Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Pace quickens on Lawrence home sales in first half of 2015; city spending $85,000 for ADA playground upgrades
If you are looking to buy a home in Lawrence, you had better lace up those running shoes. Home sale statistics for the first half of 2015 show that buyers need to be ready to move to keep up with what is becoming a tight home market.
For the first six months of the year, home sales in Lawrence are up nearly 20 percent, compared with the same period a year ago. But an emerging trend in the market is how quickly homes are selling. The days of you and your spouse or roomie having the time to debate whether this room or that room is big enough to house the chocolate fountain are coming to an end. (I’m assuming that is the big debate in your house too.)
The median number of days a home sits on the market before it sells is now down to 25. That’s down from 34 days at this point in 2014 and down from 47 days in 2013. The pace seems to be quickening as well. When you look at just the homes that sold in June, the median time those homes sat on the market before selling was 13 days. Wow. It takes us 14 days just to hear back from the architect on how much it will cost to strengthen the floors of the various closets we’ll use to house shoes. It is a crazy market if people are buying homes before knowing that cost.
In all seriousness, it has been a good year thus far for the Lawrence real estate market. Here’s a look at some statistics from the most recent report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors:
• A total of 627 homes have been sold through June. That’s up almost 20 percent from the same period a year ago. More impressive is the 2015 totals are up about 12 percent compared with the 2013 totals. Last year was a bit of a down year for the local real estate market, but 2013 was a strong year with more than 1,000 homes sold that year. If the market stays on its current pace, it could sell more than 1,100 homes in 2015.
• Sales of newly constructed homes are showing some signs of new momentum. A total of 33 newly constructed homes have sold thus far in 2015. That’s up from 30 during the same period a year ago, but still down from 51 during the period in 2013. More encouraging, though, is that 11 newly constructed homes sold in June. That’s up from four newly constructed home sales in June 2014. The median number of days a new home is sitting on the market before it sells also has improved dramatically. The median now is 76 days, down from 168 days in 2014.
• One of the reasons homes are moving quickly is because the inventory of homes on the market is tight. At the end of June, there were 334 active listings. That’s down more than 25 percent from 2014 levels and down more than 20 percent of 2013 levels. It will be interesting to see if builders see those numbers as being tight enough to start increasing the number of new homes they are constructing each month. Whether that will happen is still an open question. At the end of June, there were 42 newly constructed homes on the market. That’s down from 49 new homes that were on the market in June 2014.
• With a tighter market, selling prices are starting to creep up. The median price of homes sold thus far in 2015 is $165,000. That’s up from $160,000 at the same point in 2014. Whether that is a sign of price pressures in the market or just a difference in the type of houses that are being sold this year compared with last year isn’t clear. But it would stand to reason that overall home values will see some appreciation, if the market remains tight.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Look for some changes at a couple of Lawrence playgrounds. The city is set to spend about $85,000 to put in a rubberized play surface for the playgrounds at the East Lawrence Center and at Watson Park.
It may be the first of several such project that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department undertakes. Changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2012 created new requirements for playground surfaces to make them more accessible to people with disabilities.
The new rubberized surface is expected to be a lot easier for folks who use wheelchairs, walkers and other devices than the current wood-chip surface that exists at most city playgrounds.
“The wood chips have to be really compacted to work well,” said Mark Hecker, the city’s assistant director of parks and recreation.
But figuring out how to pay for a surface upgrade to every city playground may be difficult. The city has 35 playgrounds across the community. Hecker said his initial goal is to try to get six or seven playground surfaces replaced in the next few years. He plans to choose playgrounds in different geographic areas of town to increase the odds that everyone will have relatively easy access to at least one of the newly surfaced playgrounds.
Cost is an issue, though. The city spends about $3,000 to $4,000 to put wood chips in a playground area, and then probably another $1,000 a year to ensure the playgrounds continue to have enough wood chips in place. Based on these most recent prices, the rubberized surface is costing a little more than $40,000 a playground. Hecker expects the rubberized surfaces to last for 15 years or more.
Whether the city will get pressure to become more aggressive to replace the wood chip surfaces with the more ADA-complaint rubberized material is unclear. Thus far, Hecker said the department has been working with local ADA advocates, and they have been understanding that the city will likely have to tackle the issue in phases.
“They just want us to keep moving forward,” Hecker said.
As for the material, it is coming from a Kansas City-based company called Eco Turf. Hecker said the department is still in discussions about the exact product they’ll install. Hecker said the city wants to install some brightly colored material rather than the more traditional brown or black. The city also looked at a product that looked like grass, but Hecker said it was less certain how it would withstand the wear and tear of a playground.
Other parks that may get consideration for upgrades include high-usage playgrounds at South Park, Holcom Park and Centennial Park, Hecker said. Some of those parks also are due for replacement of playground equipment.
“We may find ourselves in a situation where we spend $30,000 on playground equipment and $35,000 on surfacing,” Hecker said. “That’s where it can get a little tricky from a financial standpoint.”
West Lawrence restaurant plans major expansion; details on a Ninth and New Hampshire mishap; Kansas school system gets high ranking
You bet I’ve got a chop house on my mind, and it is not just because I’ve already spent a good part of my week “helping” my 4-H kids wrangle their hogs at the Douglas County Fair. I’ve got news of a large expansion of a west Lawrence restaurant that specializes in steaks and chops.
I briefly mentioned last week that I had heard the Six Mile Chop House and Tavern was expanding at its Sixth and Wakarusa location. Well, now I’ve got details, and they show the expansion will make it one of the larger restaurants in the city.
Brad Ziegler, an owner of Six Mile, told me that he has struck a deal to take all 6,500 square feet of space that previously was occupied by Famous Dave’s BBQ. Six Mile currently occupies space that is adjacent to the former Famous Dave’s location.
Ziegler said a big part of the expansion plan is for Six Mile to get into the banquet business. That means wedding receptions, corporate events, big birthday parties, and bon voyage parties for a certain pair of pigs. (Well, maybe that last one is a tiny niche.)
“We want more room for private events and banquets,” Ziegler said. “We turn down a lot of events because we just don’t have the size.”
That won’t be a problem following the expansion. Six Mile and Famous Dave’s occupied space that originally served as the Lawrence location for the Hereford House. It was frequently said that the Lawrence Hereford House was the largest restaurant in the state of Kansas, just in terms of square footage.
Ziegler said the expansion will allow for a significant increase in general seating for diners as well.
“We don’t know the final number yet, but we’ll definitely double our capacity for dining,” Ziegler said.
Plans also call for an additional bar and lounge area to be added to the restaurant. But Ziegler — who is a longtime bar owner in Lawrence — said he’s not planning on using any of the space to create a large nightclub.
“We’re just talking about a casual place to have a cocktail,” Ziegler said.
What won’t change much is the restaurant’s menu. It will still have a heavy emphasis on steak, with some seafood, pork chops, lamb chops and other meaty entrees. Ziegler said the idea of a local steakhouse has been well-received by Lawrence diners. He said with the larger location he will try to attract a larger customer base by adding a few mid-range cuts of Angus steak in order to offer the option of a lower price point. But plans also call for the restaurant to keep its selection of prime cuts of beef. The restaurant currently offers nine cuts of prime beef ranging from a 17-ounce Bone-In Cowboy Ribeye to the traditional Kansas City Strip. Ziegler said a significant expansion of the restaurant’s wine list also is planned.
Ziegler hopes to have the expansion — which for the moment is focusing just on the main floor space, not the basement of the building — completed in October. But construction work hasn’t yet begun. Ziegler said he’s awaiting the necessary permits from City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I can guess one group that wasn’t thrilled with this morning’s rain storm: The construction crews that are trying to build the multistory office and apartment building at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
Robert Green, president of Lawrence-based First Construction, told me the project is a little more than three weeks behind schedule due to the amount of rain that the area has experienced this summer.
I also wanted to let you know of one other detail about the project, in part, to clear up some potential confusion. I’ve gotten several calls from people concerned that construction crews were dumping unused concrete in the sewer system at the job site. That hasn’t been happening, but there was a significant mishap involving a city sewer line at the job site.
Both First Construction and city officials confirmed that a subcontractor on the job accidentally damaged a city sewer line as part of the site work for the building. As part of the shoring process, a steel pin inadvertently punctured a sewer line. Part of the shoring process included the injection of grout, and the sewer line became filled with grout.
The only way to fix the problem was to replace a large section of the sewer line, Dave Wagner, the city’s director of utilities told me. Both Wagner and Green assured me that the cost to replace the line was paid by the contractor for the building, not by the city. The work to replace the line took place a few weeks ago, and the sewer system is working fine in the area, I’m told by Wagner.
As for the building project, as we previously have reported, it will add about 115 apartments to the downtown scene. Its ground floor will be the new headquarters for Great American Bank, which previously operated in the city as Lawrence Bank. Green said he is hopeful crews will make up for lost time and have the apartments ready to open by the fall of 2016.
• We may not always know where the next check is coming from to fund it, but Kansas’ educational system is one of the better ones in the country — at least according to one new report.
The study is from WalletHub, a financial website that does a lot of data crunching to create “best of" lists. The new study found Kansas has the 12th best “school system” in America. The report primarily looked at K-12, public schools, and examined metrics such as dropout rates, math and reading scores, SAT scores, student-to-teacher ratios and other such measures.
Kansas ranked just ahead of Iowa and just below Virginia. Kansas appeared to excel in a couple of categories in particular. Kansas had the third best pupil-to-teacher ratio in the country, and was tied for fourth in the “safest schools” category. That metric is based off of data that tracks the number of students in the ninth-12th grades who report being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property.
Other rankings for Kansas included:
— 8th for math test scores;
— 10th for dropout rate;
— 10th for average SAT scores.
— 21st for percentage of high school graduates who complete the ACT;
— 25th for bullying incident rates;
— 25th for reading test scores.
In case you are confused, a ranking of 1 is best and 51 (we count both the District of Columbia and Missouri, for some reason) is worst.
Most of the data that WalletHub used to compile the rankings came from the U.S. Census Bureau, or other reputable organizations such as the rankings of U.S. News and World Report, the College Board, and the National Center for Educational Statistics. You can see the complete report here.
And yes, I know you want to know the top 5 and the bottom 5, so, here you go:
The bottom five:
District of Columbia
As for other neighbors not already mentioned, Nebraska ranked No. 17, Missouri was No. 28, and Oklahoma was No. 33.
The corner of 23rd and O’Connell may be the latest to try to lure retirees to Lawrence. Plans have been filed to build a 90-unit, independent senior living community near the intersection.
Olathe developer Dave Rhodes has filed a plan to develop about nine acres of vacant ground at 2101 Exchange Court, which is just south of the 23rd and O’Connell intersection and on the west side of O’Connell Drive.
I’ve put a call into Rhodes, but haven’t yet heard back. But the plans filed at City Hall describe the project as independent living retirement community. It will be a sizable one at that. The proposal calls for 15 buildings with six living units per building. Each building will have four two-bedroom units and two one-bedroom units. The development also will include a 2,000-square-foot leasing office.
We’ve previously reported that Rhodes had sought affordable housing tax credits to help finance the project. I haven’t gotten word on whether the project has received those tax credits, but I’m working to get that information. If the credits were received, that would mean that the project would be rent-controlled, and residents would have to meet certain guidelines. Rhodes previously has said the project would be limited to residents 55 years old and over. I’ll let you know when I hear more. He's previously described the project as being about a $16 million investment.
When we reported on the project in November, Rhodes said his development group owned five other affordable “garden/ranch style apartment” developments in Kansas, and also owned or managed about 350 conventional apartment units.
The property already has the necessary zoning in place to allow for the development. City officials now need to approve a site plan for the project to proceed.
It will be an interesting development to watch for a couple of reasons. One is that it continues a trend of Lawrence trying to become more of a destination for retirees. But the other reason is because the new living units could help spur additional commercial development at 23rd and O’Connell.
The southeast corner of 23rd and O’Connell is zoned for commercial uses, but other than a Tractor Supply store, retail development hasn’t yet come to the corner. The general thought on why retail has been slow to develop there is because retailers want to see more homes in close proximity to the intersection. I’m not sure 90 new units will push the area over the top, but there’s also residential zoning just to the south of the retail area, and work to install roads and other infrastructure to accommodate future residential development has occurred on the site.
That’s all for Town Talk today. I know, it was short, but I have an excuse. I have to go weigh pigs. Really, I’m not making that up. It is Douglas County Fair week, and this morning is the day we find out how fat my kids’ 4-H pigs have become. In fact, I’ll probably be near the corner of 23rd and O’Connell to visit the nearby Tractor Supply store. I might be there to buy feed, but it may be too late for that. Perhaps they sell a brick I can put on the scale.
Promoter not sure now on canceling 1,000-foot water slide event in west Lawrence; city gets report on its financial health
UPDATE 1:30 p.m.: Maybe there will be bubbles on this 1,000-foot water slide, because the idea of hosting The Urban Slide in a west Lawrence neighborhood quickly is turning into a soap opera.
Ryan Robinson, owner of Lawrence-based Silverback Productions, reached out to me today and said he’s now decided not to cancel the event — at least not yet. He said he’s rescinded his previous request to have the item pulled from tomorrow’s City Commission agenda.
Instead, he wants to have a hearing on his original proposal to temporarily close a portion of George Williams Way south of Sixth Street to accommodate the event. But he’s also put forward an alternative proposal that would close a portion of George Williams way north of Sixth Street to accommodate the event. If neither one of those proposals wins commission support, he said he would cancel the event.
“We want the neighbors to speak up and tell the commission what they want,” Robinson said. “We will be fine with whatever the commission tells us to do. We are in the community-building business. We don’t want to create any problems.”
As for the new proposal to place the slide north of Sixth Street on George Williams Way, Robinson said he thinks the idea has good potential. That section of road is a four-lane street. It leads into the Rock Chalk Park sports complex. Robinson said the western two lanes of the street could be closed, and the eastern two lanes could be open for two-way traffic. Participants could park in the large parking lot at Rock Chalk Park.
Robinson said he had proposed the idea of placing the slide on the southern side of George Williams Way because he thought that would make it more of a neighborhood event that people could walk to or bike to.
Robinson said the whole issue has been frustrating. He said The Urban Slide event is one of the simpler ones his company produces each year. The company specializes in marathons and other races that stretch over broad geographical areas.
The company has hosted several events in Lawrence — it produces The Color Run that brings thousands to downtown Lawrence. He stopped short of saying he would stop producing events in Lawrence, but did acknowledge that producing events in the community has become frustrating.
“The only reason we bring events to Lawrence is because we like to bring cool stuff to town,” Robinson said. “We generate less than 1 percent of our revenue off of the events we do in Lawrence.”
He said the reaction to The Urban Slide event probably will cause the company to re-evaluate what events it wants to host in Lawrence in the future.
“It does sour us some, but we’re a resilient bunch,” Robinson said. “We’re going to continue to call Lawrence home, and we’re going to continue to work out of here.”
If you want a 1,000-foot waterslide in your neighborhood it looks like we are going to have to go back to our original plan of a garden hose and a whole lot of trash bags duct-taped together. That’s right. The idea of The Urban Slide coming to a west Lawrence neighborhood next month appears to be dead.
Last week we told you that Lawrence-based Silverback Productions had filed for a city permit to temporarily set up a 1,000-foot water slide on the portion of George Williams Way between Sixth Street and Harvard Road. But I’ve now received an email from a Silverback official saying that the company is pulling its request for the permit and will cancel the Lawrence event, which was set for Aug. 8-9. Concerns from neighbors apparently did the event in, and Silverback owner Ryan Robinson sounded a bit frustrated about it in a letter he sent to city officials this weekend.
“I think anyone that knows myself and the work that Silverback does within this community knows that we only wish to bring goodness, happiness and prosperity to this city,” Robinson wrote in a letter asking the permit application to be withdrawn from Tuesday’s City Commission agenda. “However, for a variety of reasons we are finding it is harder and harder to do that within Lawrence, and quite frankly the trouble is not worth the gain.”
I had heard late Friday afternoon that City Hall was getting quite a few phone calls from people about the idea of closing down George Williams Way to accommodate the event. Questions about parking and other effects the event may have on the area also were asked.
Robinson said Silverback — which produces The Color Run and other similar large events — said in his letter that his company had a detailed plan for how to run the event. But Robinson indicated that the event was not receiving a warm reception, and specifically cited a letter from neighborhood resident Mike Kelly, who asked city officials a variety of questions about the event’s potential impact on the neighborhood.
Robinson wrote that his company does not do business by “forcing events into unwelcoming communities.”
“We would never do anything in Lawrence to jeopardize our reputation or the good that we have brought this city over the years,” Robinson said. “We will politely bow out into the open arms of one (of) the other 225 welcoming cities that we work with on an annual basis.”
No word yet on what the plan is for folks who have already bought tickets in advance for the event, which had been advertised online for months now. I assume, however, Silverback will provide details about some sort of refund program.
In other news and notes from around town:
• A 1,000-foot slide is one thing. A 10-year long slide is another. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday evening will be discussing a decade long slide.
Commissioners will receive an annual report from City Auditor Michael Eglinski, who takes a look at a host of financial indicators for the city. The city fares pretty well in many of the categories measured, but there is one category that serves as a reminder of the major issue facing city leaders: the measurement of job growth and tax base growth in the community.
As part of the report, Eglinski looked at 20 years worth of job growth and tax base growth data. The numbers show it definitely has been a tale of two decades for Lawrence. From 1995 to 2004, growth in nonfarm employment in the Lawrence metro area averaged 2 percent per year. From 2005 to 2014, it has averaged 0.1 percent per year.
Flip the page to assessed valuation — the community’s tax base — and the numbers are even more stark. From 1995 to 2004, the tax base grew by an average of 8.1 percent per year. From 2005 to 2014, the average growth rate dropped to 1.3 percent.
Of course, the decade of 2005 to 2014 included a major recession. But the numbers indicate that wasn’t the only issue at play in the slowdown. These two charts indicate that Lawrence was experiencing a flattening — especially in jobs — before the recession hit in late 2008 or 2009.
The future is more important than the past on this subject, though. Lawrence has seen some better job numbers of late. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out a monthly report of job totals for metro areas. The most recent data is for May. It shows Lawrence added about 800 jobs from May 2014 to May 2015. That’s an increase of about 1.5 percent, which is quite a bit better than the 0.1 percent average of the last decade. In fact, the 1.5 percent growth rate was the best in the state during that time period. Manhattan was next at 0.7 percent, then Topeka at 0.5 percent, and Wichita saw job losses of 0.4 percent. Kansas City is counted in Missouri, and it came in at 1.6 percent.
It seems like job growth should be a key metric for Lawrence leaders to track. As talk grows about Lawrence and Douglas County creating a new comprehensive plan or vision for the community, it will be interesting to see if leader set a specific goal for how much they want job numbers to grow during the next decade.
The city auditor’s report had several other findings. Here’s a look:
— Lawrence’s debt totals are on the rise, and are at a decade high by at least one measure. The amount of debt per person — adjusted for inflation — is at a 10-year high, Eglinski found. The amount of debt checks in at about $1,100 per person in 2014. That’s up from about $700 per person in 2013. Major projects like the library, Rock Chalk Park, and various street improvements have helped push those totals higher. It is worth noting that until 2014, Lawrence’s per capita debt totals had been on a decline since 2008. But the previous City Commission brought borrowing back in a big way, as the chart below shows.
— Governments borrow money to spend it, so it should be no surprise that the amount of city government spending per resident also is at a 10-year high. The inflation-adjusted amount in 2014 checks in at about $1,400 per person, but from about $1,300 per person in 2013. As the chart below indicates, city spending per resident has been on a steady increase since 2011.
— Eglinski compares Lawrence’s financial indicators to about 15 “benchmark communities” that include: Iowa City; Norman, Okla.; Bloomington, Ind.; Auburn, Ala.; State College, Pa., and several other college communities. The report found Lawrence was outperforming the benchmark communities in three areas: the city’s financial ability to maintain services; the city’s growth of financial resources; the average age of capital assets such as roads and buildings.
— The report found Lawrence compared less favorably to the benchmark communities in three areas: the city’s liquidity, which measures how quickly the city could have cash to meet immediate needs; the amount of long-term liabilities, such as debt; the amount of the city’s budget devoted to interest payments, which affects the city’s financial flexibility.
— The report also looked at the financial indicators for the city’s utilities department and other divisions of the city that are funded primarily by rates rather than taxes. It found those rate-based divisions — water, sewer and trash service are among the big departments — compared less favorably to benchmark cities in three categories and more favorably in one category. Where the city compared less favorable was in ability to maintain services; financial resource growth; and liquidity to meet immediate needs. The one area where the city compared more favorably is in the rate of aging of capital assets such as utility infrastructure.
You can see the entire report here. Commissioners will discuss it at their 5:45 p.m. meeting on Tuesday at City Hall.
1,000-foot waterslide coming to west Lawrence; pair of restaurants win national wine honors; local ADA advocate profiled by Washington Post
Lawrence’s funkiness is spreading. West Lawrence probably won’t be honking for hemp or hosting zombie walks anytime soon, but a plan has been filed for a busy West Lawrence street to temporarily house a 1,000-foot long water slide.
I reported last month that a Lawrence-based company was looking for a spot to set up a massive water slide called The Urban Slide. Well, the company hopes it has found its spot: George Williams Way near Sixth Street.
Normally, this is the type of wild and crazy idea that would find its way into downtown Lawrence. But even downtown has its limits. A 1,000-foot slide would take up most of Massachusetts Street. Plus, there is a little slope to Mass. Street, but not much. So, Lawrence-based Silverback Productions — the company that works with The Color Run and other such events — went looking for a different location. Ryan Robinson, an owner of the company, told me last month he was looking for locations near the KU campus, but that apparently didn’t pan out.
The event is set for Aug. 8-9, and the slide would be set up on the portion of George Williams Way that is south of Sixth Street and north of Harvard Road. I guess they are not going to have the slide go through the roundabout at George Williams and Harvard. That seems like a lost opportunity for the city to do roundabout education . . . you do not have to use your turn signal when entering a roundabout, but you should always yield to a water slider. You know, that sort of common stuff.
In case you are confused, George Williams Way will be closed to traffic during the event. In fact, it will be closed for long periods of time to accommodate the slide. Plans call for the street to close at midnight on Aug. 8 and reopen at 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 9. Organizers have arranged to use the parking lot at nearby Langston Hughes elementary for the event.
City commissioners are scheduled to approve the permit for the project at their 5:45 p.m. meeting on Tuesday. It will be interesting to see what west Lawrence’s reaction is to the event. Thus far, there has only been one letter of opposition filed to closing down the street. I don’t see George Williams Way becoming the next Massachusetts Street and hosting events on a regular basis. This seems like a fairly unique situation. But west Lawrence likely will become more an event venue with Rock Chalk Park. I’m still curious to see what type of events other than youth basketball and volleyball tournaments end up becoming the norm at Rock Chalk. I heard several people liked how the Sertoma BBQ cook-off functioned at the sports complex earlier this year. Whether the complex will become the site for more festival type of events in the future will be interesting to watch.
In other news and notes:
• I don’t know about you, but when I get done going down a 1,000-foot water slide, I find that I’ve worked up a thirst that can only be satisfied by a Buried Cane Cabernet Sauvignon, or perhaps a Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel or maybe even a Pago de Tharsys Brut Cava, which coincidentally is the same phrase I frantically yell while going down The Urban Slide. All those are actually fine wines served at the downtown restaurant Ten (or at least I think they are, although I’m not sure because they rarely let me enter wearing my Speedo.) Ten, which is the restaurant on the ground floor of The Eldridge Hotel, has been named to Wine Spectator’s 2015 Restaurant Awards. Ten was one of two Lawrence restaurants to be included in the prestigious rankings. Five 21, which is in The Oread hotel and operated by the same company that run Ten, also was selected. The rankings are in Wine Spectator’s Aug. 31 edition, which recently hit newsstands.
• Speaking of Lawrence getting some national publicity, a Kansas University professor who fought to win approval of the Americans with Disabilities Act, was profiled in The Washington Post earlier this week. Dot Nary, an assistant research professor at the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at KU, will be in Washington, D.C. to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. While preparing for her trip, Nary sought to make a reservation for a bus tour of Washington, D.C., but the tour operator told her he didn’t have a bus that could accommodate someone in a wheelchair. That’s despite advertisements that said it could accommodate folks in wheelchairs. That was probably not the best strategy on the part of the tour bus operator, but hey, he got his name in The Washington Post. Here’s a link to the article about Nary and her work with the ADA.
A potential danger zone for Lawrence’s public transit system; restaurant expansion at Sixth and Wakarusa
In 2008, it seemed the public transit question in Lawrence was settled. Lawrence residents loved the idea of a city-owned bus system.
Voters went to the polls in November of that year with a do-or-die question. Voters were asked to approve a two-tenths of a percent sales tax to fund the T’s basic operations. Without the sales tax, it was likely that the transit system would be shuttered. Voters made their answer clear. The tax was approved by a 70 percent to 30 percent margin.
Heading into that vote, prognosticators weren’t sure how the public would respond. It could be close, we thought, because there were significant pockets of discontent with the city’s transit system. Instead, the tax measure won every single precinct in Lawrence. It continues to be one of the more lopsided elections I’ve ever covered. It seemed Lawrence had buried the hatchet on the T, or the empTy, as its detractors called it.
Today, questions are back, and the loudest ones are coming from City Hall. They started to get louder on Tuesday night when commissioners balked at the idea of installing a new transit hub near 21st and Iowa streets. Commissioners rejected a proposal to build the hub on the vacant piece of KU Endowment-owned property that is just south of the city’s Fire Station No. 5. They didn’t settle on a different location to build a transit hub, which basically is the place where buses congregate and riders make transfers to other buses on a regular basis. Talk of locations near Ninth and Iowa and perhaps near 19th and Iowa, where KU’s Stouffer Place apartments are in the process of being demolished, were discussed as possibilities.
Now, I want to be clear, I don’t think Lawrence city commissioners are trying to kill the T. But just because they’re not trying to, doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. The big issue facing the transit system is that the very successful sales tax approved by voters in 2008 came with a 10-year sunset. Voters are likely going to be asked to approve a renewal of that sales tax in 2018. If they don’t renew the tax, the T is likely back in jeopardy again.
The transit hub plays a key role in this because transit leaders want to get on with the work of redesigning transit routes to make them more efficient. But they can’t redesign routes until they know where the system’s hub is going to be located. And they say that they can’t get the type of route efficiency they want by having a hub in downtown because the downtown area is too congested to accommodate the number of buses that need to come to a hub.
The 21st and Iowa location has been a favorite of transit leaders because it is centrally located in the city, and to boot, KU Endowment is offering a long-term, no-cost lease for the city to use the land. Plus, it is what is available. The city has tried to swing a deal to put the hub at Ninth and Iowa, behind The Merc, but the property owner isn’t interested.
Commissioners balked at the site for a variety of reasons, but one of the louder critics of the site has been Commissioner Stuart Boley. He’s said the site is a poor one because it doesn’t offer any amenities for riders. In particular, he’s talking about opportunities for riders to get off the bus and spend some money. That would be possible at the Ninth and Iowa site, he notes. Commissioner Matthew Herbert at various times has echoed those comments. Both have said they like the idea of a “destination hub.”
That is an issue that may benefit from some perspective. One issue to understand is the nature of a bus transfer, particularly under the new route system that city transit leaders envision. Under the new system, the average time a rider would be waiting at the hub to make a transfer is about 3 minutes, transit administrator Bob Nugent has told me. So, for someone to decide they are going to want to do some shopping at the transit hub, they are going to have to decide to delay their trip. I’m sure some folks would do that. But if they are willing to delay their trip, they can shop anywhere up and down the route that they happen to be on. For example, your bus goes by Dillons, you have the bus stop near Dillons, you get off and do some shopping, then you catch the next bus when it comes by in about 30 minutes. Dillons doesn’t need to be at the hub for you to do some shopping.
That said, I’m sure there are some benefits to having the shopping convenient to the hub. But, it seems a question worth pondering is, how isolated is 21st and Iowa streets? I decided to do a little test. I did a little walking yesterday in my cowboy boots and black suit to see how far you really are from amenities at 21st and Iowa.
There is a big tree in the center of the site proposed for the transit hub. So I started there and timed how long it took me to get to the shopping center on the northeast corner of 23rd and Iowa streets. It took me three minutes and 30 seconds to get to CiCi’s Pizza. I think that qualifies as a destination. Based on my experiences, I think it is the No. 1 destination in Lawrence for men to get marinara sauce on their ties. Of course, there is quite a bit more to do at that shopping center. There is Cork & Barrel next door to CiCi’s, (you have to get club soda for the marinara stain, so you might as well pick up something to go with it.) There is Hastings next door, which would allow you to shop for books, music or even buy a guitar to serenade fellow bus riders with. There are numerous restaurants at the site. In fact, I think you could even win some sort of national transit award by taking the bus to get to the famed sandwich shop The Yellow Sub. Think about it, you take the bus to get a Tijuana Taxi. (It is a delicious Yellow Sub Sandwich, and yes, I am afraid to ask the origins of its name.)
If you want to walk an extra two minutes, you can get to the CVS on the southeast corner of 23rd and Iowa. And, I know what you are thinking: You would have to be crazy to try to walk across 23rd Street, but the intersection there has made that crossing — at least on 23rd Street — much easier.
So, with an approximately five-minute walk, you have a lot of amenities to choose from. Transit riders are probably some of the best walkers in the city. Is a five minute walk going to discourage them much? I don’t know. It seems a reasonable question though.
I asked Boley about it, and he thinks the site at 21st and Iowa is problematic for a number of reasons. He's thrown out an idea that has a real twist to it. Ninth and Iowa street, but in Centennial Park rather than in the parking lot behind The Merc. That likely would open a whole other can of worms related to whether the city wants to decrease its park space to accommodate lots of buses.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no transit site expert. And, furthermore, I don’t particularly care whether the hub goes at 21st and Iowa streets. But as someone who has watched City Hall a long time, I sense the transit system entering a danger zone. The biggest risk to the system is that commissioners get bogged down in trying to find a transit site, and the job doesn’t get done before the 2018 election, the transit system isn’t operating the way leaders want it to, and the system suffers at the polls. Another possibility is that a transit hub is chosen late in the game, and the city hasn’t got all the kinks worked out of the new route system before voters go to the polls.
Maybe it won’t matter at all. It is tough to predict how voters will think at any given moment. But this much is clear: The city has been trying to figure out the location for a transit hub for more than two years. That’s a long time. As interim City Manager Diane Stoddard pointed out to commissioners on Tuesday, there is never going to be a perfect site for the hub. And she reminded commissioners that getting a site is really important to the future of the T.
“The site is really key to us being able to provide better service, which I think is one of the things we talked to voters about a number of years ago” Stoddard said.
In other news and notes around town:
• Some of you may have noticed some work underway in the former Famous Dave’s BBQ restaurant at Sixth and Wakarusa. Well, I don’t have all the details, but I have a few. A brand new restaurant is not coming to the space, but rather Six Mile Tavern and Chophouse is expanding. My assumption is the chophouse will only take a portion of the space because Famous Dave’s was huge. Owner Brad Ziegler has confirmed an expansion is underway for Six Mile, but Brad and I have been playing phone tag and I don’t have all the details. When I get them, I’ll pass them along.
Golf course, apartment developments under construction in northwest Lawrence; city commissioner gets graphic on Topeka sewage issue
It looks like Lawrence really is going to get another golf course. I’ve been reporting for years that an Arkansas-based company has filed plans to build a new nine-hole course in northwest Lawrence that will be surrounded by apartments. But now there are actual bulldozers and other equipment clearing the land.
Dirt work also has begun on a new apartment complex and single-family neighborhood a bit east of Rock Chalk Park, and dirt work is underway on a parcel of ground a bit south and east of the sports complex too. In fact. there is so much heavy equipment in that area, it reminds me of the time I decided to get aggressive with the dandelions in my yard. (We learned a valuable lesson there. If you tell me to go chemical-free, you need to be more explicit in your instructions.)
First, the golf course. We began reporting in 2012 about plan by a Fayetteville, Ark.-based Lindsey Management to build a new apartment/golf complex on vacant property between Queens Road and George Williams Way. The property is basically just east of the Rock Chalk Park sports complex. The plans won approval, but the work to build the complex never began. Plans were revised, and the work to build the complex still did not begin. But the Arkansas developers insisted they were still very interested in the project, and were just waiting for the right time to begin.
Now must be the right time because bulldozers are preparing the site, particularly the portion near where Queens Road and Wakarusa Drive intersect. Both a representative with the city and an area developer have confirmed the dirt work is for the golf course project, but I’m still trying to get in touch with a representative from the company.
The company though has filed a final plat at City Hall detailing the development. It still shows the nine holes of golf. Previous plans have described the course as kind of an executive style, which I think technically means it is a bit shorter than a normal course. (I avoided executive courses for a long time because I erroneously assumed they required a staff meeting, a series of memos and a 12-point improvement plan every time I lost a ball.) The primary customer base for the new golf course will be the residents who live on the property. The developers previously have told me that green fees are built into the monthly rent rates of residents. So, you can live at the property and pretty much golf as much as you would like. But the developers also have told me that at their other properties around the country, there usually are tee times available for the general public as well.
As for the apartments, there will be a lot of them. The first phase of the development calls for a mix of one- and two-bedroom units totaling 597 living units spread out amongst 30 buildings. That’s 957 new bedrooms for the area. The second phase will add another 248 living units, or 388 bedrooms. The second phase is on the west edge of the property, pretty close to the Rock Chalk Park complex. The area in between the west end and east end largely will be undeveloped because there are some sensitive environmental features of the property. A public walking trail will be built through the area. The project also includes two clubhouses, two outdoor pools, a tennis court, basketball court, putting green and other amenities. The plans also are showing what looks to be a roundabout on Queens Road, leading into the new street that will be the main entrance for the development.
The developers previously have said they envision the apartments attracting a mix of retirees, young professionals, some students and other people who are looking for a golf-oriented lifestyle.
I’m hoping to hear back from a representative of the development company. I’ll let you know when I hear additional details.
• As I mentioned earlier, dirt work also has begun on an apartment and single-family neighborhood development. We reported all the way back in 2013 that Lawrence builder Tim Stultz had filed plans for a residential development at the northwest corner of Queens Road and Overland Drive.
Stultz told me he hopes to start building foundations and actual buildings on the site in the next several weeks. Construction likely will last through all of 2016 and be ready for residents in the spring of 2017.
Plans call for a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments that total 172 living units. Stultz said all the apartments will be “garden-style” units. I lost a sizable rental deposit once over confusion about what the phrase “garden-style” apartments meant, so let me be clear. In this case, it means all the apartments will have ground floor entrances opening up to the outside.
“Everybody will be able to walk up to their front door from the outside,” Stultz said. “There won’t be large buildings with long hallways full of doors.”
Stultz said all the buildings will be 8-plexes, and every apartment will come with its own garage. If you are familiar with the Westfield Place apartments near Wakarusa and Eisenhower, this development will be similar to that project. Stultz also owns that development, and he said there is a waiting list for those units. He said there are just a large number of folks who are open to giving apartment living a try, especially if the units have some of the characteristics of a small home.
“There probably will not be any single, undergraduate students who will live in this new development,” Stultz said. “We’re talking about more young professionals, some commuters to Topeka, and probably some retirees. The apartment market has just expanded into so many other demographics.”
The project also will include 83 lots of traditional single-family homes of varying price points, Stultz said. The project also will include a clubhouse, and my understanding is those amenities will be available to both the apartment resident and the single-family home owners as well.
• Those of you who drive Sixth Street also may notice dirt work just north of Sixth Street and George Williams Way, kind of behind St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. I’m still checking on that site. I don’t think a development plan has been filed for the property, but rather the site is being leveled a bit to make it more suitable for development in the future. It is generally zoned for residential uses.
In other news and notes from around town:
• City commissioners last night said they may send a letter to state and federal environmental regulators regarding releases of sewage into the Kansas River that have come from the city of Topeka’s wastewater treatment plant. There have been two instances of raw sewage going into the river since April, the most recent yesterday. There was a third instance that involved only partially treated wastewater being released into the Kaw due to heavy rains around the plant.
I’m not sure that the commission is going to put Commissioner Matthew Herbert in charge of writing the letter, but it likely would get well read by regulators if he did. Herbert posted some strong comments on his City Commission Facebook page yesterday about the release. He even put them in letter form.
I was elected on April 7th. Today marks my 104th day in office. Today also marks the THIRD time your city has dumped thousands of gallons of sewage into the Kansas River, set on a course for my fine city. It was funny the first time. It made you look incompetent the second. Now, on your third offense, I'm going to start leaving flaming bags of poo on your city steps until you figure out a more permanent solution for your feces disposal.
Lawrence City Commissioner Matthew Herbert
Herbert did preface his comments by noting that normally his wife reads his Facebook posts before he makes them live, in an effort to keep him from sticking his foot in his mouth. But his wife was out of town yesterday.
City betting on hotel stays, liquor sales as part of proposed 2016 budget; commissioners receive report on more than $1.5 million in overtime costs for fire, police departments
Sack out in a Lawrence hotel room, have an extra cocktail every now and then, and tell yourself that you’re doing Lawrence City Hall budget-makers a favor in the process.
City commissioners are close to passing a 2016 budget that makes a bet that hotel stays and liquor consumption both will increase in Lawrence in future years. Commissioners at their meeting tonight will take a key procedural step in approving the 2016 budget. They’ll publish the proposed budget and set a public hearing of Aug. 4, at which point they’re scheduled to approve the budget and the tax rate for the coming year.
So, let’s take a look at how this budget is shaping up:
• The Rock Chalk Park project is completed, but it is still having an impact on the city’s budget. The proposed budget calls for taking $150,000 a year out of the city’s guest tax fund to make a portion of the annual debt payment for the city’s $10.5 million recreation center at Rock Chalk Park. Currently, all the recreation center debt is being paid for through the city’s proceeds of the countywide 1 cent sales tax.
But commissioners believe it would be appropriate to pay for some of the debt from the guest tax fund. Guest tax fund revenues come from a special tax that is charged on Lawrence hotel rooms. The city surmises that the eight-gym recreation center helps bring people to town for overnight stays, particularly for youth basketball and volleyball tournaments.
Guest tax money legally can only be used for functions that promote tourism, overnight stays and other activities that will generate more guest tax revenues. The countywide sales tax, on the other hand, can be used for any governmental purpose. So, by shifting $150,000 a year in payments to the guest tax fund, that frees up sales tax money for the city to use for other purposes. It is worth noting that the previous City Commission argued that when voters approved the countywide sales tax in 1994 they were given a “political promise” that the city’s share of the sales tax would be used for recreation projects. That was one of the key arguments from the past City Commission why they felt justified in using the sales tax to fund the recreation center in the first place without putting the issue to a public vote. Whether you subscribe to the political promise theory depends largely on how you remember 1994. Regardless, the city has the legal authority to spend the sales tax revenue on any governmental purpose. It doesn’t have such authority with the guest tax funds.
An issue to keep an eye on, though, is whether hotel stays in Lawrence will increase much over the next several years. The city is betting they will because by adding the $150,000 in debt payments, the guest tax fund is projected to spend more money than it will collect in 2016. The deficit is estimated to be about $40,000. That’s not a major problem in the near term. The guest tax fund has a healthy fund balance, and can afford to operate at a loss for a few years. But, eventually, the fund will need to move into positive territory to remain healthy.
The more significant issue with this change seems to be that residents were told — granted, by the previous commission — that there was no need to vote on the recreation center project because the sales tax funds were being used for what they were intended for by voters. Now, a portion of those funds will be used for other purposes, and the recreation center is beginning to affect other parts of the city budget. At the moment, the impact is fairly minimal because the $150,000 only represents about 10 percent of the annual debt payment the city makes on the recreation center. But we’ll see if this is the beginning of a new trend where the recreation center affects multiple areas of the city’s budget.
• City commissioners are making an even bigger bet on liquor taxes. The proposed budget calls for about $350,000 in funding for the WRAP program, which puts mental health/social workers in Lawrence schools. The city is planning to fund that program from the special alcohol fund, which gets its revenues from a special tax charged on drinks served at bars and restaurants. There has been some other shifting of special alcohol dollars to try to accommodate the new WRAP funding, but it is a politically difficult fund to cut expenses in because several social service agencies are funded from the tax revenues. So, the net result is the proposed 2016 budget has the special alcohol fund spending about $52,000 more than it is projected to receive in revenue next year. Unlike the guest tax fund, the special alcohol fund does not have a healthy fund balance. City staff members are estimating the fund will completely spend down all its reserves by the end of 2018. What will change that scenario is if liquor sales increase faster than expected in the coming years. But as we’ve previously reported, for some unknown reason, drink sales at bars and restaurants actually have declined the past two years in Lawrence. Betting on liquor sales to increase in Lawrence, though, generally has been a good long-term strategy.
• The proposed budget that commissioners will discuss tonight is different from the recommended budget prepared by interim City Manager Diane Stoddard. The biggest difference is that Stoddard’s recommended budget called for a property tax rate increase of 1.057 mills. City commissioners balked at that increase, however, and the proposed budget now calls for the property tax rate to hold steady.
That means some items had to be cut from the recommended budget to make items balance. (Well, sort of balance. More on that in a moment.) But it also means the city is getting more aggressive in projecting how much revenue it will receive in 2016, at least in one area. The proposed budget calls for $250,000 more in license and fee revenue than what Stoddard’s recommended budget called for less than a month ago. The increase is expected to come from the city’s new rental licensing and inspection program, which gets in full gear in 2016. To be clear, the city is not proposing to increase what it charges landlords; it has just chosen to get more aggressive in its projections on the amount of money the program will raise in 2016.
As for the part about the city’s budget balancing, what is proposed is not a balanced budget. The proposal calls for general fund spending to exceed revenues by about $895,000. But city officials are hopeful that won’t be the case. The city over the last several years has routinely budgeted to spend more than it receives in revenue, yet at the end of the year it has managed to finish with a slight surplus of revenues over expenses. Sometimes revenues — like sales tax collections — increase more than expected. Other times, the city manager’s office put on hold or eliminates certain purchases to keep expenses in line with revenues. The city’s total general fund budget has about $79.7 million in expenses, which is up about about 5.2 percent from 2015.
Among items that are getting a cut in the budget compared with what was in Stoddard’s recommended budget are:
— $25,000 in Planning Department funding that was to be used for various studies;
— $86,000 in the street maintenance division. The money was to be used to buy additional road salt. To be clear, the city will have road salt for the winter season. It just won’t buy as much as once planned.
— A nearly $189,000 reduction in the amount of overtime the Lawrence Police Department pays in 2016. That one caught my eye because a reduction in overtime seemingly would mean a reduction in the number of hours police are out on the street because the city is not adding any full-time officers as part of the 2016 budget. But I checked in with Mayor Jeremy Farmer about the cut, and he said the $189,000 reduction still will allow the Police Department to have at least the same number of hours available for overtime as it does in 2015. Police leaders, though, were asking for an increase in the number of hours they could use in 2016, and commissioners balked at that strategy.
Look for a discussion among commissioners on how the police and fire departments use overtime. Commissioners recently received a new report about just how much overtime is used in those two departments. The fire department spent $609,812 in overtime costs in 2014 for firefighters. Police officials spent $543,651 on overtime for police officers and another $603,938 on overtime for detectives in 2014. As we previously reported, the Police Department has been unable to staff a nighttime detective division, meaning that detectives often are called in for overtime when an investigation needs to occur during the nighttime hours. Police department leaders asked for about $1.2 million in funding to staff a nighttime detective division in 2016, but the funding is not included in the proposed budget.
At some point, I think city commissioners are going to have to figure out what the right size is for the Police Department. What will be interesting is whether they figure that out before they make decisions about what type of police headquarters building to fund. Knowing how large the force will be today and in the future is important in the design of the facility, but the bigger issue probably is figuring out how to spend what could be limited resources. If the city spends $20 million or more to build a police headquarters building, and then determines it needs to spend multiple millions more to add police officers shortly thereafter, will that be politically viable? That’s a big question that could have some big implications for the community and the Police Department.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
Baldwin City firm plans to start offering gigabit Internet service in Lawrence in early 2016; vehicle accident blamed for WOW Internet woes; Wheat State Pizza closes in Lawrence
A company that is installing super fast broadband service in Baldwin City today, says it likely will begin offering the service in Lawrence in early 2016.
Baldwin City-based RG Fiber is close to signing a lease agreement with the city of Lawrence that will give the company access to a ring of city-owned fiber optic cable that is needed to launch a gigabit broadband service in Lawrence.
City commissioners are scheduled to approve the lease agreement as part of their consent agenda on Tuesday evening. Mike Bosch, chief executive of RG Fiber, said that’s one of the last pieces of paperwork needed for his company to start a major broadband project in Lawrence. Bosch has begun accepting preregistrations for gigabit service at rgfiber.com/signup.
If this lease agreement with the city is one of the final pieces needed for the Lawrence project, you may be wondering why work won’t begin until at least 2016. The simple answer is because Bosch is busy making Baldwin City king of the Douglas County digital world. RG Fiber currently is installing fiber in Baldwin City. We have an article in today’s Journal-World about how Baker University will have the super-fast broadband service everywhere from classrooms to dorm rooms. Baker University students are surely destined to rule the world for awhile because they’ll have enough broadband to simultaneously watch YouTube, update on Facebook, post on Twitter and do something called Hulu. (What? I don’t have to shake my hips like that when I say Hulu? You’re sure it doesn’t have something to do with a hula hoop?)
Baker is expected to have the service within the first two weeks of August, and then customers in other parts of the town will be hooked up. After the Baldwin City project is well along, Bosch will start hooking up homes and businesses in Eudora in late 2015. Then, Lawrence will get its chance. That’s right, Lawrence is the largest city in the county, but we’re third on this list. RG Fiber tried to get a lease agreement with the previous Lawrence city commission that would have allowed the Lawrence project to get started quicker, but that deal moved slower than my Miss Pac-man game connected to dial-up.
The new group of city commissioners elected in April restarted those lease talks with RG Fiber. Bosch said he’s now confident the Lawrence project will happen.
“People are genuinely excited about getting this in Lawrence,” Bosch said. “They can see that Baldwin City is a real thing. They know it wasn’t just talk.”
Bosch said the number of signups he receives in Lawrence will play a role in where the company decides to offer the service in the city. He said the most likely locations to be involved in the first phase of the project are neighborhoods near major city streets that already have city-owned fiber in the rights-of-way. Those streets include: Sixth, Clinton Parkway, 23rd Street, Wakarusa and parts of Iowa between Sixth and 23rd streets.
The project will include more than just gigabit Internet service, which is the same speed of service the much ballyhooed Google Fiber project is delivering in parts of Kansas City. In addition to the gigabit service, RG also will offer video cable television packages and phone service, Bosch said. The company is marketing those services in Baldwin City currently. Bosch said he’s still working on a pricing plan for Lawrence, but expects gigabit service to run around $85 to $90 per month. If you want to bundle Internet, television and phone, that service likely would start at about $170 per month.
It will be interesting to watch how this project develops in the coming months. There certainly has been some skepticism among some about whether a startup company like RG can actually deliver a working broadband system. By the time the project gets to Lawrence, there should be some indication of how service levels are in Baldwin City and Eudora.
The last group of city commissioners also got bogged down with the question of whether a company like RG Fiber could make this sort of broadband service available throughout the community. That will be a key issue to follow in the years to come. Will the service make its way into lower income portions of the city? Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband had proposed a different type of system to bring gigabit service to Lawrence. It wanted to create a regulatory system called an “open access” network. An open access network would allow multiple providers to use the same sets of fiber optic cables to get service to people’s homes and businesses. But RG and other companies said creating such a regulation would serve as a major disincentive for other broadband providers to invest in Lawrence. A city-hired consultant largely agreed, so the current crop of city commissioners have moved past that idea and allowed the RG project to move forward.
But if a few years go by and the gigabit service is largely contained to just a few prosperous areas of Lawrence, there may be a discussion about whether the city should offer a city-owned broadband service. That would cost tens of millions of dollars to build. But who knows? Maybe by that time there will be something cooler and hipper than gigabit service that occupies our debates.
In other news and notes from around town:
UPDATE: I heard back from Debra Schmidt, local systems manager for WOW in Lawrence. She confirmed this weekend’s outage indeed was one of the larger ones the Lawrence cable/Internet system has experienced in recent years. She estimated about 4,500 accounts were without service at one point or another on Saturday.
As we previously reported, a vehicle accident on Kasold Drive caused the problems. A car hit a utility box that is a major splice point for WOW’s system in Lawrence.
“It probably was the worst damage we’ve ever had to the system,” Schmidt said.
The accident happened a little after 4:30 a.m. on Saturday. WOW responded to the scene shortly thereafter and had a crew of 10 workers on site until about 8 p.m. Saturday.
“I know it seemed long, but I can promise you we were working very hard to make the outage as short as possible,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt said most customers had service restored before 8 p.m. Saturday, and she said there are no lingering issues left from the accident.
But WOW is experiencing technical difficulties on another front. Schmidt said last week the company installed new equipment related to its On Demand cable television service. She said that installation has created problems for some customers who are ordering On Demand programs or trying to watch On Demand programs.
A timeline for getting that issued resolved hasn’t been determined yet. She said several engineers are working on that issue currently. Schmidt didn’t have an estimate for the number of customers impacted by that technical difficulty, but she said the problem was not system wide.
• While we’re talking about Internet and cable, it was an eventful weekend for the city’s largest broadband provider, WOW. There have been multiple reports on social media of Internet outages and cable problems that occurred this weekend in Lawrence.
WOW’s Facebook page has a special note to Lawrence customers that says a vehicle accident occurred on Kasold north of Sixth Street about 4:30 a.m. Saturday. (The statement said near Kasold and Fourth Street, which caused my GPS to hiccup, so I’m assuming somewhere north of Sixth Street.) “This accident damaged a significant part of our fiber plant,” according to the statement. “Our crews are on site working diligently to restore service as soon as possible.”
Posts on social media, however, indicate there were some problems with video service prior to that accident. I sent an email to the local manager for WOW over the weekend, and she said she was working on an update of the situation. I reached out to here again this morning and will let you know when I hear more.
• We still have sunflower lapel pins and "Wizard of Oz" tattoos, but there is now one less way to show our Kansas pride. Lawrence’s Wheat State Pizza has closed its doors. As I noted on my Twitter feed late Friday (@clawhorn_ljw) the store’s last day of business was on Sunday.
Wheat State was a Kansas creation that used the state’s most famous crop — wheat — to create a unique pizza crust. The store opened about 11 years ago in The Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana streets. Brad and Jennifer Remington took over the business in 2010. Brad told me the intense competition in the Lawrence restaurant market caused the couple to look for other opportunities.
“There is obviously a lot of competition,” Brad Remington said. “It is not that anybody pushed us out. But we just aren’t really getting ahead in life doing this.”
Remington said the restaurant business is going through a cycle in Lawrence where more new restaurants are opening than the market can immediately support.
“I know a lot of restaurant people in town who are struggling right now,” Remington said. Remington said the ownership of The Malls had been good to work with, but finding successful restaurant locations in Lawrence is becoming more difficult as the restaurant scene becomes more concentrated.
“Eventually, you have to make that decision to move on,” he said. “Unless you are on Mass. or south Iowa Street, it is really difficult to get seen.”
Remington thanked his customers and said he had “made a lot of friends through this place.” Remington said he suspects there are more changes coming in the Lawrence restaurant scene as some other existing firms re-evaluate their position over the next year.
“I almost think the city has to put some sort of limit on how many new restaurants can open up, but I don’t know how the city could really do that,” Remington said. “But there are a lot of good, small, hometown businesses that are having a hard time competing right now.”
As for the future of Wheat State, founder Ryan Murphy continues to own the rights to the Wheat State name and recipes. Murphy told me in an email that he hopes to reopen a Wheat State Pizza in Lawrence at some point in the future. But it sounded like there were no definite plans. Murphy said he may start a crowd-funding campaign in the next few weeks to try to raise some money to open a new store. He said he likely would focus his efforts on finding a downtown location. I’ll let you know if I hear of any progress on that front.
More details emerge on pending west Lawrence retirement community; city set to tackle bus hub question; major changes to 21st Street possible
Plans for a proposed multimillion dollar senior living complex in West Lawrence are becoming clearer. The developer of the property has confirmed it has entered into a contract for an approximately four-acre site near Sixth and Queens Road.
We reported earlier this week that a Minnesota-based development firm was planning to develop a retirement cooperative that would include 52 living units, underground parking and other such amenities at a west Lawrence site. But at the time, the company — Village Cooperative — wasn’t yet ready to disclose the specific location.
Well, the company has now confirmed it has a contract to purchase a 4.1 acre vacant piece of property that is just south of Sixth Street where Queens Road would be if Queens Road extended south of Sixth Street. The property is the vacant piece on the southwest corner of the intersection, not the rural single-family home that sits on the southeast corner of the intersection.
It you want to get even more technical, the property is just north of where Branchwood Drive ends, which creates interesting questions. When the intersection is fully developed, will we have Queens Road on one side of Sixth Street and Branchwood Drive on the other, kind of like the confusion known as 15th Street and Bob Billings Parkway? Or like Legends Drive and Inverness Drive? Will my GPS explode on my dash? Will pizza delivery drivers simply throw boxes of pepperoni pizza in the ditch because they can’t find their intended address? Maybe there is an upside to this. Regardless, such issues are a ways off. Shane Wright, project manager for the co-op project has estimated construction won’t likely begin until next summer, and that is dependent upon the project pre-selling at least half of its units. He’s optimistic, though.
“Lawrence is a community people love living in,” Wright said. “There is pent-up demand for maintenance-free living options. You can find some, but they probably aren’t this type of ownership structure, and they maybe aren’t age restricted. The options in Lawrence right now are pretty limited.”
The company also has released a rendering of what the Lawrence project is expected to look like.
The development group — which is controlled by Minnesota-based Real Estate Equities Development, LLC — has develop about $235 million worth of residential projects, primarily in the Midwest. The company particularly has focused on senior living and the cooperative style of ownership. It has one development open in Johnson County and two more projects planned for construction in the KC metro area.
As we reported earlier this week, the cooperative style of ownership is a bit different for the Lawrence market. Instead of owning your individual unit, like you would in a condo development, you own a share of the entire housing complex. In the case of the Lawrence project — since it would have 52 living units — each owner would own a 1/52 share of the the entire complex. Wright said an advantage of that ownership structure is that the cooperative is responsible for all the maintenance of the property, even for the items that need fixing inside your unit. For example, if the dishwasher breaks, it will be the responsibility of the cooperative to fix or replace it since technically the cooperative owns it.
It will be interesting to see how the development — which will be limited to residents 62 and older — is received in Lawrence. The city certainly is interested in becoming more of a destination for retirees, and that likely will mean developments will have to be designed in ways far different than how we house thousands of students across town. It will be interesting to watch what the market comes up with.
As for these units, Village Cooperative plans to offer units ranging in size from about 870 feet to about 1,500 square feet. Prices, Wright said, likely will be about $75,000 to $125,000 per share. Residents then will pay a monthly fee of about $900 to $1,500 a month, with that fee covering property taxes, maintenance, some utilities and other such items.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It is getting close to decision time for Lawrence city commissioners when it comes to a major bus issue. Commissioners need to figure out where the city’s main bus hub is going to be. The decision involves a multimillion dollar construction project, and perhaps more importantly, could go a long way in determining whether voters will be ready to extend a sales tax in coming years to continue funding the transit system.
Commissioners will talk about the subject at their Tuesday evening meeting. At issue will be whether the city should move forward with placing the transit hub — basically the place where most of the buses congregate and transfers are made — near 21st and Iowa streets. Commissioners Stuart Boley and Matthew Herbert both have expressed concerns about that location. But commissioners at their weekly meeting will receive a report that says transit leaders still believe that is the best location for the approximately $4 million project.
Boley and Herbert both wanted the city to take a harder look at a site near Ninth and Iowa streets, specifically a site in the parking lot behind The Merc. Transit leaders looked at that site once, and liked it, but then talks broke down with the property owner. The new report says they’ve reached out to the property owner again, but the ownership group stated clearly that it doesn’t have an interest in putting a transit hub at the site.
“The owner states the proposed site for the transit center would not be available because of ongoing leases and plans for future development,” the memo stated.
We’ll keep our eyes open for future development plans near Ninth and Iowa.
Meanwhile, that leaves the site near 21st and Iowa streets as the only one the city has on the table for the transit hub. Technically, the site is at 2021 Stewart Ave., which is just south of Fire Station No. 5 along Iowa Street.
If commissioners move forward with that site, though, they’ll likely have to approve some significant changes to 21st Street. Neighbors are concerned the transit hub will create more cut-through traffic on 21st Street. That’s because the bus hub project would require a traffic signal be installed at 21st and Iowa streets. A traffic signal would make 21st Street a pretty handy way to avoid large parts of 23rd Street.
To combat that, the city is contemplating installing a “traffic diverter” device that would stop motorists from turning off Iowa Street and heading east on 21st Street. The diverter would be placed at the intersection of 21st and Stewart Avenue, which means buses could still turn off Iowa Street and get to the transit hub, but no eastbound traffic would get past Stewart Avenue. Motorists wanting to access the portion of 21st Street east of Stewart Avenue would have to detour over to 19th or 23rd Streets and then cut back to 21st Street.
To be clear, though, 21st Street east of Stewart Avenue would continue to be a two-lane street, and westbound traffic on 21st Street would be able to continue on to Iowa Street. The diverter, though, should eliminate any reason for motorists looking for a shortcut to to turn off of Iowa Street onto 21st Street, said Robert Nugent, the city’s transit administrator.
A couple of other traffic-calming devices are planned for 21st Street as well. Nugent said two to three chicanes would be added to the street. Chicanes are basically a place in the road that becomes narrower for a stretch. The intent is the narrowness of the street slows traffic down. Those chicanes would be built at locations east of Stewart Avenue.
We’ll see what commissioners think of the plans. Boley likely will hear a lot about the subject because he lives in the neighborhood near the proposed transit hub. The hub issue has been on the City Commission’s radar for more than a year. A sense of urgency is building for the project, however. The city’s transit system is funded by a pair of sales taxes that were approved by voters in 2008. Those taxes have a 10-year sunset clause, meaning there will need to be another election in 2018, in order to renew the taxes.
Having the transit hub location in place well ahead of that election is desirable. When the city chooses a new transit hub location — currently it is in downtown, which transit leaders say has become too congested — it will have to make major changes to all of its current routes. Transit leaders want to make sure they have all that ironed out and working smoothly before they ask voters to renew a sales tax to fund the system.
The transit sales taxes in 2008 won by a landslide, so you would think that voters would look favorably on them again. But never assume too much. The state is increasing its sales tax rate, and perhaps voters will see a no vote on a transit sales tax as a chance to give themselves a tax cut. Plus, there are some people who still feel the bus service is not convenient enough. Commissioner Matthew Herbert has expressed that concern several times. If that sentiment starts to take hold in the community, that too will affect a sales tax vote.
We’ll see what commissioners do with all this. At this point, it looks like staff is seeking approval for the 21st and Iowa location, but commissioners could choose to open up another search for sites, or decide to keep the bus hub in downtown, despite concerns about the congestion problems the big buses are facing.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday.
Builders on pace to obliterate Lawrence’s construction record; city pondering whether to allow digital signs along roadsides
It is frequent that I break something when I get out my hammer and saw for a building project, and it appears that is the case for Lawrence builders this year too. With half of 2015 in the books, it sure appears Lawrence is going to have a record-breaking construction year.
The latest report from City Hall shows that through June, the city has issued building permits for $155.9 million worth of construction projects in Lawrence. Based on the records I have, that’s the highest mid-year mark in the city’s history, and it is not even close. In recent years the previous high was in 2013, when city officials had issued permits for $75.1 million worth of projects through June.
To put it in further perspective, there have only been four years in the history of the city where there have been at least $155 million worth of projects for the entire year. Those were in 2013, 2006, 2000, and 1996.
The record year was 2000 with $175 million worth of projects. That means Lawrence builders need to start $20 million worth of new projects in the second half of the year to equal or break the record. That’s a little more than $3 million a month. When it comes to building, anything can still go wrong. I’ve got a closet without a door that proves that point. (I’m just thankful I was standing on the correct side of the wall when I built it.) But it sure looks like Lawrence is primed for a record.
In terms of the projects that are boosting the totals, there were two decent-sized ones in June. The city issued a permit for $7.5 million worth of construction work on a new sewage pump station for the city’s new sewage treatment plant that is being constructed south of the Wakarusa River. The second-largest project of the month was $6.2 million worth of work that began on the expansion of the Hutton Farms residential complex in northwest Lawrence. As we reported in January, plans were filed to expand the complex, which is just north and west of Peterson Road and Kasold Drive. Plans called the pending development an “exclusive residential community” with a clubhouse and other amenities. The city in June issued permits for 42 duplexes — or 84 living units — and three single-family homes that will be part of the development.
Both those projects are large, but they are still middle of the pack when it comes to other projects in 2015. Here’s a look at the 10 largest:
— HERE @ Kansas apartment and retail building across the street from Memorial Stadium: $45 million.
— Multistory apartment and office building at northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire: $18.7 million
— Wakarusa river sewage treatment plant buildings: $13.3 million
— Expansion of Pioneer Ridge retirement community near Harvard and Wakarusa: $12 million
— Pump station for Wakarusa sewage treatment plant: $7.5 million
— Hutton Farms expansion: $6.2 million
— Single-family home at 116 N. Wilderness Way: $2.7 million
— Renovation of the Phi Delta fraternity house near the KU campus: $2.6 million
— An addition onto the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house near the KU campus: $2 million
— Addition to the Kansas River sewage treatment plant: $1.9 million.
One number that could get lost in all of this is that single-family home construction has picked up as well. The city has issued 138 permits for single-family and duplex construction in Lawrence through June. That’s the best six-month total in at least the last five years. In recent years, the highest total was 87 in 2013. As I reported above, duplexes accounted for a large number of the units in June, but the city still issued 21 permits for single-family homes. That’s the largest single-family showing thus far in 2015. The single-family home market has been an area that has struggled to regain its momentum following the downturn earlier this decade. Watchers of the local economy have been keeping their eyes open for signs of a sustained turnaround in the single-family market. We’ll see what the second half of the year brings in that category.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If there is one project that may be even more dangerous for me than building closets, it would probably be changing the messages on the marquee signs that businesses have around town. You know, those message signs on the tall poles along major streets where they advertise their specials or come up with a funny saying. Think about how dangerous it is: It involves both ladders and spelling.
Well, there’s a pending discussion at City Hall that could remove the ladders from the equation. The city’s planning and development services department is starting a review of Lawrence’s sign code, and one item up for discussion is whether digital message board signs should be allowed. Currently, the only type of business allowed to use digital signs in Lawrence are gas stations, and they can only use them to display the price of fuel. That was a fairly recent change to the city’s sign code.
Leaders in the planning department have said it likely will take six to 12 months for an entire review of the sign code to be completed. There are several other topics officials plan to review when it comes to signs. Those include:
— Changes to how temporary sign permits are issued, which may give businesses greater flexibility in using temporary signs to advertise certain events.
— The use of signs that move, such as pennants, flags, signs on trailers, and something called a “feather sign.” I don’t know what that is, but I’ll keep an eye out for a bird towing a banner.
— Automobile dealership signs. The industry creates some special situations because of their size and desire for high visibility, the department said.
— Better definitions and standards for signs of community interest, which usually are temporary signs that aren’t related to a specific business but usually some type of event such as a home show or the variety of events that happen at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.
— Issues related to the size, number, location and duration of real estate signs that are used to advertise a property is for sale.
— The use of residential commercial service signs, such as the advertising signs roofers and painters use when they are performing a job at someone’s home.
— A review of how the city can address “nuisance signs” that are left vacant and cause blight.
The city expects to conduct the sign code review incrementally, so expect to see some proposed changes for some of these items in the next couple of months.
• It is a beautiful day for a sidewalk sale, and I'll be at one for hours on end. I've packed my jackhammer so I can take the sidewalk home with me today. (Oh wait, I'm told that is not what they mean by a sidewalk sale.) Regardless, I'll still be at the Downtown Lawrence sidewalk sale from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at the Journal-World's booth. Stop by, say hi, tell me what's on your mind. Look for the booth at the corner of Eighth and Massachusetts streets.
Art gallery plans to expand on Mass. Street; news of a ‘secret order’; multimillion dollar retirement project eyes West Lawrence site
I know when I’m out buying serious art my wallet is so heavy with cash that it is difficult for me to walk up a flight of stairs. (Dogs playing pool are expensive, and don’t even get me started on the price of crushed velvet.) Well, now downtown art lovers will have a new ground-floor gallery space to visit on Massachusetts Street, but it will come at the expense of a longtime children’s store.
The folks at Wonder Fair, the art gallery in the upstairs space above the Burger Stand at 803 Massachusetts St., have confirmed the business is moving into the space currently occupied by the Blue Dandelion, a longtime “children’s boutique” at 841 Massachusetts St. The owner of Blue Dandelion has announced that she is retiring and the store will soon close.
Meredith Moore, owner and gallery director for Wonder Fair, said the new location will at least triple the amount of retail gallery space the store has, and also will provide space for a new art supply store that the company will run.
“We’ll have a lot more expanded opportunities to be entrepreneurial in this space,” Moore said. “Our artists will have a lot more exposure. We’ll have a chance to partner with other startup artist companies. We’ll really have a big gallery space.”
For those of you not familiar with Wonder Fair, it has been in business for several years in its upstairs space and has gained a reputation as a gallery for fine prints and also quite a few everyday items such as hand-printed stationery and smaller pieces of art that sell for less than $100. (Dogs playing pool and crushed velvet are perhaps not its specialty.)
The shop works with about 100 local artists and usually has work on display from 20 to 30 artists at a time. That number is expected to grow some in the new space, Moore said.
A big part of the new venture is expected to be the art supply store. Initially, the shop is expected to focus on supplies for printmaking and drawing. So that means a large selection of fine art papers, inks, pens, pencils and other such items. Moore said the store also will likely carry some paints and other supplies for artists that go beyond printmaking.
To add a twist to the venture, Moore said she is exploring the idea of setting up the print shop as a cooperative, meaning it would be owned by members, and those members would share in the profit of the venture. Cooperative-style ownership has worked well for places like The Merc, and Moore said she thinks the art community would take to the idea of a locally owned and operated supplier.
“Lawrence artists are really conscientious shoppers, and I think they want to shop local,” Moore said.
But speaking of twists, here is one for the business: It will host a secret order. You don’t hear a lot about secret orders anymore. In fact, it is downright funny how little publicity secret orders get these days.
But Moore is involved with one called the Secret Order of the Black Diamond. I can tell you its name because I made a deal with Moore that I would only whisper it. So, you should probably do the same. I’m no expert on the Secret Order of the Black Diamond (I once tried to give my wife what I thought was a black diamond that I won at a carnival, but, come to find out, rubber duckies don’t produce black diamonds — or a happy wife.) But my understanding of the Secret Order of the Black Diamond (still whispering) is that it is kind of like 19th century geocaching, which I always thought involved getting lost in the woods and being eaten by a pack of coyotes. But I may be wrong again. Moore described it more as a scavenger hunt where people go out in the community seeking a small box that contains a beautifully crafted clue or piece of art that leads you to another location and ultimately to a finish line.
“They’re basically treasure caches that lead people around the community to interesting places,” Moore said. “We also try to help people learn a little bit about places or people who are historically significant.”
Moore said she thinks of the project as interactive art, and apparently other people have really taken to the idea. She said the order has around 500 members, and has been one of the better funded arts campaigns on the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter. Plans call for the Wonder Fair location to serve as the “headquarters” for the secret society, meaning it will host meetings and events for the aficionados of the order.
In terms of a timeline for Wonder Fair to move into the space, Moore said it is “terrifyingly fast.” She has plans for a mid-September opening, she said.
As far as the Blue Dandelion goes, owner Kris Bailey told me she simply decided to retire as her five-year lease on the building was set to expire.
“I decided I didn’t want to do a another five years,” Bailey said.
The store has been in business for 10 years. A going out of business sale is underway currently. Bailey said she wasn’t sure when the last day of business would be for the store. She said that is partly dependent on how much merchandise she sells at Thursday’s Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Speaking of cooperatives, there are plans for a new multimillion-dollar retirement development in Lawrence that will use the cooperative model.
A Minnesota-based company called Village Cooperative says it has plans to build a new 52-unit housing development for people 62 years and older. The company hasn’t announced the exact location of the development, but an executive with the firm said it is a piece of ground on the south side of Sixth Street near the Wal-Mart at Sixth and Congressional. Look for more details on the exact location in the next day or two.
In the meantime, here are the basics as I understand them:
— 52 units that will range in size from 873 square feet to 1,507 square feet. Some units will be one bedroom, while others will be two bedrooms.
— The development will feature heated, underground parking.
— Ownership of the structure will be a cooperative model. Shane Wright, project manager for the development, said the project will sell 52 shares of stock — one share for each living unit. When you buy a share, you don’t really own the individual unit that you are living in. Instead, you own 1/52nd of the entire building. You are a shareholder in the cooperative, which owns the entire building. So, if something breaks in the unit you are living in, it is not your responsibility to fix it. It is the responsibility of the cooperative.
“There is a staff in place that does that for you,” Wright said. “We think it combines the best elements of owning and renting.”
— Prices for the shares are expected to be about $75,000 to $125,000, Wright said. In addition, residents will pay a monthly fee of between $900 to $1,500. That fee covers all taxes, maintenance issues and some utilities, Wright said.
— When it comes time to move, the cooperative markets your share to potential buyers. Wright said most cooperatives are marketing constantly to build up a waiting list of buyers. Wright said shares are expected to appreciate in value by about 3 percent per year.
The project is part of a larger company called Real Estate Equities Development, which is based in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Wright, who is an owner of the company, said the firm recently opened its first cooperative in the Kansas City area on Johnson Drive in the Shawnee Mission area. Another project is being marketed in the Lenexa area, and a groundbreaking is planned for a Lee's Summit project later this year.
Wright said the company will seek to sell at least 50 percent of all its shares before it starts on the Lawrence project. He said the soonest a Lawrence project will begin is probably next summer, and the development likely would take a year to build.
I’m expecting to get more information about the site in the next day or two, and I’ll provide you an update when I do.
• I mentioned the Downtown Lawrence Sidewalk Sale earlier, and I have news on that front. Well, kind of: I’ll be there from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and, no, I’m not seeking a great deal on a black diamond. (Well, if it is a really good deal, I’ll listen.) Instead, I’ll be at a Journal-World booth hoping to talk to a lot of folks in the community. If you have ever had something on your mind about the newspaper or our websites, stop by and let me know. As some of you may know, I recently was named as the new managing editor for the newspaper and its websites, which puts me in a position to direct our coverage on several fronts. So, I’m eager to hear from you.
And it should be a great adventure. When I come to work, I always — for 14 years now — wear a tie. We’ll see if I keep that streak going on Thursday. I’m already beginning to seek a ruling on whether the streak will remain intact if I wear the tie around my head as a sweatband. Look for the J-W booth at the southwest corner of Eighth and Mass.
I’m sure city employees always fix a big batch of popcorn, grab their notebooks and sit down in front of the TV on Tuesday nights to watch and admire the weekly Lawrence City Commission meetings. But there may be a few more viewers tonight. This is the meeting where commissioners will make some significant decisions about city paychecks.
Commissioners are scheduled to approve new employment agreements for the employee groups that represent large numbers of police officers and firefighters. It is set to be a big night for those groups. Getting city employees increases in pay has been a priority for the administration of interim City Manager Diane Stoddard, and it appears Lawrence city commissioners are on board with the direction as well. The attitude has been noticed by the employee groups.
“It was clear the management team has a goal of investing in the employees,” said Detective Mike McAtee, chairman of the Lawrence Police Officers Association. “They were tough negotiations, but I felt like each side was making headway in every meeting. I can’t say it went that way in years past.”
But what has changed in terms of how the city will pay its police and fire staffs? (Quick note: The agreements cover police officers and detectives on the police side, and cover positions that are at the rank of lieutenant or below on the fire side.) Here’s the basic information:
— The city will spend about $1.05 million more on police wages — for those employees covered by the agreement — over the next three years. The 2016 total is $154,800. The wage increase in 2016 really only impacts a few police officers who have topped out on the pay scale. Detectives aren’t getting a general wage increase because a salary study showed their wages were very competitive with area communities. In 2017, the city will spend about $445,000 to fund the police agreement, and that includes a 2 percent general wage increase for police officers, but again not for detectives. In 2018, the city will spend about $445,000 again, this time giving a 1.75 percent wage increase to police officers and a 1 percent increase to detectives.
— The city will spend about $1.5 million more on firefighter wages — for those employees covered by the agreement — for the next four years. (Firefighters negotiated a four-year deal, while police negotiated a three-year deal.) The breakdown for fire is: about $350,000 in 2016 and about $500,000 in 2017 that will go toward fire employees who have topped out at the pay scale; about $360,000 in 2018 that will fund a 2.5 percent general wage increase; and about $350,000 in 2019 to fund a 2.5 percent general wage increase.
In a memo to city commissioners, staff members said they based a lot of their negotiations off of salary studies that looked at what police and fire employees were making in other area communities. But those studies weren’t part of the information provided to commissioners, so I asked to see them. Here’s some of what those studies showed:
— Lawrence’s average starting salary today for a police officer is $43,180. That’s about 6.9 percent higher than the average starting salary for the communities of Lenexa, Overland Park, Shawnee, Topeka, Kansas City, Kan. and Olathe.
— The annual “maximum” for a police officer in Lawrence is $67,350. That is about 4.8 percent less than the average of those communities listed above. Understand something about the maximum, though. There are ways that officers can earn more than that amount in a year. Overtime is one way, and receiving special training to become certified in specific areas is another. According to city payroll data, there were more than 50 police officers in 2014 that earned more than $70,000 a year, with a handful in the $90,000 range. Now, how much of that came in overtime, I don’t know. It seems like that may be an issue city commissioners will want to study as they look at what type of police headquarters to build. Does the city have the right size of police force today, or is it asking officers to work unhealthy amounts of overtime?
— It takes Lawrence police officers about eight years to reach the top of their pay grade. The average for the other communities is 11.6 years, but the numbers are really all over the board. Shawnee and Olathe didn’t provide information for that question, and Topeka checked in at 21 years.
The bottom-line on the proposed police agreement is that both sides have agreed to keep the starting salary above the average of area communities. The department finds that to be a real advantage in finding quality recruits. Both sides also have agreed to increase the maximum annual salary incrementally so that at the end of the three-year agreement, Lawrence’s maximum will be in line with the average maximum at other area departments. The amount of time it takes a Lawrence police officer to reach that maximum salary isn’t scheduled to change under the agreement. So, it is a significant boost for police, but one that McAtee said is important in order to cut down on officer turnover.
“We want officers to be invested in the community,” McAtee said. “If they are making a fair wage, hopefully they will buy a house in Lawrence, their kids will go to school in Lawrence, and they really will be a part of the community. That is what we want.”
Figuring out how the fire pay plan works is a little more complicated. There’s lots of talk of apples and oranges, and after awhile I feel like I’m in the produce aisle of Checkers, which never ends well. (I just get overwhelmed and fill the F-150 with bananas because they are so cheap.)
But the point fire officials are making is that it is a little tough to compare wages of Lawrence fire employees with those of other cities because Lawrence operates a fully integrated fire and medical service, while some other communities don’t. In other words, Lawrence firefighters also are trained EMTs and operate ambulances in addition to firefighting equipment. But here’s a look at what I was able to decipher:
— It takes about eight years for a Lawrence fire employee to top out on the pay scale. Data from Overland Park, Shawnee, Olathe, Lenexa and Kansas City, Kan. showed that it takes about 12 to 14 years in those communities.
— When Lawrence fire employees top out on the pay scale, their annual maximum is about 10 percent less than the average maximum in those communities listed above.
— The proposed plan will add about six years on to how long it takes for a Lawrence fire employee to reach the top of the pay scale. But the top ranges of the pay scale will increase by about 10 percent to bring them in line with area averages. In terms of what those ranges are, I don’t have those numbers. But from 2014 payroll data, I can tell you that many firefighters make around $60,000 to $80,000 a year, depending on whether they are trained to be EMTs or paramedics. Lieutenants generally make more.
John Darling, president of the local firefighters union, said the proposed plan represents some of the larger changes that have been made to the department’s pay structure in years. But he said they are important changes to make to help the department recruit and retain quality employees.
Commissioners will discuss and vote on the proposed employment agreements at their 5:45 p.m. meeting tonight. Before that meeting, though, they will have a study session on the 2016 budget. Last week, commissioners balked at a recommended 1.057 mill levy increase that would help pay for wage increases, additional funding for the WRAP mental health care program in schools, and a few other items.
We’ll see how commissioners attempt to reconcile the proposed budget. There certainly has been some talk about spending down some city reserve funds. In the past, spending reserve funds has been seen as an acceptable practice when paying for one-time items, but has been frowned upon when paying for ongoing expenses, such as salaries or multi-year programs. We’ll see how this new commission tackles such issues.
I once had a vision, and then I got married and soon discovered that talking my lovely bride into living on my 1960s cabin cruiser on Melvern Lake perhaps was going to require more persuasion than I once thought. What I’m saying is: Some visions are better than others. Perhaps you are unaware, but Lawrence and Douglas County are trying to craft their own vision, and now you get a chance to provide feedback.
A steering committee is working on updating a massive document known as Horizon 2020, which is the city and county’s long range, comprehensive plan. You may think such a work group would have to be sponsored by No Doz, and you may be right. There’s a whole lot of wonk in that document.
But Horizon 2020 also ends up being at the center of a lot of debates that have real-life consequences. Should downtown get a bunch of new multistory buildings? Should we convert some of the prime ag ground in the Kaw Valley into valuable industrial property? Should we build a new shopping center at the southern edge of town? All those questions and more end up coming back to this Horizon 2020 document.
Members of the public tonight will get the first of several chances to weigh in on how the plan ought to be changed. The steering committee will take public comment in an open-house type of format from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and then from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at City Hall.
A community vision may draw some comments, because one thing Horizon 2020 doesn’t have much of is vision. There are approximately three people who have read the entire plan, and two of the three have told me that there is not a vision statement in the document. (The third said, “forget it,” and is now living on a 1950s pontoon on an undisclosed large farm pond. He is unmarried.)
I joke some because I know Horizon 2020 talk can cause some eyes to glaze over. But there really isn’t anything called a “vision” in our community’s comprehensive plan. There is an item, however, called a “general goal.” Here it is, folks. The goal we all have been working toward: “The overall community goal for planning is to provide, within the range of democratic and constitutional processes, for the optimum in public health, safety, convenience, general social and physical environment and individual opportunities for all the residents of the community, regardless of racial, ethnic, social or economic origin. It is the goal of the planning process to achieve a maximum of individual freedom, but public welfare must prevail. It is the intent to meet and safeguard individual rights and vested interests in a manner which will create the minimum disruption in individual freedoms and life values.”
It is amazing that we don’t quote that more often.
To be fair, Horizon 2020 really was crafted to help professional planners — think of officials in the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department — understand how to craft, implement and enforce various codes and rules. It wasn’t really meant to be our guiding light.
Talk in recent years has shifted, however, to whether Lawrence and Douglas County would benefit by having a more overarching community vision. I like to think of its as: What do we want to be?
Well, a draft report by this new Horizon 2020 work group includes a vision statement. Here it goes: “The City of Lawrence and rural Douglas County is one of the most desirable places in the United States to call home. A well educated community with a unique free state spirit, we are diverse, publicly engaged, and boldly innovative. We are prosperous, with full employment and a broad tax base. Our development is human-scale and our vibrant neighborhoods are livable, allowing people to age in place. We have ample choices for safe, efficient transportation including bicycling, walking and transit. The City’s lively and historic downtown attracts residents and visitors for commerce and cultural arts. Our citizens value preserving and enhancing the natural environment for our enjoyment and for future generations. The proximity of rural and agricultural land to the city provides beauty and respite, and we enjoy the economic and health benefits of a robust local food system. We make Lawrence and rural Douglas County a place where creativity thrives, sustainability is a way of life, and community pride is contagious.”
I think I’ve figured out what Lawrence and Douglas County want to become: the place where you have to take a very deep breath before you endeavor to read our vision statement or “general goal.”
Again, I joke. But there probably is a question about whether that vision statement is the type of focused goal that leaders easily can keep at the top of their minds. But don’t get me wrong. There are some important statements in there, and several that can lead to a lot of debate in the future. Let’s look at a few points:
• “We are prosperous, with full employment and a broad tax base.” At the moment, Lawrence has one of the lower per capita income numbers in the state and its tax base is heavy in the residential area and light in the commercial and industrial area.
• “Our development is human-scale, and our vibrant neighborhoods are livable, allowing people to age in place.” This has the potential to change how neighborhoods are designed in the future, especially making them more friendly to retirees.
• “We have ample choices for safe, efficient transportation including bicycling, walking and transit.” The idea of Lawrence relying less on automobiles has been on the minds of some for decades. How this plan is rewritten in that regard will go a long way in determining how our street system, sidewalks and trails are built in the future.
• “The proximity of rural and agricultural land to the city provides beauty and respite, and we enjoy the economic and health benefits of a robust local food system.” An old point of contention has been whether we should convert some of the prime agricultural land that is near Interstate 70 to industrial uses. This statement seems to indicate the issue is settled. Ag land, in our vision statement, gets more mention than industrial land.
But perhaps the most interesting phrase in the entire goal statement is “we are diverse, publicly engaged, and boldly innovative.” Boldly innovative. What are some example of how we have been boldly innovative in the recent past? What are some ideas of how we will be boldly innovative in the future? I’m not saying we don’t have the ability to be boldly innovative, but in covering city government for the last couple of decades, I’ve heard more discussion about “catching up” — think infrastructure, economic development and curbside recycling, to name a few.
How to be boldly innovative in the future could be a fascinating — and a very important — conversation. But, of course, that’s just my thought. And as my wife can attest, she often has to take my initial thoughts and make them better.
That’s why the steering committee wants to hear from you tonight.
Pizza chain to open new restaurant on 23rd Street; trying to divine the future of The Gap in downtown Lawrence
Big news on the date night front in the Lawhorn household: No longer when I take my beautiful bride out for a fancy dinner at Domino’s will I have to put the candelabrum on the dash. Plans have been filed for Domino’s to open a new sit-down restaurant along 23rd Street.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for Domino’s to renovate a portion of the former GTM Sportswear building at 1008 W. 23rd St. This will be the second location for Domino’s in Lawrence. The other one is near Ninth and Iowa streets, and the architects for the project — Lawrence-based Paul Werner Architects — said plans call for the existing store to remain open once the 23rd Street store is completed.
The bigger news, though, is the new location will be part of Domino’s new concept for stores. Traditionally, the company has been primarily a delivery or carry-out business. Leticia Cole with Paul Werner Architects said the new design will change that.
“They will still do delivery and carry-out, but customers can come in to order their pizza (and other food,) watch it being made at the window, and sit down to eat,” Cole said in an email.
Talking with my friend Mr. Google, it seems that has been a big trend for Domino’s. I found this article from a business journal in Ohio about how Domino’s has committed to using a design called “pizza theater” for all its new stores and future remodels. (This is fantastic. Now I won’t have to spring for a movie ticket on date night.) The idea behind the phrase, according to the article, is that the design features an open kitchen that allows customers to watch their pizzas being made, complete with the hand tossing of the crust.
The article says there is even a special window and step for kids to look in on the action. (This is where my wife, who is a nearly a half-foot taller than I am, would give me permission to use the step too.) The article says there is a chalkboard area for customers to doodle on as well, plus there’s some type of video display that allows customers to track the progress of their pizza production.
Now, I don’t know whether the Lawrence store will have all those features, but it sounds like it will be a new look for Lawrence nonetheless.
As for the food, Domino’s has dropped pizza from its name because it is expanding into other menu items. That includes several hot sandwiches, pastas and chicken wings. The company has said some of its new stores also will feature a “grab and go” section that will have milk, cookies, salads, mini dessert parfaits and other such items.
The Lawrence project has most of the approvals it needs to move forward. Planners must approve a new site plan for the property before the renovations can begin, but I would expect work to start in the next several weeks.
Plans call for the Domino’s store to take only a portion of the building. There also will be two office spaces in the building. The owner of the local Domino’s franchise will take one of the office spaces, Cole said. The other space doesn’t yet have a tenant, Cole said.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I’ve had some readers ask me whether they should be worried about the future of The Gap store in downtown Lawrence. There are two things going on with that company that have created some concern. One is that the retailer announced in June that it will close 175 North American stores this year. The second thing is that the Lawrence store currently has a big sign in its window advertising 50 percent off many items in the store, with a tag line of “it is now or never.”
But I stopped by the store this morning and asked an employee if that sign was an indication that the store was on the chopping block. I was told that wasn’t the case. Instead it is just the promotional tag line they are using for their summer sale. Gap has not officially released a list of pending store closings, and the folks at the Lawrence store didn’t have any information about that either.
So, should you be worried about the future of The Gap in Lawrence? I don’t know. My banker has told me many times to worry about what The Gap store is doing to my balance sheet, but that’s a different type of worry. We’ll just have to wait and see when that store closing list comes out, but in the meantime, don’t read too much into the signs on the window.
UPDATES: I have several updates on the project to share now that I’ve heard back from both the architect and a spokesman from KU Athletics. Here’s a look: Jim Marchiony, an associate athletic director for KU, said the new facility will greatly improve the ability of the KU women’s tennis team to host events. Currently, the existing facility has only five indoor courts, and spectators often can’t see the play that is happening on all courts.
“This will be a huge step up for our tennis facilities,” Marchiony said.
The new facility will have spectator seating for about 500 people, architect Paul Werner said via email.
Marchiony confirmed that an entity led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel will own the facility and lease it back to KU. Marchiony also said that the public will be able to purchase memberships and pay to reserve court time at the facility, much like how a KU entity operates the Jayhawk Tennis Center in West Lawrence.
“We are very familiar with the work that the Fritzels do, and we have no doubt that this will be one of the nicer tennis facilities in the region,” Marchiony said.
Werner said the new facility will have a special members lounge and locker rooms.
Marchiony said the athletic department is in discussions on what to do with the current Jayhawk Tennis Center once it is no longer needed for the KU tennis team. He said no decisions have been reached on that matter.
Issues of tax breaks or other incentives also appear to be moot, Werner indicated in his email. He said no incentives are being requested for the project.
Rock Chalk Park is set to grow. Plans have been filed at City Hall for a new indoor/outdoor tennis facility for Kansas University.
Lawrence-based Paul Werner Architects has filed plans for a nearly 67,000 square-foot facility that would have six indoor courts plus an elevated seating area for spectators. In addition, the facility would have six outdoor courts. All of this is in addition to the eight outdoor tennis courts that already exist at Rock Chalk Park and are owned by the city. When it is all said and done, that would be 20 tennis courts at Rock Chalk Park, which I assume would set the area up to host some significant tennis events.
The primary purpose of the facility, though, would be to serve the KU Women’s Tennis team. KU currently has an indoor facility — called the Jayhawk Tennis Center — at 5200 Clinton Parkway in West Lawrence. I’m not sure what the future is for that facility, which KU Athletics bought for $3.1 million in 2010. My knowledge of the Lawrence tennis scene is somewhat limited. (The game scares me. The last time I threw around the word “love” so much, I had to buy a really expensive ring.) But my understanding is this proposed facility would be significantly larger than what exists at the Jayhawk Tennis Center. I’ve seen information that suggests the existing center has only three to four indoor courts.
I also believe that the Jayhawk Tennis Center has been open for the public to buy memberships or pay to reserve court time. I haven’t heard whether that will continue at the new Rock Chalk Park facility. I’ve reached out to architect Paul Werner for details, and I’ll also reach out to KU Athletics. I’ll let you know if I get any additional information.
As for the location of the center, it will be on vacant ground that is just south of the soccer field and just a bit southeast of the track and field stadium. The facility is proposing to make use of existing parking lots at Rock Chalk park. The plans do not call for any new parking to be built as part of the center.
I’m also still seeking information on who will own the new facility. The softball, soccer and track and field facilities at Rock Chalk Park were built primarily to serve KU Athletics. But the facilities are owned by an entity led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel, while the land is owned by an entity controlled by the Kansas University Endowment Association. The land for the tennis facility is owned by that same entity, but the plans filed with the city do not make clear whether KU will own the tennis facility or whether the Fritzel entity or some other private group will own the facility.
To be clear though, this isn’t a city project. I know this development can be a little bit like a 1970s style tennis outfit — a little tough to comprehend. But it is important to remember that the city paid for its $10.5 million recreation center but KU and the Fritzel entity paid for the construction of the softball, soccer and track and field facilities. The city paid for about $12.5 million worth of parking lots, roads and other infrastructure shared by the city recreation center and the other facilities. This new tennis facility would use that existing shared infrastructure.
So, don’t look for city commissioners to be asked to provide any money for this project. It will be interesting to see whether commissioners, though, will be asked to provide a tax abatement for the facility. KU Athletics facilities automatically receive a property tax abatement from the state — when the facilities are owned by KU. But at Rock Chalk Park, the state did not grant that automatic abatement because the facilities are owned by a private entity, and the Fritzel group has some rights to use the facilities for private uses.
So, the previous City Commission granted a 100 percent property tax abatement for all the facilities through the industrial revenue bond process. The past City Commision viewed it more as a technicality because it believed that KU Athletics really is the de facto owner of the facilities. Perhaps the new City Commission — which was elected on a wave of voter concern about how the city handled Rock Chalk Park — will view it the same way. The details of the project probably will need to become clearer before that can be figured out.
The property for the tennis center already is properly zoned for the project. But the project must receive a special use permit from the city before it can proceed. That means the proposal will get a hearing before both the Planning Commission and the City Commission in the next couple of months.
• The proposed tennis facility gives us a good opportunity to remember what else may be built at Rock Chalk Park in the future.
The tennis facility was included in the original plans for Rock Chalk Park but was labeled as a future phase. Also included in that category of future projects:
— An indoor arena with “3,000 seats for sporting events and an additional 800 seats for concerts.”
— A 4,000-seat amphitheater.
— A lacrosse field.
I’ve heard no discussion about whether those projects are likely to come forward in the future or are more longer term dreams at this point. But the arena and amphitheater components serve as a good reminder that Rock Chalk Park may become more than just a place for KU to host its athletic events. There’s potential for it to become a regional events facility that goes beyond sports. It is interesting to think about the potential there. Lawrence, for example, is a big music town. With the proper facilities at Rock Chalk Park, could it attract a consistent flow of concerts that are smaller than a Sprint Center event but larger than a Liberty Hall concert, for example?
For the near future, though, I suspect sports will be the big traffic driver at Rock Chalk Park. I have heard good things about NCAA officials touring the facilities out there. The NCAA already has chosen Rock Chalk Park to host the NCAA Division I West Regional Track and Field competition in 2016. That event is set for May 26-28, and is expected to be a major driver for visitor spending. (The Division I Midwest Cross Country Regional for this year also is coming to the Lawrence area. Rim Rock Farms in Jefferson County will host it on Nov. 15.) Perhaps there will be other announcements about significant NCAA events being hosted at Rock Chalk Park as well. It would be a surprise if there aren’t. The track and field stadium was built to be world class, and its location in the central U.S. was thought to be a selling point for hosting regional or national events.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Speaking of announcements, we are keeping our ears open for one regarding a new business at Lawrence VenturePark, the industrial park in eastern Lawrence on the site of the former Farmland fertilizer plant. Still nothing to report in that arena, although I believe discussions are still underway with two strong prospects. But the city is busy trying to land a project of a different type out there too: a butterfly garden.
City officials are applying for a $37,000 grant to convert about six acres of property at VenturePark into special habitat for the monarch butterfly. Think of native grasses, milkweed plants and other flowering plants that are known to attract monarchs. The site would be near the new Westar Energy substation at VenturePark.
In addition, the city hopes to use some of the grant money for about 3.5 acres of prairie improvements at the Prairie Park Nature Center and for half-acre butterfly gardens at Burcham Park and near the new Sandra J. Shaw park, which is just west of Burcham Park on the site of the former VFW property.
City officials should know in the next few months whether they’ve won the $37,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund.
New chicken chain coming to south Iowa Street; rumor of new Mexican restaurant chain looking at 23rd Street; gentrification, East Lawrence and a pending conversation at City Hall
Chicken is on my mind. Buffalo wing sauce is on my tie. Crumbs of crispy, deep-fried breading may or may not be on the stubble of my beard. And all of this is before city leaders wisely rename south Iowa Street Deep Fried Drive to honor the chicken wars that are certain to come. In other words, there’s news of another chicken chain coming to south Lawrence.
Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers has filed plans at City Hall to build a new drive-through restaurant at the site of the former Emprise Bank location at 2435 Iowa St. Back in February, we briefly reported that there was speculation Raising Cane’s was honing in on a site on south Iowa Street. It turns out that speculations was as true as fingers on chickens. (I would have never thought they were so stubby. I guess that is why you never see a chicken playing the piano.)
Raising Cane’s would be the third chicken restaurant to open along a two-block stretch of south Iowa Street in recent months. Buffalo Wild Wings is open in a brand new building at the northeast corner of 27th and Iowa streets, and Chick-fil-A is under construction caddy-corner from Wild Wings in the parking lot of Dick’s Sporting Goods. No word yet on when Chick-fil-A will open, but the restaurant has filed for a permit to set up a trailer to begin taking job applications on the site.
As for Raising Cane’s, they really are focused on chicken fingers. As near as I can tell, its entire menu is just chicken fingers served in different packages. It has one chicken sandwich on the menu, but it actually is three chicken fingers in a kaiser roll. The restaurant touts its chicken fingers as never frozen, premium chicken tenderloins that are marinated for 24 hours and then hand-battered and cooked to order. Sides look like crinkle cut fries, Texas toast and some coleslaw. A special mayonnaise type of sauce with a kick also is a staple of the menu. Plus, for those of you who like a little tea with your sugar, the restaurant serves the southern delight of sweet tea.
The restaurant may be unfamiliar to several of us. It looks like the chain currently does not have any locations in Kansas or Missouri. According to its website it has multiple locations in Tulsa and Oklahoma City to the south, and also Lincoln and Omaha to the north. The restaurant got its start in 1996 with a single restaurant near the entrance of Louisiana State University.
No word yet on when the restaurant may open in Lawrence. Plans filed at City Hall call for the approximately 3,600-square-foot bank building to be torn down and replaced with an approximately 2,900 square foot restaurant with a drive-thru. So, it likely will take several months before the restaurant opens.
And while we’re talking about chicken, don’t forget there is also one other entrant into this battle, although this one will be on 23rd Street. We reported back in April that former high-flying Jayhawk basketball player and current European star Keith Langford had signed a deal to bring Wing Stop to Lawrence. Langford has said the restaurant will be in the Louisiana Purchase Shopping Center near the Mr. Goodcents.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Perhaps South Iowa Street will become for chicken what West 23rd Street has become for Mexican food. As I have noted before, there are four Mexican restaurants within about two-tenths of a mile on 23rd Street — Taco Bell, Taco John’s, Chipotle and Border Bandido. We previously have reported a fifth — a place called Panchos Mexican Restaurant — has filed plans to go next door to Border Bandido in the old Pizza Hut location. That development has been slow to materialize, but when I last checked, the plans were still active.
Well, I’m hearing speculation of another Mexican-themed development along the stretch of road, and oddly, it is not the Mexican embassy. I’m hearing the Mexican chain Qdoba is looking at property along West 23rd Street. I’ll work to firm up a few details and report back to when I get additional information.
• Perhaps a bowl of chips and salsa, a side of chicken fingers and about five gallons of sweet tea would facilitate a good conversation at Lawrence City Hall. It appears city commissioners may need to have a complicated conversation about gentrification.
If you are confused, don’t feel bad. I too thought it was a lot like a taquito, but it is not. Gentrification basically is the idea of revitalization of property in a distressed neighborhood causing property values and property taxes to rise to a point that poorer residents can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood.
The idea has been brought up a few times at City Hall, especially as it relates to East Lawrence. The idea came up again at last night’s meeting. My colleague Peter Hancock reported that Commissioner Leslie Soden expressed concern about expanding the use of the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Act to include entire neighborhoods that city officials deem in need of revitalization. The act would allow property owners to receive a partial, multi-year property tax rebate for making improvements to their property. Several communities across the state use the act in such a manner to spur revitalization of targeted areas of their community.
But Soden said she’s not sure that is such a good idea in Lawrence.
“We already have a problem with affordable housing,” Soden said. “I’m not interested in spurring gentrification of our neighborhoods when we already have an affordable housing crisis.”
Perhaps gentrification would be a problem, although it would be interesting to see if that has been the net result in other communities across the state. There should be some good data on that. The act has been in place since 1994.
But it seems there also should be some discussion about what are the ramifications of the city trying to avoid gentrification. I don’t know the answer to that, but it creates interesting questions. If we are afraid of property values going up in a neighborhood, does the city try to discourage revitalization of areas that show signs of wear and tear? Is it only private improvements that increase property values, or do public projects do so as well? Are there existing homeowners who want to see their property values increase over time? What’s the city’s longterm strategy?
That last one is particularly interesting because the city has provided millions of dollars of incentives to help the East Lawrence Warehouse Arts District — and the affordable housing projects that are part of it — get off the ground. That was a past City Commission though. But still, it was a major decision by the City Commission, and clearly the Warehouse Arts District is the type of project that could cause property values in the area to increase. Is the city’s policy now going to be that ordinary citizens in East Lawrence who want to add a bedroom onto their home, build a new garage, or spruce up the house with new siding are the gentrification straw that breaks the camel’s back?
Again, I don’t know the answers, but it seems like it could be one of the more important discussions this new commission has. Expect it to come up as part of any future debate about the Neighborhood Revitalization Act, but also expect it to be part of the discussion of whether the city should support the Ninth Street arts corridor. The concern of gentrification has been brought up in that debate too.
At the moment, I think the best strategy is to order a refill on the chips and salsa.
Dog treat business eyes East Lawrence for headquarters; roundabout talk at City Hall; city manager search update
Dogs around the country may end up getting a taste of East Lawrence, which may cause you to wonder whether canines soon will start creating funky art, hosting wild kickball games and forming their own powerful neighborhood association. But that’s not what I”m talking about. Instead, I have news of a business that plans to use an East Lawrence building to distribute dog treats across the country.
Lawrence businessman Gary Rexroad has confirmed that he and his wife, Angie, have purchased the long vacant building at the northwest corner of 11th and Pennsylvania streets to house a new dog treat venture. The Rexroads have been running a dog food business called Love Grub for the last couple of years. Its dog food is on the shelves of grocery and pet stores throughout the Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City area.
But about three months ago, the couple purchased the rights to Lucky Paws dog treats, which was created by Lawrence entrepreneur Raven Rajani. Rajani was looking to exit the business, and Rexroad purchased the recipes and the rights to market the product.
Rexroad said the dog treat business was appealing because dog treats are lightweight. Bags of dog food, on the other hand, are heavy. It costs a lot of money to ship bags of dog food to stores around the country, but shipping dog treats nationwide is much more feasible for a small company. Rexroad said the plan is to make the dog treat business a national one through deals with retailers and through online sales.
That’s where the East Lawrence building at 1045 Pennsylvania St. comes into play. Rexroad has filed plans at City Hall that would allow for the dog treats to be “manufactured” inside the building.
“Manufacturing is such a big word though,” Rexroad said. “It is not smokestacks or rendering plants or anything like that. It is just a commercial oven. Right now we are doing it out of our kitchen, but there is only so much volume you can do that way.”
Rexroad said the business already is having difficulty keeping up with the demand for the product. The company has negotiated a deal to be in Natural Grocer stores across the country. He said Lucky Paws seems to be filling a niche in the treat market because it is grain free, gluten free, and made in small batches.
“We’re selling it as a product produced by a small company that gives you a healthy alternative that you can trust,” Rexroad said. “The company’s phone number is on every bag, and that number rings to my wife’s cellphone. It is not like it goes to a big switchboard.”
Rexroad said if plans are approved, the company likely would add a couple of employees to assist in the production of the dog treats, which are made from ingredients such as potato flour, whole rice flour, peanut butter, eggs, ground turkey, and even real salmon filets.
“It is a real high-end treat,” Rexroad said. “The ingredients are people-food quality.”
I’ll be honest, this is the point where I became a bit nervous. The last time I wrote an article about a dog treat business — a nonprofit venture by the Lawrence Community Shelter — I ended up being persuaded to eat a dog treat because they “taste a lot like a cookie.” I have no doubt that the dog treat was very high quality, but I will say that dogs are not the best judge of cookies. (Although, I’m sure dogs all over town talk behind my back about how my coat is lacking in sheen.)
Rexroad did not offer me a sample, but if plans are approved, you likely will be able to go to the business and buy some for yourself. In addition to the production and warehousing operations, plans call for the 2,200 square-foot building to also house a pet supplies and grooming retailer. Rexroad said an existing company in town would run that portion of the business.
Rexroad said he’s begun having meetings with the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association and other residents in the area to talk about plans for the building, which several years ago operated as a store that sold used items for home improvement projects.
“We want to be great neighbors in East Lawrence,” Rexroad said. “We want to be part of that neighborhood. It is such an awesome part of town.”
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is scheduled to make a recommendation on the special use permit for the business at its July 22 meeting. City commissioners would hear the issue a few weeks later.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It is a busy night at City Hall this evening. Commissioners meet at 3 p.m. to go over the recommended 2016 budget from Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard. Then, commissioners have a long list of topics they’ll discuss. Here’s a look at some of the larger ones:
— The Lawrence Community Shelter on Monday made its plea for increased funding from the Douglas County Commission to help the homeless shelter address a shortfall in funding this year. Tonight, the shelter will make its request to the City Commission. It is seeking $200,000 total from the city and the county, and has warned of staffing and service cuts if it does not receive the funding this month. City commissioners are expected to hear the item tonight but not make a final decision on any funding, Mayor Jeremy Farmer told me.
— We’ll learn something about roundabouts and city commissioners this evening. The three commissioners who took office in April will have their first decision to make about a roundabout. The commission is being asked to accept a $600,000 federal grant that would fund the construction of a roundabout at Harvard Road and Wakarusa Drive. The past commission had gotten back on the roundabout bandwagon after construction of the devices had slowed somewhat in recent years. That group approved the construction of the new dual lane roundabout at Wakarusa and Legends/Inverness Drive. At the time, engineers said they likely would recommend one for Harvard and Wakarusa, which has been the site of 18 crashes from 2011 through 2014. We’ll see whether this commission continues to support roundabout projects. This grant will require the city to come up with $60,000 in matching funds.
— In case you have forgotten, the city is searching for a new city manager. That process hasn’t come out of the gates blazing, but rather commissioners have taken their time to find a search firm to help with the process. Tonight, commissioners will consider a $26,200 contract to hire Ralph Andersen and Associates to oversee the city’s search process. According to the contract, the firm expects the process to take about 75 to 90 days. No word yet on other details of the search process. For example, commissioners will need to decide whether they want to host public meetings with two or three finalists for the position. That has become a more common practice with high-profile hires in governmental organizations. I’ve heard some commissioners express interest in that idea, but the commission hasn’t yet committed to the process.
— Property tax breaks for the rest of us. That’s one way to look at a discussion that is expected at City Hall tonight. Commissioners will discuss how to use the Neighborhood Revitalization Act in the future. The act is a method where property owners can get a rebate on a portion of their property taxes, if they make improvements to their properties that cause the value of their properties to increase. For example, I tear down the ramshackle garage on my house, and replace it with something more befitting my scholarly nature, like a library that just happens to have an 85-inch flatscreen television and a chair with a built-in cooler. (For like Shakespeare on PBS and such.) That may cause the value of my house to go up, say $40,000. The Neighborhood Revitalization Act would allow me to receive at least a partial tax rebate on the property taxes I would pay on that $40,000 addition.
But commissioners haven’t used the act in that way. Instead it has been approved to provide a tax rebate for an expansion of The Eldridge Hotel, for an architecture office, for the rehabilitation of an abandoned historic property, apartment projects, improvements in the Warehouse Arts District and several other projects. Plus, commissioners have struggled with the policy that currently is in place. The policy recommends that the standard NRA tax rebate should be for no more than 50 percent of the new taxes. But thus far, every NRA rebate the city has approved has been greater than 50 percent, often checking in at the 85 to 95 percent level.
Commissioners will discuss whether they want to shift gears a bit by declaring a few neighborhoods in need of revitalization, and then letting property owners know that their improvements would be eligible for a partial tax rebate. There also will be discussion about whether the city wants to continue to use the act to provide an incentive to larger commercial projects as well. But all indications are that the three new commissioners — Stuart Boley, Matthew Herbert and Leslie Soden — are going to have a different set of criteria for determining when such projects should receive an incentive. If you are in the business of developing multimillion dollar developments in town, the discussion tonight and in future days will be one to follow.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
A multimillion-dollar police headquarters project may be the big issue on the minds of City Hall leaders, but city residents still are far more fixated on a slightly smaller issue: fixing that pothole. A recent city survey found fixing the streets is still the top-of-mind issue for Lawrence residents, outpacing the police headquarters issue.
The survey — conducted by a city-hired consulting firm — asked residents what city services should receive the “most emphasis” over the next two years. Residents were allowed to list three topics. The runaway winner was “maintenance of city streets/utilities,” with 71 percent of respondents placing that in their top three. In second place, with 58 percent, was management of traffic flow and congestion. Then came police and fire issues. Only 34 percent of respondents listed the “quality of police, fire and EMS,” as one of their top three priorities.
Granted, that question doesn’t exactly get at the heart of the police headquarters issue. This one gets a little closer: Residents were asked what three capital improvements projects the city should prioritize “over the next few years.” The survey found 88 percent of respondents listed “repairing or restoring deteriorating infrastructure” as one of their top three priorities. The category of “develop public safety facilities” was No. 2 with 52 percent ranking it in their top three.
That’s not terrible news for the police headquarters project, but it also isn’t great. Fifty-two percent is a majority, and getting a majority of Lawrence residents to agree on anything is quite a chore. But, given all the discussion and all the attention the city has drawn to the inadequacies of the current police facilities, I’m sure some are disappointed that a very slim majority of folks rank this as a top three priority.
Of course, this question doesn’t specifically ask about a police headquarters building either. That’s what is a bit odd about this survey: It never specifically asks about the police headquarters project. Commissioners crafted this survey after voters rejected a proposed sales tax for the police headquarters plan in November. City Hall leaders were trying to figure out why voters voted the way they did. It seems this survey could have asked some pretty specific questions in that regard, but commissioners decided not to use the survey in that manner.
The city is set to pay $29,950 to Olathe-based ETC Institute for the survey, which received about 1,300 responses from a random sample of residents who were asked to participate. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percent. The city also conducted similar surveys in 2011 and 2007. Here’s a look at some other findings:
• It appears $22.5 million is worth at least 15 percentage points when it comes to parks and recreation issues. The survey found that 69 percent of Lawrence residents are now satisfied with the amount of gym space available through the city’s parks and recreation programs. That’s up from 54 percent who were satisfied in 2011. The big difference since 2011 is that the city spent $22.5 million for the Sport Pavilion Lawrence recreation center and related infrastructure at Rock Chalk Park. The recreation center has eight full-court gyms.
• Even though repairing city infrastructure is still the No. 1 thing residents want the city to tackle, folks are happier, although not overjoyed, with the condition of city streets. The survey found 52 percent of people were satisfied with the condition of major city streets. That’s up from 40 percent in 2011. From 2009 to 2019, the city is budgeted to spend about $40 million on major street projects with the proceeds of an infrastructure sales tax that was approved by voters in 2008.
• Something has happened to cause people to feel a lot safer in downtown Lawrence. The survey found 61 percent of respondents felt safe in downtown Lawrence during the evening and nighttime hours. That’s up from 48 percent in 2011. Residents also like the look of downtown these days: 87 percent gave good marks to the appearance and cleanliness of downtown, up from 76 percent in 2011. Satisfaction with parking availability also increased to 53 percent, up from 42 percent in 2011.
• When it comes to big ticket items, here’s the full list of how people ranked their priorities when asked to list their top three improvements:
— Repair infrastructure: 88 percent
— Develop public safety facilities: 52 percent
— Develop trails, bike lanes and other infrastructure for “non-motorized transportation”: 41 percent
— “Support for economic impact initiatives.” I cover City Hall for a living, and I’m not sure I know what that means. I suppose it could be for a conference center, or maybe some type of fund to sweeten the pot for companies looking to come to town, or micro loans to existing companies. I’m not sure, but 38 percent ranked it in their top three priorities.
— Develop parks and recreation facilities: 31 percent
— Support for arts and culture: 29 percent.
You can read the full survey results here. Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the results at their 3 p.m. study session Tuesday at City Hall.
Lawrence home sales surge in May; new report shows local rental rates on dramatic rise; local incomes still lagging
Maybe it is time to sell the house, and I’m not just saying that because I perhaps didn’t keep up on the dish washing quite as well as I had planned while my wife was away this week. No, the real reason is because new Lawrence home sale numbers are out, and there are lots of indications the market has become a strong one for sellers.
Lawrence home sales in May surged by 25 percent compared with May 2014. For the year-to-date, home sales in Lawrence are up 20 percent from the same time period a year ago. But a particularly telling statistic is the number of homes that are on the market. At the end of May, there were 349 homes on the market. That’s down nearly 100 homes from May 2014. That’s a trend Realtors are hoping to see reversed.
“We still need more homes available for buyers to balance our market,” said Crystal Swearingen, president of the Lawrence Board of Realtors.
The smaller inventory of homes for sale has the potential to cool the Lawrence housing market. At the end of May, Realtors had 133 contracts written for new home sales. That number was down more than 7 percent from the same period a year ago. That decrease in inventory is a major reason that contract numbers are down, Swearingen said.
Here’s a look at other numbers from the Lawrence Board of Realtors’ monthly report:
• Home sales through May totaled 462 units, up from 383 in 2014 and 409 in 2013.
• Sales of newly constructed homes continue to struggle. Through May, 22 sales have been recorded. That’s down from 26 during the same time period a year ago, and down from 44 during the same time period in 2013.
• The median selling price of homes is $162,500, which is pretty close to the $159,000 of a year ago. But selling prices are still a bit below 2013 averages. In 2013, the median was around $169,000.
• The median number of days a house sits on the market is down to 36. (That’s not even enough time to get all the dishes washed.) That’s down from 40 in 2014 and 57 in 2013.
• Thus far this year, real estate agents have sold $90.7 million worth of homes in Lawrence. That’s up from $73.9 during the same time period a year ago, which is an increase of more than 22 percent. So, it has been a good year for real estate agents thus far.
On that note, I should tell my real estate agent friends not to hit me up. I’m not going to sell my house. Instead, I’ve loaded the dishes in the F150, and I’m heading to the car wash.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Buy stock in Ramen noodles. (And, trust me, wash the dish when you're done.) If this new report is accurate, some renters in Lawrence may need to make the cheapo food source a bigger part of their diets.
The real estate website Zillow has released its May real estate report, and it says median rent prices in Lawrence have increase by 13.4 percent over the last year. One caveat: Zillow only seeks to calculate the average rent rates for homes that are rented, not apartment units. But still, a 13.4 percent increase in rents is significant. I took a look at some other communities, and Lawrence is far outpacing most. Zillow is a little hit or miss in the communities it monitors, so I’m using a little bit different list than I normally would. But I’ve tried to find some college communities for comparison sake. Here’s a look:
— Kansas City: up 10.2 percent
— Topeka: up 2.4 percent
— Columbia, Mo.: up 1.2 percent
— Iowa City, Iowa: up 0.9 percent
— Bloomington, Ind.: up 2.2 percent
— Fayetteville, Ark.: up 7.1 percent
— Fort Collins, Colo.: up 10.8 percent.
In case you are wondering, Zillow says the median rental rate for a home — not an apartment — is $1,324 per month.
• Yesterday I reported about how the state got a decent piece of news when it came to the amount of money its residents are earning. Well, I’ve now had a chance to go through the numbers for Lawrence, and they weren’t quite as positive.
The latest report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that Lawrence’s per capita personal income in 2013 was just $36,187. That’s an inflation-adjusted number. It also is a 2013 number because it apparently takes the federal number crunchers awhile to come up with this statistic. But, it's what we have.
What it shows is that Lawrence’s per capita personal income — that’s everything from wages to rental income to Social Security checks — continues to be well below lots of other places. As I’ve said several times before, this is not just because Lawrence is a college town. It is a factor, I’m sure, but other college communities have overcome it. Here’s a look at some regional communities:
— Columbia, Mo.: $41,366
— Kansas City: $45,450
— Manhattan: $42,884
— Topeka: $42,460
— Wichita: $43,064
— Kansas: $45,619
We’re all taking a big discount to live in Lawrence. But our income levels did grow in 2013. Unfortunately, they grew at only about half the rate that incomes grew statewide. Lawrence’s per capita income figures grew by 0.4 percent for the year, while the state as a whole grew by 0.8 percent
Here’s a look at how we stacked up compared with other communities in the region:
— Columbia: up 0.3 percent
— Kansas City: no change
— Manhattan: down 1.4 percent
— Topeka: up 0.8 percent
— Wichita: up 0.2 percent