, she provided him 39 pages of offerings.
The number of adult and youth sports leagues also is expected to increase. The facility — which will have eight full-court gyms that also can be used as 16 cross-court gyms — was designed to host regional and national youth tournaments as well.
Interest on the tournament front has been strong, said Tim Laurent, recreation operations manager. He said from Jan,1, 2015 to mid-April of 2015, the vast majority of all the courts already have been reserved. A pair of Kansas City volleyball organizations have rented anywhere from 12 to 15 cross courts at the facility. A futsal organization also has rented seven of the eight full courts to host an indoor futsal tournament
The city is operating the center with a policy that at least one of the eight-full court gyms also will be left open for free-play by community members.
Thus far, only one youth basketball tournament has booked the facility, but Laurent said he thinks that mainly is because volleyball organizations have "been on the ball" about getting dates reserved more quickly.
"We definitely want to have basketball at the facility," Laurent said.
Groups looking to book tournaments, though, should contact the department sooner rather than later, Laurent said. The department has decided it will allow groups to book dates a year in advance, and thus far the Kansas City volleyball organizations seem interested in having multiple events in Lawrence.
Laurent said the volleyball tournaments could best be described as regional tournaments that are expected to draw heavily form the Kansas City and Topeka areas, but also from as far away as Wichita and Manhattan. He said he has heard anecdotally that the tournaments often bring about 1,500 people — counting players and coaches — during the course of a weekend.
Laurent said the city has set rental rates for the facility to be in line with what other facilities are charging in the Kansas City area. Rates currently are $525 per day for a 12-hour rental of a single, full court. An eight-hour rental of a court is $350. If a group wants to rent only a cross court, the fee is roughly half those amounts.
The facility also will rent out gym space to teams who are just looking for some practice time. Those dates most likely will be during the weekdays, although there may be some weekends where a few courts are available. Rates for practice time are $30 an hour for a cross-court gym or $50 an hour for a full-court gym.
Laurent said department officials are very pleased with the level of interest the facility is receiving from tournament organizers, and that the facility's location between Topeka and Kansas City is proving to be a major drawing card.
"At this point, we don't even have a name for the facility, so it has been hard to really market it," Laurent said. "So, we feel great about how much interest we're already getting."
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I understand what is going on here: Downtown motorists are hoping to get a glimpse of me in Spandex. Well, perhaps that is in store because plans are in the works for downtown Lawrence to have what essentially would be an outdoor workout facility.
The city has applied for a nearly $15,000 grant to build what is called a "Fitness Zone" in South Park. Instead of having playground equipment, a fitness zone has specially built workout equipment that can withstand the elements. I'm talking about devices that mimic an elliptical machine or a bench press or those ab stations that have been known to make a person's midsection feel like a pretzel.
Lawrence's Deerfield Park has had such a fitness zone since June, and Parks and Recreation officials said it has been extremely popular. Parents are able to do a bit of a workout while their children play on the traditional playground equipment nearby. Below, I've posted a few photos I took of the equipment at the Deerfield site. (Sorry, no selfies.)
City officials are considering two locations for the fitness zone in South Park. One would be on the east side of Massachusetts Street. Specifically, it would be in the northeast corner of the park, near the entrance to the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. (That might be good. Perhaps a police officer could lend me a billy club to dissuade the crowds of Spandex admirers.) The other location is on the west side of Massachusetts Street. It would be just south of the existing playground area in the park.
The city is applying for the grant money through the Kansas Health Foundation. My understanding is that the grant doesn't require any matching funds from the city, so local costs are expected to be minimal for the project.
City officials actually were planning to apply for the grant last year, but something odd happened. When the city sought to apply for the grant in September some local nonprofit leaders, including Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, asked the commission to not apply for the grant because they didn't want other local nonprofits having to compete against the city's application for grant funds. Commissioners reluctantly agreed to hold off on the application last year, but no such concerns were raised this time around. Commissioners approved the grant application earlier this week.
The city should find out whether it has won the funds in the next several weeks.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If walking on a good, old-fashioned trail is more your style of outdoor exercise, you'll soon have a new option. Work is underway on the trail that will surround the small lake that is on the property of the former VFW location in the Pinckney neighborhood. As we have reported, the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center wants to donate the lake property to the city for use as a park, which will be named after the late and popular Bert Nash leader Sandra Shaw. John McGrew's group, Outside for a Better Inside, has raised grant money and private funds to build the trail.
Parks and recreation leaders confirmed work has begun on the trail, and could be completed by early April. In addition to the trail, parks and recreation leaders said McGrew has reached out to Westar Energy's community service team, and it looks like the Westar group is going to build a gazebo that would overlook the lake.
Once the trail work is completed, the city will officially take ownership of the property and begin maintaining it as a park. Parks and Recreation leader Ernie Shaw said the city then will start looking at what improvements it may want to make in future years. Among the possibilities, Shaw said, are an enclosed shelter that could be used for receptions and signs that document the history of the area. The site previously was home to a brick plant that produced many of the bricks for the city's streets, and it also served as a private zoo at one point.
If you are confused about where the property is, you will access the site along West Second Street, right behind the city's water treatment plant near Burcham Park. The trail will make a big loop around the back edge of the lake and end up where Maine Street dead ends just north of Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
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Leader of Alvamar says speculation of pending sale of club and golf course incorrect; preparations for Final Four begin to show up around town
When it comes to golf and rumors, I have been involved in several, and I'm proud to say I have never once been convicted of criminal damage to property. (Best golf tip I ever received: Never use a monogrammed golf ball.) So, I thought I should do my part to clear up a rumor floating around about Alvamar Golf & Country Club. A sale is not imminent, and neither is a plan that would eliminate nine holes of the 36-hole complex in West Lawrence.
"There is a lot of speculation about what people think they could do with Alvamar and some infill development," said Bob Johnson, chairman of the board of directors of Alvamar Inc. "But I know there are not plans to do away with even one of the 36 holes of golf that we have out there."
Johnson said rumors that a local developer is close to purchasing the country club and golf course also aren't true. When asked whether such a deal had been put on the back burner, Johnson said, "it is not even in the kitchen."
But it is no secret that the course and club have been available for purchase, by the right buyer. Johnson said that is still the case, mainly because the approximately 100 shareholders of Alvamar Inc. are generally in retirement age and believe a transition needs to be made.
"We are interested in selling, but we are equally interested in making sure the new ownership is committed to the community and the university," Johnson said.
Alvamar's country club course is home base for KU's golf program.
Johnson didn't provide any insight into why speculation about Alvamar's future has increased lately. For what it is worth, the speculation I had heard was connected to the talk going around town about convention centers and potential partnerships with Kansas University.
"I can tell you that we're not any closer or any more active on the sale front than we have been in the last year or so," Johnson said. "Nobody is close to buying it."
Johnson also made a point to note that Alvamar Inc., which in addition to owning the country club also owns significant amounts of raw ground in West Lawrence, doesn't need to sell the course for financial reasons. Johnson said the market for development ground is clearly rebounding in Lawrence, and Alvamar Inc.'s financial position is strong.
In other news and notes from around town:
• With KU ready to play its first Big 12 tourney game today, we are officially in March Madness. While the games are just getting started, the planning for the ultimate madness — if KU reaches the Final Four — is well underway. As they have in past years, city commissioners have approved an ordinance creating special rules for glass bottles and containers in the downtown area during the Elite Eight and Final Four time periods of the NCAA tournament.
From Saturday, March 29 to Monday March 31, anyone caught with a glass bottle or other glass container on downtown streets or sidewalks will be subject to a $100 fine. That's the weekend teams will play in the Elite Eight and punch their ticket to the Final Four with a victory. Such victories by the Jayhawks have been known to cause thousands of people to flood downtown for a massive street party. The same regulations will be in place the following week from Saturday April 5 to Tuesday April 8, which is when the Final Four and National Championship game will be held.
Walking around with a beer bottle on Massachusetts Street generally subjects you to a possible open container violation. But honestly, during Final Four celebrations, the open container violations often are too many to keep up with. But city officials do work hard to limit glass containers because of the safety hazards they can create. Many bars and restaurants often help out by serving even bottled beer in plastic cups during the time period.
The other March Madness preparation that happens around this time is that T-shirt companies start staking out their location for tents that will sell KU Final Four t-shirts. Lawrence-based Sun Creation has filed permits for 2300 Louisiana, which is the parking lot of Checkers, and 601 Kasold Drive, which is the Westlake Hardware parking lot. More will follow, if KU's fortunes are good.
Now, all we need is some vendor who is selling magic Joel Embid Back Cream. We'll let you set up anywhere you want.
• After you get done watching KU vs Oklahoma State, which tips off at 2 p.m. today, come over for a fun evening of the Lawrence City Commission and rental licensing discussions. You don't even need to take off your Crimson and Blue face paint, your Beak 'Em Hawks house slippers, and that giant Jayhawk tail feather. (I assume we're all wearing that again this year.) Commissioners will host a pubic information session from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Lawrence High School cafeteria, 1901 Louisiana.
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You know what they say about a picture: It probably will get you fired if it ends up on Facebook. (Wait, that's not the saying.) Regardless, take a look at these pictures below, and you'll start to get a sense of just how big of a change is proposed for the area across from KU's Memorial Stadium.
As we've reported several times, plans have been filed for a new five-story apartment and retail building at 1101 Indiana St., which currently is the home of the Berkeley Flats Apartments complex. Plans call for about 175 apartment units and about 11,000 square feet of retail development.
As we briefly reported last night, city commissioners unanimously approved the rezoning and preliminary development plan for the project. As part of that discussion, commissioners were shown several renderings that give you an idea of just how big of a change to the streetscape is on the way.
"The building design is reminiscent of a downtown," said Jim Heffernan, a leader with the Chicago-based student housing firm HERE LLC. "We think it will look similar to what a downtown in the 1950s would look like."
But as the pictures show, there will be a few amenities that weren't common in the 1950s. Plans call for not only a rooftop pool, but also an entire rooftop garden. The project proposes to have about 58,000 square feet of open and green space, including the rooftop garden and two interior courtyards.
Heffernan told commissioners the amenities are part of a plan to tap into a new market for student housing.
"Lawrence does not really have what we would consider A-plus student housing," Heffernan said. "We would be the first to the market, and we think this location is perfect for it. Part of bringing the best and the brightest to a university is having world-class housing, and this will bring that to the university."
In addition to the courtyards and rooftop gardens, the project will feature a 592-space, underground, automated parking garage system that will eliminate the need for residents to enter a parking garage to retrieve their vehicles. An automated system of lifts and tracks parks and retrieves the vehicles while residents wait in a secured lobby.
The project also will feature an extensive security system, live-work spaces, and retail space that is connected to the building. Plans call for retail along both Mississippi and Indiana streets.
Now that the zoning has been approved, Heffernan said his company will start arranging financing for the project. The company has had luck in finding financing for at least one other similar project. Work is underway on a 26-story student housing project near the University of Illinois, Heffernan said.
He said the company hopes to begin construction by the end of this year. The project is expected to take about 18 months to build. As we've previously reported, though, commissioners are likely to receive a request for financial incentives for the project. Heffernan confirmed that the company is likely to file an application with the city in the next few weeks. He said a 95 percent property tax rebate through the Neighborhood Revitalization Act is a possibility, but the company was still reviewing its options. Commissioners, of course, will have to approve any type of incentive package.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The big apartment project has a twist to it that has been played out many times in sitcoms over the decades: Giant project builds around a single house. If you have ever studied the current Berkeley Flats apartment complex, you may have noticed that the apartment complex has built up around an old single family home at 1115 Indiana St.
The property's owner, Georgia Bell, has lived in the house for more than 60 years. She didn't sell the property when Berkeley Flats came knocking decades ago, and, thus far, she hasn't sold to the Chicago-based company behind this latest proposal.
According to her son, Norman Bell, Georgia is 91 years old. For years there has been an apparently unwritten understanding that she could drive through the parking lot of Berkeley Flats to access the back door of her home. But with the new development, there will be no parking lot to drive through. It will be covered by a multistory building. City officials have searched, but there is no easement on file for the property. That leaves Bell's only access to the property off Indiana Street. Because of the steep slope, there is a set of stairs that leads from the street to her house. Norman said he did not think his mother could navigate those stairs.
That obviously creates a bad situation, and city commissioners at their meeting last night expressed a lot of concern for Ms. Bell.
"She has the right to be there and we wouldn't try to do anything to make her move," City Commissioner Bob Schumm said. "But I'm afraid she is not going to be very happy there."
Heffernan said his company very much would like to purchase the property, and has had multiple discussions with Ms. Bell. He even took the unusual step of telling commissioners how much the company has offered Ms. Bell for the property: $600,000. The property currently is appraised for taxation purposes at about $93,000.
But Heffernan also told commissioners the property is becoming less valuable to the company by the day. Once construction begins, it will be too late to change any design plans, and thus the only use for the property would be as open space.
Norman Bell attended last night's meeting and told commissioners he is advising his mother to get an attorney and sell the property. But he also noted that she is "pretty independent." The city manager, the city's planning director and other city officials have all had conversations with Ms. Bell to make sure she understands the scale of the proposed project and the amount of disruption it is likely to cause to her residence. But City Manager David Corliss said the city is committed to protecting her rights under the law, if she decides to stay.
City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, though, seemed to say what was on a lot of people's minds when he urged Norman to really get his mother to consider the company's purchase officer.
"She is getting a heck of a deal at $600,000," Farmer said. "I don't think the company is trying to screw her over at all."
To that, Norman said he agreed. We'll see how it plays itself out.
When I was courting my lovely wife, I quickly realized that a dinner at Carlos O'Kelly's Mexican restaurant worked even better than roses for getting out of a jam. In other words, we ate there a lot. The Suiza con Pollo — a brick of cream cheese wrapped in a burrito with some chicken — saved me many of times.
Well, those are just memories now. According to a company spokesman and a sign on the door, the Carlos O'Kelly's Mexican restaurant at 707 W. 23rd St. has closed.
I got a phone call at the house last night giving me a tip about the closing, and I was a bit apprehensive to pass the news on to my wife. But she took it pretty well. I think I heard her whisper "Vaya con Dios, Suiza con Pollo." And then I think she soaked in a vat of cheese sauce.
The closing does end a longtime restaurant in Lawrence. The restaurant had been in Lawrence for nearly 26 years. The restaurant is a regional chain that dates back to 1981. A company spokesman told me this morning that 17 restaurants were closed yesterday. The only two in Kansas were in Lawrence and Hays. The company now has 22 locations in six states. The closest to Lawrence is in Topeka. Gift cards can be redeemed at that location or any other Carlos O'Kelly. Or, the spokesman said, the company will offer a refund. Customers need to call 316-978-9509 to inquire about the refund.
The Mexican restaurant industry has become pretty competitive in Lawrence over the past several years. Dave Phillips, director of restaurant marketing for the Wichita-based chain, told me the decision to close the stores came down to economics. But in Lawrence, he said, it wasn't just about the increased amount of competition.
"When we built nearly 30 years ago, we built on the east side of town, which we thought was an intelligent choice," Phillips said. "We thought the town was more likely to grow toward Kansas City than toward Topeka. But we were wrong. The volume of business just hasn't been enough."
But Carlos O'Kelly's hung in there well, which doesn't surprise me. (I never knew the complete backstory on the namesake Carlos O'Kelly, but with that unique Mexican/Irish heritage, I always figured he was tough. You try wearing a green sombrero on St. Patrick's Day, muchacho.)
The closing does leave a large and pretty visible location along 23rd Street vacant. According to property records at the Douglas County courthouse, the Lawrence location is owned by the Rolph family, which is the founder and operator of Carols O'Kelly's. Phillips said there were no plans yet to fill the location.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps some of you saw national news stories yesterday about a Supreme Court ruling that puts in jeopardy thousands of miles of rail-trails across the country. I spent quite a bit of time checking on that yesterday, but it appears the ruling won't impact any rail-trails in Lawrence or the state. Lawrence has both the Burroughs Creek Trail and the Haskell Rail-Trail that are built on railroad easements.
But Lawrence resident Clark Coan, an officer for both the Sunflower Rail-Trails Conservancy and the Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy, said the ruling only applies to federally-granted rail corridors, which most typically are in places like national forests and such. Neither of the Lawrence trails fall into that category, nor does the nearby Prairie Spirit Trail, which begins in Ottawa.
Toni Wheeler, the city's attorney, said she was still reviewing the Supreme Court decision, but does not expect it to have an impact on the Lawrence trails.
• I would perhaps consider allowing a trail to be built in my backyard, on the condition that it sufficiently covers the dandelions. As spring nears, so does weed season, and the City Commission at its meeting tonight will consider a change to the city's weed ordinance.
Commissioners are being asked to approve an increase in the fee the city charges when it must go and mow a person's yard because it is in violation of the city's weed ordinance. Staff members are proposing a $75 administrative fee, up from $25.
The administrative fee hasn't been raised in more than $20 years, and staff members are expressing a concern that it actually may be cheaper for some property owners to pay the current administrative fee, plus the $35 per hour that a city contractor charges for mowing, than it would be for the property owner to hire a firm to mow the lawn.
In case you are wondering, the city's weed ordinance generally comes into play when weeds or yard grasses are allowed to grow more than 12 inches in height.
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Proposed ecological observation station may create concerns for airport; city in running for more than $500,000 in arts grant
Forget global warming. Forget global cooling. Forget all these pending ecological disasters. We've had one happen right here and now. Somehow, an hour of our weekend disappeared, and it created cataclysmic results this morning for my ecosystem: a smashed alarm clock, grumpy kids and a tube of something that certainly wasn't toothpaste.
I'm not sure a proposed project north of Lawrence is going to study how an hour of our weekend was stolen from us, but it does plan to make a host of other ecological observations. It also may spark a round of protest from local leaders.
Plans have been filed with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department for an ecological observatory tower on a portion of the Kansas University Field Station property, which is in the hills just north and east of the Lawrence Municipal Airport.
That's an important fact because airport leaders are expressing concern over the 136-foot tall tower that would be built as part of the project. They are worried, among other things, that the tower may occasionally make it difficult for the LifeStar helicopter based at the airport to fly.
The plans have been filed by NEON Inc., which is a Boulder, Colo.-based company that plans to build about 20 of these stations across the country as part of a project to "understand and forecast the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species," according to the application on file at City Hall.
The observatory, which will include the tower and a host of soil sensors, is expected to be in use for about 10 to 12 years, according to the application.
That's assuming that it gets approved for construction. Airport leaders already have begun to file objections to the project because it could cause the Federal Aviation Administration to change a key set of rules for the airport.
Richard Haig, the chair of the city's Aviation Advisory Board, told me the tower would be close enough to the airport that the FAA likely would change the airport's visibility requirements. Currently, aircraft can take off and land at the airport if there is at least 1.5 miles of visibility. With the tower, however, the new standard likely would be 2 miles of visibility, Haig said.
Haig said the LifeStar air ambulance service based at the airport is the entity that most likely would be affected by the new rules. The airport is located in the valley of the Kansas River, which makes it susceptible to periods of ground fog. Currently, as long as there is still 1.5 miles of visibility, the helicopter can take off in the fog, Haig said. If the rules are changed, the helicopter could not take off if there were less than 2 miles of visibility.
it is a little tough to predict how often this would be an issue, but Haig said it likely would ground the LifeStar service several times per year. Given the nature of its business, any time a LifeStar helicopter can't fly, the ramifications could be serious.
The city has filed an objection with the FAA about the tower, but Haig said he recently was notified that its objection was received past the comment deadline. The project, however, must still win land-use approvals from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the Douglas County Commission. So, airport leaders likely will have another chance to speak against the tower.
Members of the scientific community, however, also may speak up in favor of the project. The observatory may produce some useful information for local researchers. According to the application, the data collected at the station will be available to the general public through an online portal.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The Lawrence Arts Center has cleared one hurdle in its quest to win a $500,000 grant that would bring more public art to the area. The Arts Center has been notified that it is one of 97 finalists for an ArtPlace America grant. Yes, with 96 other projects in the running, Lawrence still has some work to do. But more than 1,200 projects had expressed an interest in the grant, so Lawrence survived one big cut.
The project up for consideration is called Free State Connection: The Ninth Street Corridor Project. The project would involve several elements to improve Ninth Street from downtown to the new Warehouse Arts District in East Lawrence. For those of you who have forgotten, that's the area near Ninth and Delaware streets that includes the Poehler Lofts, Cider Gallery and several artist studios.
The $500,000 would be used to line the corridor with pieces of public art, and would serve as a model for how Lawrence could incorporate more art into its public projects. The city also would play a role in the project by making improvements to the street, sidewalks, lighting and other such infrastructure.
Look for more details on the project by mid-April, which is when the Arts Center has to submit a more detailed budget as part of the grant application.
• Finding grant money to do arts and culture stuff is a priority at Lawrence City Hall these days. (The use of words like "stuff" is why I don't have a career as a grant writer, by the way.) One place city leaders are now looking is just down the street to the Douglas County Courthouse. The city is applying for a $110,000 grant from the Douglas County Natural & Cultural Heritage Grant Program.
The money would be used to hire a "professional urban planning facilitator," who will host several meetings and identify "natural, cultural and historic sites" within the new Lawrence Cultural District. That district is basically the downtown area and large parts of East Lawrence.
Once interesting sites are identified, the city then will work to connect the sites through signs, marketing materials, a smartphone app, and other aspects that would make it easy people to visit all the sites.
City commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday will consider authorizing the grant application.
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Compton makes proposal for downtown mural; KU pulls plug on popular downtown shot put event; a tax rebate for apartment project looming
A downtown mural, a shot put and possibly a few million dollars in taxpayer-funded incentives: That's either one really strange pre-St. Patrick's Day party, or else it is the current stew of issues brewing at Lawrence City Hall.
Indeed, there are several interesting issues slated for the Lawrence City Commission's meeting next week. Here's a look:
• A development group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton was given until April 8 to provide an update on how his group could save a prominent downtown mural that is on the site of a planned multistory apartment building.
Well, Compton said he didn't need until April 8 to spell out the situation. He has sent a letter to city officials saying it will be impossible to allow the wall that houses the mural to remain standing during the construction project at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
As part of the construction of the seven-story apartment building, crews will dig a hole more than 30-feet deep to accommodate an underground parking garage. Digging that deep hole and leaving the wall in place aren't compatible, Compton said.
But Compton said he's willing to provide up to $20,000 to split the existing wall into sections and have it moved to another location. If that isn't deemed acceptable, he said he also would commission Lawrence artist Dave Loewenstein to recreate the mural on a designated space on the proposed building. The mural, however, would be significantly smaller than it is today.
I haven't had a chance yet to talk with supporters of the mural to determine whether any of Compton's proposals seem like a workable solution. I'll let you know when I hear back on that. City commissioners are scheduled to discuss Compton's letter at their meeting on Tuesday.
"I hope the commission agrees that we have made reasonable offers to resolve the issue," Compton wrote.
The city already has given the bulk of the approvals needed for the seven-story apartment building, which will be built on the site of the former Black Hills Energy headquarters. The city, however, must still approve a site plan for the project. It is unclear how much authority the city has to insist on preserving the mural as part of the site plan. The more important approval for the project is more than $4 million in tax increment financing incentives for the building. The city has given preliminary approval for the incentives, but final approval isn't expected to come until April. Those incentives are completely discretionary on the part of the city. City commissioners, though, have been big supporters of the proposed apartment project and the idea of new residents living in downtown. So, I wouldn't expect this mural issue to put the project in any jeopardy, but it will be interesting to see what tack commissioners take on this.
• Over the past few years, the intersection of Eighth and New Hampshire streets has turned into an odd scene even by downtown Lawrence standards: World-class athletes have used the intersection to conduct a shot put competition.
It has been part of the Kansas Relays, and when the weather has cooperated, it has been a boon to downtown. Some of the events have brought about 3,000 people to downtown for the competition and a street festival afterward.
But this year's event has an unexpected complication: The Kansas University athletics department is pulling all financial support for the downtown shot put event, according Jim Marchiony, a spokesman for KU Athletics. In fact, the KU Relays this year won't have any professional athletes. Marchiony said the decision was made for budgetary reasons. He estimated the Relays previously spent about $200,000 a year related to bringing in professional athletes to compete.
"It is a significant amount of money," Marchiony said. "It speaks to fiscal responsibility."
KU Athletics has an annual budget of about $70 million, Marchiony said.
Bob Sanner, the sports marketing manager for the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau told me the CVB plans to keep the event alive. But it needs to raise $60,000 in sponsorship money to pay for it. A bulk of that is to pay appearance fees for eight to 10 professional shot putters to compete. The professional athletes have been a big draw to past events. Many times the event featured multiple athletes ranked in the top 10 in the world. Reece Hoffa, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, has been a frequent competitor at the event.
Marchiony said KU's decision to pull out of the downtown event was in no way a reflection of the event. He said the shot put competition was viewed to be a success. He said KU likely will revisit the issue of having professional athletes compete at the Relays in future years. But at the moment, he said budget issues won't allow it.
The timing of KU's decision to cut back on the relays likely will create some questions. KU is making a major investment in its track and field program, but so too are city taxpayers. The new Rock Chalk Park sports complex will include a world-class track and field stadium, among other facilities. In case you have forgotten, the city is paying for more than $10 million worth of roads, parking lots, sewer lines and other infrastructure to support the track and field stadiums and the other facilities.
It is a bit difficult to put into context the amount of financial incentive city taxpayers are providing to the project because certainly some of the infrastructure being built at Rock Chalk Park will support the city's new recreation center at Rock Chalk Park. But there is an incentive being provided to KU. When the project was first proposed, it was projected that the city and the university (and its private partner Bliss Sports) would somehow split the costs for the infrastructure needed at the park.
But when the final development agreements were signed, city taxpayers had agreed to pay for about $10 million in infrastructure costs, Bill Self's charitable foundation had agreed to pay for up to $2 million in infrastructure costs, and KU and its private partner are not expected to pay for any of the roads, sewers and other infrastructure needed to support the track and field stadium and other facilities.
On Friday, Marchiony said taxpayer support for the track and field stadium shouldn't be a factor in the athletics department deciding whether to support the downtown event.
"I don't see a connection," Marchiony said. "I think Rock Chalk Park will be a tremendous facility that for years will benefit the Lawrence community and the area. That will happen."
As for the downtown event, Sanner is approaching private businesses and other groups to provide the funding for the event. He said he has raised about $30,000 so far. He doesn't plan to ask the city of Lawrence to donate money to the event. The city, however, as it has done in past years is being asked to donate its time to set up and tear down the shot put venue.
If approved, the event would take place on April 18, which is the Friday of the Kansas Relays, but the event would not be an official part of the Relays.
• While we're on the topic of incentives, it looks like city commissioners will have another request for a property tax break to consider. This one is still developing, but there is word that the large multistory apartment complex proposed for a site across the street from KU's Memorial Stadium has an interest in a property tax rebate.
An application hasn't yet been filed, but City Manager David Corliss said the Chicago-based development group has indicated it will seek a 95 percent property tax rebate through the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. In the meantime, the rezoning for the project, which will include a five-story building with about 175 apartments and some retail space, will be up for approval at Tuesday's City Commission meeting.
When the tax rebate request comes, commissioners will have an interesting decision to make. The city is poised to give tax incentives to an apartment project — the one at Ninth and New Hampshire mentioned above. But that is in downtown, and the idea of bringing new residents to downtown has been a big part of that incentive request.
Whether the city wants to start offering tax incentives for apartment projects in other parts of the community will be an interesting discussion.
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There is no denying that Lawrence is extremely health conscious. It has long been proven that chips and salsa probably is the healthiest dish you could ever hope to eat. You can eat as much as you want because it is entirely made of vegetables. (They're called CORN chips, people.) It is clear Lawrence agrees with me, because, forget Rome, in this town all roads lead to a Mexican restaurant.
West Lawrence residents now have a closer health fix. El Sol Mexican restaurant has opened in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. It occupies the spot where El Mezcal Mexican restaurant used to be.
El Sol is owned by the same group that operates Tres Mexicanos at 23rd and Harper in eastern Lawrence. The menus are similar, but not identical.
"This gets us in the east and the west," said Luis Ojeda, manager for El Sol.
Ojeda said he thought West Lawrence, especially near the Bob Billings and Wakarusa intersections, was generally lacking not in Mexican cuisine but eateries in general. In case you haven't heard, Bambino's, the one other restaurant at the intersection, has closed. No word yet on what may go into that spot, but the fixtures were being moved out on Wednesday. That spot has gone through a few restaurants in the last several years. I remember Tanner's sports bar, Zig & Mac's, Bambino's Italian restaurant, and I may be forgetting one. It will be interesting, though, to see how much business picks up for that shopping center once the Bob Billings Parkway and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange opens. The $17 million interchange project is supposed to open in 2016. When it does, Bob Billings Parkway will become a new gateway onto the KU campus, which may boost the commercial prospects along the corridor.
As for El Sol, its ownership group is a longtime player in the Mexican restaurant business. In addition to Tres Mexicanos, the company also has an El Sol restaurant in Ottawa. Ojeda said the company's owners got their start with the longtime Topeka Mexican restaurant Tacos El Sol, which has been in business since 1998.
Hours for El Sol are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Now, I have to get back to being healthy, although some Richard Simmons type (meaning he was very hairy) has alerted me that corn is a grain, not a vegetable, when harvested to make chips. One, that sounds like voodoo to me. And two, if corn chips aren't healthy, why is the leading brand named Tostitos? I'm almost certain that is the Spanish word for healthy.
In other news and notes around town:
• The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce has provided an update on its process for finding a new president and CEO for the organization. The group hasn't set a timeline for the process to unfold but, as expected, Chief Operating Officer Bonnie Lowe will handle all CEO duties while the search is underway. As we previously reported, Lawrence banker and former chamber chair Doug Gaumer will lead the search committee. According to the update, membership on that committee hasn't been finalized. It is, however, expected to include some community officials — both the city and the county provide funding to the chamber — in addition to including chamber board members.
As for timing, it doesn't look like the search process will move at a real quick pace. The chamber is in a bit of a different position than it has been in past searches. Lowe's position of chief operating officer is a fairly new one for the chamber. She has been handling some of the duties related to day-to-day operations of the organization that previously were handled by the CEO. Lowe, in case you have forgotten, is a former Lawrence bank president and former Lawrence mayor. She brings a good understanding of the community to the position.
I think search committee members will spend some time figuring out exactly how they want to define the chamber CEO position. During the search process that brought departing CEO Greg Williams to town, the chamber put a high priority on finding someone with a strong background in economic development. They really were looking for someone who had extensive contacts with site selectors and others who make decisions about where projects are going to be located. By all accounts, Williams brought that to the table. As we reported last week, Williams is resigning, effective March 14, to move back to Springfield, Mo., where his wife and children had remained.
I think the search for a new CEO also comes at an interesting time. The city and county are updating Horizon 2020, their long-range plan. One chapter is on economic development. It is possible that there could be serious discussion about significantly revising that chapter. Some of that talk may center on creating some measurable goals for the community. For example, how many jobs do we expect to have in Douglas County ten years from now? What do we expect our local gross domestic product to be 10 years from now? What do we expect our average household income to be? What about retail sales per capita? There are a host of others as well.
We'll see whether the community uses this time period to take stock of itself in those areas. I'll do my part in the near future to write an article that details some of those numbers.
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All-natural hamburger restaurant to go into former Chutney’s space downtown; future of Lawrence RadioShacks uncertain
You have heard of Wi-Fi. (I know I have. It takes a good part of my morning to get the RadioShack Tandy 1000 hooked up to it.) And perhaps you even have a few brain cells that survived the 1970s and still remember the phrase Hi-Fi. But now there is something called BurgerFi?
Indeed there is, and Lawrence hamburger lovers will get a chance to check it out by midspring. The Florida-based restaurant chain BurgerFi has plans to open at 918 Massachusetts St. in the space that formerly was occupied by Chutney's.
Franchise owners Josh and Michelle Kurzban believe Lawrence will take to the chain's philosophy of producing tasty hamburgers in an all-natural way.
"We figure that college students like eating hamburgers, and if they can eat them from a source that is natural, that is going to resonate well with them," Kurzban said.
The restaurant makes all of its hamburgers out of free-range, hormone-free, never frozen Angus beef. But the natural theme doesn't stop there. The restaurant carries a line of ice cream, concrete desserts that are made with natural sugar cane instead of high fructose corn syrup. Even the furniture gets in on the act. The plastic chairs are made from recycled Coke bottles.
As for the actual hamburgers, the menu indicates a variety. In addition to the standard hamburger and cheeseburger, there also is something called the Breakfast All Day Burger. It includes hickory bacon drizzled with maple syrup, a fried egg and hashbrowns. (I can think of nothing more natural than me sitting in front of the Tandy, playing a game of Turtle Racer and eating three or four of those hamburgers.)
Also on the menu: a brisket burger, made from 28-day, dry-aged ground brisket; five different styles of hot dogs, hand-cut fries that can be ordered regular, well-done or limp; tempura, beer-battered onion rings; and a host of craft beers and wines.
The restaurant also has signed a marketing deal with the Sporting KC soccer club, which means the restaurant plans to have some team events at the Lawrence location, and also at a Leawood location that is scheduled to open this spring.
BurgerFi, which takes its name from the founder's vision of the "burgerfication of the nation," has 36 restaurants open currently, but plans to have 75 by the end of 2014. The Leawood and Lawrence locations are the first for the company in this region.
It's entry into the market will continue a trend of restaurants that build their menu around a higher quality hamburger. There's Dempsey's and The Burger Stand, which were among the first to bring the idea to town. Outside of downtown, there's everything from Five Guys, Burgers by Biggs, Culver's, Freddy's, and probably several others that I'm just not thinking of at the moment.
But now I can look them up. I think the Tandy is finally connected. Of course, I don't have time now. I have to get the wheels put on the Tandy. I don't care what anybody says: This trend toward mobile is a real pain in the rear.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps you noticed that I mentioned something about RadioShack. Well, that company is producing news. The retailer announced yesterday that it will be closing up to 1,100 of its approximately 5,200 stores. RadioShack has several locations in Lawrence, but it is not known yet whether they are among the stores slated to close. The company hasn't yet released a list of the specific store closings. (I understand that. It takes my dot matrix a long time to print a list that long.) No, USA Today reports the company will have to have discussions with its landlords and lenders before it can finalize a list of store closings. So, I'll keep an ear open.
• Here's another reminder that we're hosting a chat with Lawrence City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer to discuss the latest proposal to create a rental licensing and inspection program in the city. The chat is set for 11 a.m. on Thursday at LJWorld.com. But you can submit questions now by clicking here.
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Real estate sales, home building off to decent start in 2014; new numbers about county’s housing values, tax base released
Perhaps you are like me, and this winter weather has you in the market for a very specific type of home: one with a heated driveway and sidewalks. (Or I would even settle for one equipped with a 10-year old son who doesn't feel faint at the sight of a snow shovel.)
I'm not sure any of those types of homes have sold recently, but the latest series of real estate and building reports indicate that 2014 got off to a decent start for home builders and real estate agents.
Here's a look at a few reports:
• Although January is one of the slower months for local real estate agents, home sales increased by a little more than 10 percent, compared with January 2013 totals, according to a new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. Home sales totaled 41 for the month, including five sales for newly constructed homes. The most important number of the report, however, may be the number of homes on the market. Active listings in Lawrence are down 320 homes, which is a decline from 380 in January 2013 and 460 from January 2012. That's a positive sign for the market. More homes are selling, but if the number of listings doesn't move upward, look for prices to rise.
• Lawrence home builders took out permits for nine new homes in January, compared with eight in January 2013. January obviously isn't a big month for starting new home construction, but, for what it is worth, the nine is the highest January total in at least the last five years. The five-year average for January home starts is 5.4 new homes. (Rumor has it, the guy who lived in the 0.4 of a home, spent all his money on heated sidewalks.)
• When it comes to numbers, the one homeowners usually care most about should be arriving in the mailbox at any moment. The Douglas County Appraiser's Office sent out change of value notices on Friday. The notices tell homeowners how much the appraiser's office thinks their property is worth. That number, of course, is key in determining how much a homeowner pays in property taxes. I haven't yet got an update from the appraiser on what most homeowners should expect. When I get that information, I'll pass it along. But his most recent report did include some other interesting numbers:
— The total value of real estate in Douglas County is on the rise. Total assessed valuation — that's the taxable value, not the fair market value — was $1.04 billion dollars on Jan. 1. That's up 2.2 percent from Jan. 1, 2013. Appraiser Steve Miles said most of the increase was due to new construction and an increase in the value of agricultural land in the county. If that number holds — it generally goes down a bit as people appeal their tax values — it will be good news for local governments who use the tax base to help build their budgets.
— The median value of all residential property in the county — excluding big apartment complexes — was $161,700 in 2014. That's up 2.9 percent from the $157,000 median in 2013. The median value had declined in 2013, 2012 and 2009. The report shows that median values still have a ways to climb before they reach the levels seen during the housing boom. In 2008, the median value of residential property in the county was $164,900.
— The report provides a median residential value for each of the four communities in the county, plus the rural area. Those values: Baldwin City, $140,000, up 5.5 percent; Eudora, $137,900, up 9 percent; Lecompton, up $109,860, up 30.8 percent; Lawrence, $160,200, up 0.3 percent; $199,800, up 30.2 percent.
— Housing, of course, is just one part of the county's real estate tax base. Commercial real estate, agricultural land and a few other miscellaneous categories also make up the tax base. But residential property is certainly the giant among the bunch, which has been a bit of a concern to economic development leaders for a long time. The idea is that commercial real estate produces more jobs and pays a higher tax rate. So, having more commercial, job-producing real estate in the community has been a goal.
Well, I've done some figuring. (It wasn't pretty. Those were really big numbers, so I had to call on my neighbors to take off their shoes as well.) Regardless, here's a look: In 2014, residential property made up 68.5 percent of the tax base compared with 68.1 percent in 2013. Commercial real estate made up 25.6 percent in 2014 compared with 25.7 percent in 2013. So, we didn't go in the right direction.
Just for fun, I also went back to 2004 to see how the numbers have changed. In 2004, residential made up 67 percent of the tax base and commercial made up 25.9 percent. These really are big numbers, so you shouldn't expect big swings. But it is telling that for an entire decade we lost ground on the goal of strengthening our commercial tax base.
In other news around town:
• Maybe all these numbers have made you want to be a renter. If so, you might have some questions about the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. Whether you are a renter, a landlord or just an interested resident, we want your questions about the program. City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer will participate in an online chat at 11 a.m. Thursday. Click here to submit some questions in advance.
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Kief’s Audio/Video plans to downsize as longtime owner retires; city’s bus service tops 1 million riders for year
Look for some changes at one of Lawrence's longer running retail operations. John Kiefer, the owner/operator of Kief's Audio/Video on south Iowa Street, is in the process of retiring after 54 years in the business.
Both Kiefer and his son, Rob Kiefer, tell me that they expect Kief's to downsize in the process.
"I don't know all the changes that will take place yet, but we'll definitely be downsizing," said Rob, who will take over management of the business. "We need to adapt not only to the current economy but just the buying habits of the public when it comes to buying electronics."
Rob said he is considering focusing the business on designing and installing custom entertainment systems, rather than having a large showroom floor for walk-in retail customers. But he said he is still in discussions with several of the business' dealers before he makes any final decisions.
The store, 2429 Iowa St., is beginning an inventory reduction sale to prepare for the eventual downsizing, Rob said.
As for John, he said that at 82 years old it is simply time to retire. Kiefer has seen everything from eight-track tapes to 3-D televisions come on the market during his 54 years in the business. The store spent its first 18 years in business at The Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana streets. Then it moved to 25th and Iowa Streets and finally to its current location, about a block south of the busy 23rd and Iowa intersection.
John has seen a lot of changes in the Lawrence retail world over the last half century and has met a few interesting people too. I'm hoping to feature him in a Lawhorn's Lawrence column here in the near future.
I also plan to keep an eye on the future of the Kief's property. The store plans to maintain some sort of presence on the site, but the downsizing will open up some space for redevelopment. The business has about 11,000 square feet of retail space that John owns.
"I've had people look at it for a restaurant site because we have fantastic visibility from the street and are pretty close to the campus," Kiefer said. "I'm at the point that if someone wants to put in X, Y, or Z business, I will customize the space for them. I'm just hoping for a good quality tenant that likes to pay its bills."
It also will be interesting to see if even larger redevelopment plans get talked about for the area. Kiefer, along with a business partner, also owns the retail/restaurant space directly south of Kief's. Plus, the partnership owns a significant amount of the parking lot that serves the area.
South Iowa Street has become a hot real estate play of late. As we've reported, the Holiday Plaza Shopping Center, which at 25th and Iowa streets is adjacent to the property that Kiefer and his partner own, has recently sold. So too has the Tower Plaza Shopping Center, which has First Watch and a host of other businesses. It is basically just a block from the Kief's location. Plans also have been filed for a new restaurant (documents indicate a Buffalo Wild Wings) and retail development on the northeast corner of 27th and Iowa Street.
The redevelopment of the former Sears building at the southwest corner of 27th and Iowa is spurring a lot of the interest in the south Iowa Street corridor. The construction of a Menards home improvement center just east of 31st and Iowa also has helped.
But there also may be one other potential development that could affect the area greatly. People certainly are beginning to wonder what KU has planned for the northwest corner of 23rd and Iowa streets. It largely is a series of outdoor soccer and recreation fields. A little farther to the west, it houses the university's relatively new park and ride lot.
But, as we've reported, KU is in the process of developing a new master plan for its campus. Most folks are betting that the master plan process won't end up calling for one of the busier intersections in the city to house a series of soccer fields. There's been talk of a convention/conference center at the site. There's been talk of the corner housing a new public-private research park. There's probably been lots of other talk that I haven't heard about. A KU official told me recently that a new draft of the master plan should be released soon.
If KU sends a signal that it plans to do something significant at the northwest corner of 23rd and Iowa, the private development community may decide to do a significant redevelopment of the southwest corner of the intersection. There have been concept plans in the past that have shown a redevelopment of the entire area from 23rd Street to 25th Street. I haven't heard anything that indicates such a deal is imminent, but I suspect it is at least getting some consideration in certain circles.
UPDATE: I got word today that KU has scheduled a public forum to discuss the campus master plan. It is set for 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on March 14 at Spooner Hall on KU's main campus.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Maybe you were too busy listening to old eight-track from Kief's Audio/Video to notice, but a city department reached a milestone in 2013. The city's public transit service had annual ridership above the 1 million passenger mark for the first time in its history.
The T, the name for the city's fixed-route bus service, had ridership of 1,063,128 passengers in 2013. That's quite a turnaround from just a few years ago. From 2006 to 2008, ridership declined on the T, hitting a low of 437,671 passengers in 2008. Since then, ridership has increased by 142 percent. The reason: It was about that time that the city and KU created a policy where KU students could ride the city's bus service simply by showing their KU ID card. The city has been readjusting routes since that time to make more stops at apartment complexes and other locations heavy with students.
The new transit report also provides a glimpse at numbers for the city's new NightLine bus service. The city in June began testing the idea of specialized, on-demand service that runs from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday. The service is geared toward nightshift workers who need public transportation to get to and from their jobs.
According to the report, the service attracted about 600 riders per month when it began in June. Ridership grew steadily and peaked at about 1,250 riders in October. Ridership fell to about 900 riders in December. Transit leaders said public transit ridership typically does fall during the holiday season.
The NightLine service was set up to be a one-year pilot project. No word yet on whether these numbers wlll cause the city to continue the service for the long term.
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Burger King on Sixth Street hopes to open within eight weeks; more details on proposed rental inspection program
Of all the days to misplace my three-foot long trumpet . . . here goes anyway. Hear ye, hear ye: The King lives. The King lives. The King lives. Let us rejoice with Whoppers, fries, and copious amounts of breakfast sandwiches in defiance of the witch doctors known as cardiologists. (This would have sounded much better with the trumpet.)
Regardless, I'm obviously referring to the Burger King at 1107 W. Sixth St. If you remember, it has been closed since a fire significantly damaged it on Aug. 12. The delay in reopening the facility has caused some to worry that the days of Burger King at that location may be over. No need to worry about that, says Lance Zach, regional manager for the Burger King franchise. Zach said he hopes to have the store open in about six to eight weeks.
"It is a popular location in Lawrence," Zach said. "We're anxious to get rolling on it."
Zach said delays with insurance payments related to the fire have been the big holdup in getting the restaurant remodeled and reopened. But Zach said those issues appear now to be settled. He said officials have determined that an electrical connection in a can light in the dining room caused the fire.
Zach said some construction work had taken place on the site earlier, but that was just to gut the building. He said the remodeling plans have now been filed with the city and are awaiting a building permit. Plans call for a new look on the inside and the outside. Zach said the exterior will look more like the relatively new Burger King in the Bauer Farms development near Sixth and Wakarusa. The inside also will have a more modern look, and will feature a countertop area where people can plug in their computers and other electronic devices.
Zach said the location receives a good amount of university-related business, and area customers have been pretty vocal in their support for reopening. I know I have gotten numerous calls inquiring about the store's future.
"You think you get calls," Zach told me. "I probably get that question three or four times a day when I'm in Lawrence."
Zach said the store is currently interviewing for new staff members, and expects to begin training new employees at the other two Lawrence locations in the next couple of weeks. He said the store will hire about 25 employees, including seven managerial positions. People can apply at work4BK.com
Now, the trumpet. What the . . . how did it get in my neighbor's Dumpster?
In other news and notes from around town:
• I'm not sure that there will be trumpets involved, but the most recent list of land transactions in Douglas County has an interesting buyer on it. Country Jam USA Inc. has purchased about 3 acres of property at 1129 East 1264 Road — which is south of Lawrence, just south and west of the County Route 458 and U.S. Highway 59 intersection.
I don't think the company is in the business of making good strawberry jam, for instance, although that would be a fantastic development (despite the fact my wife won't let the kids and I eat anything sticky in the house anymore). Instead, our friend Mr. Google tells us that there is a Country Jam USA that is in the business of hosting outdoor music concerts. It looks like it currently has sites in Grand Junction, Colo. and Eau Claire, Wisc. Whether this is the same company that bought the Douglas County property, I can't say for sure, but it seems like a reasonable bet.
I wouldn't be too quick to jump to any conclusions about what the company has in mind in Lawrence. For one, there's been nothing filed at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning office for the address. In other words, no special permits have been sought to have a concert on the site. For another, the property is in a rural subdivision with several homes nearby. I would think Willie Nelson would have a better chance of landing a Gillette razor sponsorship than a concert company being allowed to host an event in a rural neighborhood. And finally, the site is only 3 acres and it has a house. So, it is possible that an owner of Country Jam USA simply wants to have a house in rural Douglas County. I called the company yesterday, but haven't received a call back.
But, the property transfer list is published in the newspaper, and I figured the name might catch the eye of some other folks as well, so I wanted to tell you what I knew about it. I'll let you know if I hear more.
• Get ready for some noise at Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners are scheduled on March 25 to vote on the latest proposal for an expanded rental licensing and inspection program that would basically cover every rental unit in the city.
As we have reported, Commissioner Jeremy Farmer has come up with a new proposal that seeks to limit the types of violations that could be used to deny a landlord a rental license. He's talked in broad terms about how the rental licensing program should be limited to issues that are of an immediate threat to health and safety. But he also has said city inspectors should have the ability to cite landlords for other types of violations, if the inspectors note them while conducting the rental licensing inspection. The big difference would be those other types of violations — think unpainted siding, for example — couldn't be used to deny a landlord a rental license. A rental license will become very important under this new system. Without a license, a landlord can't offer the unit for rent.
Now we have the list of specific violations Farmer has in mind. There are 27 violations that could cause a landlord to not receive a rental license. Here's a list of the 27 violations. (They're the ones at the top.) They include items such as: missing windows; exterior doors without locks; badly leaking roofs; issues of structural integrity; missing handrails; missing or nonworking smoke detectors; improper venting of furnaces, water heaters and dryers; a host of electrical issues; over occupancy of tenants; and several others.
Farmer, however, also has provided a list of 42 other violations, as an example of what inspectors may be looking for over and above the city's rental licensing program. If units are found to have these violations, they won't be used against the landlord license application, but the landlord could face a fine or other enforcement action if the violations aren't corrected. You can see that list here. (Scroll to the end.)
I hope to have more on the details of Farmer's proposal later today.
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In my small basement gym, the only thing that is granite are my abs. (Excuse me for a moment. My wife seems to be choking on her Cheerios.) Regardless, members at Lawrence's Genesis Health Club off of West Sixth Street soon will be getting a whole lot more granite and other high-end finishes.
The club recently received a building permit for $1 million worth of renovations at the gym, which formerly was operated by the Lawrence Athletic Club. The Wichita-based Genesis chain took over operations in December 2012, and has had plans for a major renovation on its mind ever since.
"The layout of this building made it hard for us to get the drawings just right," said Joe Oxler, the regional club director for Genesis. "The club is doing very well, but it is not a Genesis product yet. The classes and services are, but the overall look of the facility isn't there yet."
Among the planned renovations are entirely new locker rooms that will be about double the size of the current ones. The design will feature granite countertops, high-end shower stalls and other amenities.
Oxler said the club also will have a much more open feel. The renovation will remove many interior walls. Plans call for the weight room, cardio area and childcare area to grow larger. The club will add a shake bar and hopes to carve out an area to add massage therapy.
Some club members have been worried that the gym could lose other amenities such as the basketball, racquetball and indoor pool areas, but Oxler said all those features will remain.
Oxler said he hopes construction can begin in mid-March. He said the work will be done in phases so the club will not have to be closed. He hopes to have the bulk of the construction finished by late fall.
Genesis has two locations in Lawrence, with the other one being the former location of the Maximus club at 2339 Iowa St. Oxler said the company would like to make improvements to that club as well, but is still working on a deal to purchase the real estate there.
"Our plan is to always have two facilities in Lawrence," Oxler said. "We want one on the north end and one on the south end of town. We're working everyday to try and buy that (south) location."
The fitness industry has been an active one in Lawrence lately. The Summit at 901 New Hampshire shook up the market about two years ago by opening the first true, full-service fitness club downtown. More recently, there has been the addition of RydeBarre, a cycle-oriented fitness facility in West Lawrence, and plans for about a $700,000 expansion at Body Boutique, the all-female fitness facility near Ninth and Iowa.
I guess everyone wants abs like granite these days. (Really, again? She's got to quit eating Cheerios.)
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Improvements planned for North Lawrence grain elevator, but towers aren’t coming down; new schedule for city compost and woodchip sales
North Lawrence's skyscrapers aren't going anywhere. In case you aren't familiar with North Lawrence's chic skyscraper district, it also is known as the Ottawa Co-op grain elevators at North Third and Locust streets. And some of you have been worried that their time may be limited because demolition crews have arrived on the site.
But there is no need to worry, Adrian Derousseau, general manager of the Ottawa Co-op, told me this morning. The massive grain silos that tower over North Lawrence absolutely aren't going to be torn down.
"They're actually in good shape," Derousseau said.
But the scale house and old milling plant that are on the west end of the towers are in the process of being demolished. Derousseau said the milling plant hadn't been used for at least 25 years, and it made navigation of the elevator site more difficult than it needed to be.
"It is just a mess, and we can't keep it clean the way we want to," Derousseau said.
Derousseau said the plan is to tear down both the scale house and milling plant, and then build a more efficient scale house prior to this year's fall harvest. When that is complete, Derousseau said the elevator may become a busier place. Recently, the co-op has only used the North Lawrence elevator as a transfer station, meaning that farmers haven't been directly delivering their crops to the facility. Instead, all crops are delivered to the Midland Junction elevator north of North Lawrence.
Once the scale house has been built, Derousseau said the co-op will consider opening up the North Lawrence elevator full-time during the harvest season. That may take some pressure off the Midland facility and allow farmers to get back into the fields quicker.
Even if you aren't a farmer, you may benefit some from the project. Derousseau said removing the scale house and milling operation will greatly improve the visibility for motorists at the corner of North Third and Locust.
Derousseau said the North Lawrence grain towers, which store about 840,000 bushels of grain, are an important part of the co-op's storage system. Derousseau said if anything, more grain storage in the Lawrence area is needed. He said the company would like to add more towers at the Midland Junction site, but the soil type near the Midland site is creating engineering difficulties.
The North Lawrence towers have become a Lawrence landmark. They can be seen from quite a distance, and they're one of the things that reminds us that we're still in Kansas. Just how long they have been in place was a little tough to determine this morning. Derousseau said he's been in the grain elevator business in this area for 37 years, and he noted the North Lawrence towers certainly weren't new when he first saw them.
They are old enough that people have become attached to them, I guess. When the demolition trucks started to show up, I got several inquires from people worried about what was going on.
"We have thought about painting a big Powercat on them," Derousseau said jokingly of the K-State mascot. "They may feel different about them after that."
I don't expect to see that anytime soon, but construction work on the new scale house is expected to begin by early summer.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I know of some gardeners who build something similar to an 840,000 bushel elevator in their backyards to store the compost that the city sells twice a year. Compost is black gold to some gardeners, and now the city is announcing changes to how it will run both its compost and mulch sales.
For years, the city has held two sales per year for woodchips and compost that are produced from yard trimmings and tree limbs picked up through the city's curbside yard waste program. Now, the city plans to cut back to one major sale per year but offer the material for sale every Saturday for those people who want to bring their own shovel and load it themselves. At the one big sale per year, the city will still provide a big scoop loader that will allow people to buy the material by the pickup truck load.
The Saturday self-load sales will begin in March — this Saturday — and run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. The site will be open each Saturday through mid-December. Plans are to charge $10 per pickup load. I'm not sure whether the city will offer a discounted rate for people who buy significantly less than a pickup load. I'm also not sure how long it takes to get a full pickup load of mulch or compost loaded by hand. If it becomes a common practice, though, I already can envision mean gangs of gardeners roaming the city with bulging biceps from all the heavy loading they do. (Good gardener gang name: The Germinators.)
The big compost and woodchip sale where the city will do the loading for you is set for 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 27-29. The city will charge $10 for a big two cubic yard bucket scoop load. The sale and Saturday events will take place at the woodchip and compost facility, which is just east of the 11th and Haskell intersection.
The city also has changes planned for when residents can drop off woody debris, lawn clippings and garden waste at the facility. The woodchip and compost area will open a month earlier than normal and will have expanded hours. The area will be open to residents beginning on March 1 and will have hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The cost for residents to drop off debris will be $5 per pickup truck load.
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Preservation Alliance seeking owner for city’s oldest community building; city to award funds from Varsity House dispute tonight
Maybe the idea of a social club built around gymnastics and beer will make a comeback. (Fortunately, I've already got a pommel horse with a cup holder.) Or maybe it will be something else, but the search is now officially on to find a user for East Lawrence's old Turnhalle building.
The Turnhalle building at 900 Rhode Island St. is thought to be the oldest standing community building in the city, built in 1869. For decades it housed the German social club called Turnverein, which had a fantastic beer garden but also had the rather odd requirement that all male members between 18 and 30 participate in gymnastics.
The Lawrence Preservation Alliance purchased the old stone building in late 2012 in an effort to stabilize what had become a deteriorating structure. Now, LPA president Dennis Brown tells me stabilization of the building is expected to be completed by May, and the LPA has officially put the building on the market.
The historic preservation organization is asking interested buyers to submit proposals detailing how the building will be used. The eventual buyer also will have to abide by a preservation easement that prohibits certain defining characteristics of the building from being changed.
But just what type of user can be found for a building whose main floor includes a stage, a balcony and an old wood floor that used to house gymnastics equipment?
Brown said that is what the group hopes to find out through the RFP process, which will start evaluating proposals on March 10 but will run until a buyer is found.
Certainly, though, preservationists have some dreams for the building. A German deli in the basement and an event space and gallery that highlights some of Lawrence's significant German history would be ideal, Brown said. The RFP does state that extra consideration will be given to proposals that keep the building open to the public in some way.
"We're thinking event space, gallery space, meeting space, maybe even a business incubator," Brown said.
The RFP process also makes it clear that the group won't make the sale price of the building the most important consideration in selecting a buyer. The LPA has an approximately $86,000 mortgage on the building, Brown said. LPA has spent about $300,000 on the project thus far, including the mortgage and a $125,000 cultural heritage grant received from the Douglas County Commission.
Brown said LPA hopes to be made whole on the project, but recognizes that may not be likely given that any future buyer will face significant costs to make the building viable.
LPA's work on the building, which will reach its peak this spring, mainly has been to stop water infiltration into the structure. That will include major work to the roof and around the building's foundation.
It will be interesting to watch what type of proposals the LPA receives. The purchase of the Turnhalle building has been the largest project undertaken by the LPA in recent years. Brown noted that the plan always was for LPA to stabilize the building and then find a new "preservation-minded owner."
"We're talking to a handful of people right now," Brown said of possible buyers. "They're all local, but the word is being spread into Kansas City and also to groups across the country that are connected to other Turnvereins. If at the end of the process, we had five serious proposals to consider, we would be pleased.
"It is a big project, and I think it will take a big plan."
People interested in submitting a proposal or learning more can go to the organization's website at lawrencepreservation.org.
In the meantime, I've got my own research to do. What goes better with the high bar: a pale ale or a dark stout? And how the heck do you hang on with just one free hand? And spills? So much to learn.
UPDATE: This talk of the Turnhalle building has renewed some questions about the future Lawrence's Free State Glass. For years, Free State Glass had its studio in the basement of the building. But that changed in Septembers when Free State was forced to move from the building because of a mold problem that had developed in the basement.
I talked Tuesday with Dick Rector, a co-owner of Free State. He said the future of the business that has gained national attention for everything from glass paperweights to chandeliers is still uncertain. He said the business has been able to move all of its equipment to a new location, but he said that location is just being used storage of the equipment. Rector said he didn't have a timeline for when the business may set up a new studio space to start blowing glass again.
"We have relocated all our stuff and have had some people want to buy the business, but I don't really know what will happen yet," Rector said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting tonight will hand out some historic preservation money.
If you remember, Lawrence builder Thomas Fritzel's handling of the old Varsity House in the Oread neighborhood created quite a stir in the historic preservation community when he dismantled the house as part of the process of moving it a few feet to accommodate his apartment project. That uproar resulted in Fritzel — at the city's insistence — making a $50,000 donation to the Douglas County Community Foundation for historic preservation efforts.
Part of that agreement was that the City Commission would have a say in how those funds would be spent. At tonight's meeting commissioners are set to approve a recommendation that distributes the $50,000 to three community projects:
— $16,000 to the city of Lawrence to help restore the Breezedale neighborhoods monument sign near 23rd and Massachusetts streets.
— $2,970 to the Castle Tea Room, 1307 Massachusetts St., to repair windows and a porch on the historic building.
— $31,030 to the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St., to repair windows on the building.
Click here to see a full list of the 10 projects that were considered for the money. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. today at City Hall.
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Large apartment building near KU’s Memorial Stadium, family fun center in West Lawrence face key votes tonight
From a big apartment building to miniature golf, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is set to provide recommendations tonight on several million dollars worth of proposed development.
Here's a look:
• As we reported in December, plans have been filed for a five-story apartment building and retail development at 1101 Indiana St., which is basically across the street from KU's Memorial Stadium.
Well, the project is facing its first key review tonight, and thus far the early indications are that there is smooth sailing ahead for the project, which is being proposed by a Chicago-based student housing developer.
The city's planning staff is recommending approval of the project. If it comes to be, KU football fans will notice a major new addition to the stadium area by 2016. The project will include space for at least one, but possibly more restaurants or retail shops on the ground floor of the building. The plans call for about 11,000 square feet of retail or restaurant uses.
But the bulk of the project is driven by apartments — a lot of apartments in a relatively small space. The development is proposing 171 to 176 apartment units, depending on the mix of two-bedroom or four-bedroom units. Either way, the development would have 592 bedrooms. The entire project is proposed to sit on just 2.39 acres. That's about 74 dwelling units per acre, which is a lot more than the 24 to 32 units per acre seen in many traditional apartment developments in Lawrence. But unlike most other apartment buildings in Lawrence, this one will be about 80 feet tall, which allows you to create more density per acre. For years, city officials have said more density is needed in projects in order to cut down on the amount of urban sprawl in the community.
This project will test that notion. The development group, Chicago-based HERE, LLC, is asking for a bonus density that city commissioners have the discretion to grant as part of the relatively new mixed-use zoning district. Commissioners can allow a 25 percent increase in density over and above the normal maximum, if commissioners determine "such an increase is warranted to support the public benefit likely to result from the proposed development."
City commissioners will have to decide what that nebulous phrase means, but the project definitely will have a unique element to it that could end up being a benefit for the cramped Oread neighborhood. It will be the first development in the city to use an "automated, robotic parking garage system." The 592-space parking garage would be on three levels and partially underground.
The system involves the motorist pulling into a large elevator-like box and exiting the vehicle. The garage then uses an elevator system to place the vehicle on the appropriate floor, and a lift-and-track system that moves the vehicle to the right space.
A representative with the development group told me in December that the garage will use about 40 percent less space than a traditional parking garage because it doesn't have to use entrance and exit ramps.
It will be interesting to see how the project is received by the commission tonight. Thus far, I haven't heard of any real opposition to the large development from the Oread neighborhood. That, of course, can change, but it probably is worth noting the development would be replacing a fairly old apartment complex, Berkeley Flats, that is in need of some attention.
If this project happens, it could be a real game-changer for Mississippi Street, and the northern gateway into the university. Look at the map below to see exactly where this project would be. Then look at some of the properties on either side of it. A lot of them are starting to show some age. If this project happens, how much redevelopment pressure will it create on the entire area?
Maybe that will be the big question over the next few years: What is going to improve first: the KU football team or the area next to its stadium?
• As we reported in December, plans for a family fun center — think minigolf, batting cages and possibly go-karts — have been filed for vacant ground near the corner of Clinton Parkway and Inverness Drive. Well, that project also faces its first key vote tonight. We'll see how that goes, but sometimes at Lawrence City Hall, our idea of fun is to fight over how vacant ground that is next to a neighborhood should be developed. There are some indications that is the type of situation that is brewing. All this may still get worked out, but the Wimbledon Terrace Townhomes Association, which is across Clinton Parkway from the project, has sent a letter to city officials to "strongly object" to the proposed fun center.
Among the reasons cited in the letter are bright lights, increased traffic and the fact that the project — which, I remind you, proposes go-karts, batting cages, minigolf, an arcade and other such games — is located just a few blocks from four schools in the area. (Bishop Seabury, Raintree Montessori, Sunflower elementary and Southwest Middle School, if you are scoring along at home.)
The letter notes there may be "hundreds of little children who might be intimidated by the large numbers of teenagers and young adults who would frequent the project." The letters suggests it would be more appropriate for the center to be built in a more commercial area or on the edge of the city, "such as was done for the youth soccer complex south of town and the new recreation center to the west."
The project, however, has received a recommendation for approval from the city's planning staff. One of the reasons cited is because it would create an amenity that residents of the neighborhood could walk to. It is isn't clear how neighbors on the south side of Clinton Parkway feel about the project though. They have long fought to stop the vacant ground from housing more apartments. This project would accomplish that.
Regardless, a few more details are available about the project than when first reported in December. They include:
— The southeast corner of Clinton Parkway and Inverness is planned to become the site of a dining establishment with a drive-thru lane. The zoning that is being asked for would allow for a fast-food restaurant, but planners don't think a high-volume fast-food restaurant would fit in well with the adjacent neighborhoods. The architect for the project, Lawrence-based Paul Werner architects, also has said the site isn't the type to attract interest from a fast-food restaurant anyway. Instead, the development group is more interested in a coffee shop with a drive-thru or some other similar use. A tenant, however, hasn't been found. It will be interesting to see if planning commissioners come up with some way to zone the property so that a coffee shop could be allowed, for instance, but a fast-food restaurant could not.
— The first phase of the family fun center development would include a two-story club house that would have private party rooms, arcade and snack area on the ground floor. The second floor would include a bar that serves 3.2 beer and has a NASCAR driving experience arcade and miniature bowling.
— Also in the first phase is an 18-hole, outdoor miniature golf course, six batting cages, a patio area and a children's "tot lot" play area.
— A second phase of the development is proposed to have a 33,000 square-foot, outdoor go-kart track. The carts are proposed to be electric, which the manufacturer says produces about as much noise as an automobile traveling 20 to 30 miles per hour down a street. No information has been provided on when the second phase of the development may be built.
— Hours of operation are proposed for 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight on Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to midnight on Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. on Sunday. City planners are recommending that outdoor lighting be shut off by 10:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and by 11:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.
Planning commissioners meet at 6:30 tonight at City Hall.
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Deal struck to bring new grocer to Sixth and Wakarusa; Google’s latest announcement and its impacts on Lawrence
A deal has been struck to bring a new grocer to Lawrence. And it is not coming to downtown. Not North Lawrence, either. Instead, it's slated for what has become the city's new grocery magnet — Sixth and Wakarusa.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for a 27,000-square-foot building that would house a specialty or "farmers market-style" grocer in the Bauer Farm development at the northeast corner of the intersection.
Bill Fleming, a Lawrence attorney and member of the development group, tells me they have a tenant lined up for the building, but can't yet release its name. With the general description that has been released, I know some of you are speculating that a Trader Joe's is coming to West Lawrence. I'm almost certain, however, that's not the tenant. I think it's one less familiar to this part of the country, but I'll refrain from speculating further. Of course, I'll keep hounding those involved for an official announcement.
Whatever grocery chain emerges at the intersection, it will be the third grocer for Sixth and Wakarusa. Dillons has a store on the southeast corner of the intersection, and the Wal-Mart on the northwest corner has a full-line grocery department. (It is interesting to note that several people who opposed the construction of the Wal-Mart said it would run the Dillons out of business. Since that time, Dillons has expanded at the corner and now a third grocer wants to join the mix.)
But before any new grocer comes to the corner, the project does have to win some significant approvals from City Hall. The biggest is that the City Commission will need to increase a retail-zoning cap that has been placed on the corner. Currently, the northeast corner is limited to 72,000-square-feet of retail development. The development group has filed a request to raise that cap to 112,000 square feet.
Fleming, though, notes the development group is not seeking removal of a condition that prohibits big box stores at the corner. The zoning of the property prohibits a single retail building of 50,000 square feet or larger. Fleming said the group doesn't have any plans to bring a traditional big box store to the corner. But he said changing the zoning to allow for the grocer is critical.
"We have always said the intersection needs a little more retail to make it successful for the long term," Fleming said. "We still need an anchor tenant, and this will give us the anchor we need."
In addition to the 27,000 square feet for the grocer, the plans also call for an 11,000-square-foot, in-line retail building that could house a host of smaller shops. Both the grocery building and the in-line retail building would be just north and east of the Hurricane Alley Car Wash, near the southeast corner of Wakarusa and Overland Drive. But not right on the corner. Plans still call for a 108-room hotel to be built at the corner. Fleming, though, said a tenant hasn't been found for the hotel, and those plans are subject to change.
"We're hopeful though that with Rock Chalk Park down the road that there will be a need for some hotel space," Fleming said.
The new zoning for the property will reduce the number of residential living units in the Bauer Farm development by about 70. But Fleming said the development still will have a significant amount of housing. The area between the Theatre Lawrence building and the Meadowlark retirement community is slated to be a mix of apartments and townhouses.
It will be interesting to watch the reaction to the latest development proposal. Development at the intersection has sparked many a battle. It is one of the larger intersections in the community, but there has been concern by some neighbors that too much retail will create a traffic mess. If you a remember, a plan for a Lowe's home improvement center in the Bauer Farm development was rejected after neighbors and others objected. Fleming, though, said this is a much more modest proposal.
"Honestly, we would love to build more office out there," Fleming said. "But there is just not much demand for that. We're trying to build what the market is looking for right now."
In other news and notes from around town:
• Supporters of a downtown grocery store may be left scratching their heads over this latest development. If you remember, there has been a group circulating a petition about how downtown Lawrence needs a grocery store. At the same time, apparently there has been a grocery store company already scouring Lawrence for sites. It needs about a 25,000-square-foot building, which happens to be about the size of the former Borders building in downtown. That building, which is the temporary home to the library, is scheduled to become vacant again in the summer.
It would seem to be a safe bet that the grocery company could have acquired the Borders building for less than it can build new in West Lawrence. Yet, it did not do so. I have heard from good sources that the out-of-town brokerage firm that is marketing the Borders building has shopped the heck out of it to grocery store companies. None of this is to say the petition drive isn't worthwhile, but it may be worth noting that the market perhaps has already spoken on the subject.
On the other hand, downtown grocery supporters may want to keep an eye on what is happening in downtown Salina. A commercial real estate agent there called me recently to get some information about downtown Lawrence's hunt for a grocery store. Apparently, that community is close to announcing a new tenant for a former Dillons store downtown. It sounds like it may be much more of a discount grocery chain that may like the downtown and East Lawrence market. I'll let you know if I hear more.
• Yesterday, Google Fiber announced it has plans to perhaps expand its super-fast Internet service into 34 communities across the country. If you remember, Kansas City won a fierce competition to be the first city for the Google Fiber project.
At that time, many people thought the Google Fiber project was just an experiment. Now, as USA Today notes, this most recent announcement by Google seems to indicate that the company is looking to build a new, profitable, stand-alone business that reaches many parts of the country.
For people who like fast Internet, that is good. For people who were hoping that Kansas City would have a unique piece of infrastructure that would attract companies from far and wide, perhaps not so good.
Among the new cities are: Phoenix; Atlanta; Palo Alto, Calif.; Nashville; Charlotte; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio; Salt Lake City; and a host of other smaller communities around those metro areas.
It will be interesting to see if Google's most recent announcement has any bearing on the city's thinking regarding spending city tax dollars to try to attract 1-gigabit Internet service to Lawrence. I suppose there are several ways to look at Google's most recent announcement. They include:
— Google has no interest in Lawrence. If they did, they would have included the city in this most recent list of cities up for expansion.
— Google is just getting started with its announcements. Many more are on the way.
— Perhaps Google already considers Lawrence part of the Kansas City market. That may mean Lawrence already is under consideration as part of the Kansas City project, or could be, if the city approaches Google. I recently confirmed with City Manager David Corliss that the city hasn't done formal outreach to Google, such as sending a letter asking the company to consider Lawrence for its service. But the city, as we recently reported, has issued a request for information from companies interested in providing enhanced broadband service in Lawrence. City officials have said they'll make sure that request gets in the hands of Google officials.
The bigger question now may be how ubiquitous is 1-gigabit Internet service going to become? If Google gets serious about creating a new business model for 1 gigabit service, how will other private Internet service providers react? Certainly, they are going to work to protect their market shares. What role will taxpayer-supported subsidies play in this battle among huge private sector companies?
As you've probably guessed by the fact that I'm still writing this column instead of making billions of dollars, I don't know the answer to any of those questions. But it looks like Lawrence leaders are going to get a chance to answer them.