Entries from blogs tagged with “Town Talk”
Local butcher to open sausage shop and restaurant near Ninth and Iowa; Kansas Food Truck Festival to make Lawrence return; city getting high bids for big projects
It won’t be long before it is time to fire up the grill, double up on the cholesterol medicine and stock up on the meat. Well, plans are in the works for a new Lawrence business that can help with the meat part, especially if you are a fan of homemade sausages and frankfurters.
Lee Meisel, the butcher for the popular downtown restaurant 715, has filed plans to open Leeway Franks in the shopping center at Ninth and Iowa streets. The shop is going into the building at 935 Iowa that is just east of the bowling alley. The space formerly housed Daylight Donuts, which appears to have left the Lawrence market. (Yes, I feel like I should deliver a soliloquy on how we must take the bitter with the sweet in this life. But I’m too busy drawing on eyebrows after this year’s pre-season experiments with lighter fluid.)
Leeway Franks will produce a variety of sausages, including an all-beef frankfurter, classic bratwursts, Polish sausage, and several daily specials that could include some items made from bison or game meats. The shop will sell its creations out of a butcher case for people to take home to prepare themselves.
“We think we’ll get a lot of business on game days from tailgaters,” Meisel said.
But the business also will have a kitchen and a small dining area for about 20 people.
“The food is going to be really casual and approachable for everyone,” Meisel said. “The whole idea is to have a place where you can get a really good hot dog and a cold beer.”
Meisel said he also plans to offer a few side items that he became accustomed to while growing up in North Dakota: french fries with brown gravy, and Tater Tots with cheese sauce. (I thought he said this place was going to be casual. I think that was two thirds of the normal menu for a Bill Clinton state dinner.)
The frankfurters, though, are expected to be the speciality at Leeway Franks. Meisel said they’ll be an all-natural product, made with area beef and won’t include fillers. They’ll also feature a natural casing that provides a certain crispness when you bite into it. And Meisel said they’ll have a blend of spices that goes beyond just the large amount of salt you get with the 99 cent packages of hot dogs.
“Unless you grew up in a place like Wisconsin or Chicago where they do a lot of traditional frankfurters, I don’t think a lot of people have had them quite like this,” Meisel said.
Meisel hopes to have the restaurant up and running by late spring or sometime this summer.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Get ready for the second annual Kansas Food Truck Festival, which will be hosted again in East Lawrence. (How awesome would it be if one of the trucks was a tanker truck filled with brown gravy for all the french fries?) Organizers have announced that the food truck festival is set for May 2 in the warehouse arts district in East Lawrence. Tickets for the event go on sale today.
As was the case last year, proceeds from the event will benefit Just Food, the nonprofit food bank that serves Douglas County.
Organizers expect about 20 food trucks from across the state to set up shop in the 800 block of Pennsylvania Street from 5-10 p.m. May 2. The event also is expected to feature live music, art and activities for the kids.
For more information about the festival, go to the event’s website at ksfoodtruckfest.com
• It looks like the days of building contractors really sharpening their pencils to win bids for city construction projects may be coming to an end. At their meeting on Tuesday, city commissioners are poised to reject bids for two major projects because they came in significantly over the cost estimates of engineers.
I previously alerted you to the fact that bids for the city’s sewer plant project south of the Wakarusa River came in at about $50 million instead of the estimated $46 million. Well, commissioners at their weekly meeting will be asked to reject those bids, and direct engineers to come up with some ways to reduce the scope of the project slightly to save some money. But city officials warn that even then the project may come in above the previously estimated $45.9 million engineer’s estimate. The city-hired engineering firm said there appears to be a fairly simple reason for the higher-than-expected costs.
“It appears that higher bid costs can be attributed in part to a strong construction market and a general trend upwards in construction costs,” John Keller, a project manager for Black & Veatch, said in a letter to city officials.
Further evidence of that trend can be found in North Lawrence. City officials in late February received bids for the Maple Street Pump Station, which is designed to reduce storm water flooding in North Lawrence.
The low bid came in at $5.9 million compared to an engineer’s estimate of $4.1 million. Engineers are recommending that the bids be rejected, and that the scope of the project be reviewed. Engineers don’t yet have a date in mind for when the project could be re-bid.
As for the sewer plant project, engineers expect to open new bids on that project in early April.
Update on 25th and Iowa development; building totals start slowly in 2015; Lawrence lands on list of ‘coolest towns’
Let’s face it: After a night that included the excitement of both an overtime KU basketball game and the thrilling spectacle known as a City Commission primary, we’re all just going to spend today refueling our bodies with Cap ’N Crunch and Mountain Dew. So, I’m going to give you an abbreviated news and notes version of Town Talk. Here we go:
• Some of you have been asking me what development is underway at the former gas station at 25th and Iowa streets. Signs are pointing toward a financial service company that specializes in title or payday loans. A building permit has been issued for $125,000 worth of renovations at the site. The tenant on the building permit application is listed as Anderson Financial Services, LLC. A little research online shows that the company operates several LoanMax locations across the country. The company specializes in providing cash loans secured by a vehicle title. The company already is listing the location at 2434 Iowa on its website, so I would say that is a pretty good sign that a LoanMax is coming to Lawrence soon. The company has about 25 other locations across the state.
• While we are speaking of building permits, 2015 got off to a slow start in January, according to the latest report from City Hall. But that is not unusual for January. (It takes a lot of Cap ’N Crunch to get motivated in January.) The city issued permits for $3.4 million worth of work in January, which is below the previous five-year average of about $6 million. The number of permits for single-family living units also were pretty unremarkable. Permits for five new units were issued, which technically is the lowest January number since 2011. But not by much. Every January for the past five years has seen fewer than 10 new housing starts. So, January numbers don’t tell us much, but we will want to keep an eye on housing numbers in 2015. (Really, we do, so get it on your schedule and factor it in when you’re making vacation plans.) Home building numbers struggled in 2014, and it will be interesting to see if they bounce back.
The January report does provide some information about a couple of smaller projects you have noticed while driving around town. Work that is underway at 721 Wakarusa Drive is to renovate the space for Pinot’s Palette, a business that brings people together to participate in an art class while also sharing wine. We reported on the business back in October, so plans are now progressing on that business.
The January report also shows that construction work at the shopping center at 23rd and Harper is for a new Nail City. That location in fact may or may not already be open. My nails can attest that we do not know. The report also notes activity at one of the condo units on the top floor of the Marriott Hotel building at Ninth and New Hampshire. About $125,000 worth of interior finish work is underway on the condo unit.
• Perhaps it is because we have made a point to keep an eye on housing numbers in 2015, but Lawrence has landed on an Internet list of the coolest cities in America. A website called the MatadorNetwork.com ranks Lawrence as the ninth “Coolest Town in the U.S.” As if you didn’t already know, Lawrence is cool — according to Matador — because many shops and bars sell records or used CDs, plus we have several venues that attract “legit musical acts.”
The site goes on to list a perfect day in Lawrence as shopping for some antiques at Amy’s Attic or Blue Heron in North Lawrence, grabbing an early meal at Zen Zero in downtown and then “just drink your way up and down Massachusetts Street, mingling with underagers and recent grads who haven’t figured out the next move.”
The other towns that joined Lawrence in the top 10:
Laguna Beach, Calif.
North Charleston, S.C.
Sun Valley, Idaho
Mount Desert Island, Maine
What does the MatadorNetwork know about cool towns? I’m not sure, but I felt like it was my duty to alert you, in case you start noticing a marked increase in cape-wearing individuals staggering along Massachusetts Street.
There has been plenty of “new” on New Hampshire Street lately, and now we have pictures to go with the latest proposed development along the downtown corridor. As we reported last month, a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton is planning to build four stories on top of the former Pachamama’s restaurant building at Eighth and New Hampshire streets. The group now has filed its plans with City Hall.
The plans show pretty much what Compton described last month when he confirmed that he had reached a deal to purchase the building: The ground floor will remain available for restaurant or retail uses, while the four new floors built atop the building will house 55 apartments. The project will include a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. Plans call for 42 percent of the project to be studio units, while 29 will be devoted to one-bedroom units and 29 percent to two-bedroom units.
But you didn’t come here to do math. You want to see what the building will look like.
Take a look at the picture below. It is what the building will look like if you are standing in the intersection of Eighth and New Hampshire. (Why are you standing in the intersection of Eighth and New Hampshire, by the way?)
This one below shows what the northern facade of the building will look like.
This rendering below shows the western face of the building, which is the portion that has frontage along New Hampshire Street. You’ll notice that the plan calls for the building to be expanded over the little parking area that exists to the south of the building.
Lawrence-based Treanor Architects — which has done the design for the the multistory apartment building and the new Marriott hotel building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets — is the designer on this project. The company also has designed the new multistory apartment/office building that is under construction at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire, which is also a project led by Compton.
Compton has said he wants to have the Pachamama’s project under construction this summer. The project will have to win some approvals — primarily for its design — from City Hall. Thus far, I’ve seen no request for financial incentives from the city. Compton has used tax increment financing and some other incentives on the hotel project and the new apartment project underway at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire. But both of those projects involved constructing a new underground parking garage, which added considerable expense to the projects. Compton is not proposing a parking garage as part of this project. Downtown zoning codes don’t require the project to provide any off-street parking, and thus far the plans call for the building to rely on parking options that already exist in the downtown area.
Plans being developed for former Sunrise Garden Center in eastern Lawrence; sales tax numbers show local holiday spending down slightly
Plans are in the works between a new nonprofit and a private business to take over the vacant eastern Lawrence property that formerly housed the Sunrise Garden Center.
This spring will be another season that Lawrence green thumbs won’t be able to go to Sunrise Garden Center for bulbs, plants or just advice on what this green stuff is on their thumbs. If you remember, Sunrise closed its doors in late 2013, and the 3.5 acre site at 15th and New York streets has been vacant ever since.
But a new nonprofit is putting together a plan to buy the property, along with a Lawrence-based business that manufactures tofu. Melissa Freiburger is the co-founder of The Sunrise Project. She said her nonprofit has teamed up with Central Soy Foods in an effort to purchase the site. Central Soy Foods would use the site to manufacture its tofu and tempeh products, and the nonprofit would use the greenhouses and other assets to host youth programs and other events that educate about the importance of locally grown foods and other issues of sustainability. Freiburger envisions the site serving as a community greenhouse and also hosting cooking, gardening and similar workshops.
“We really just want to create a very vibrant green space in the community,” Freiburger said.
Central Soy Foods is led by longtime Lawrence businessman David Millstein. If you remember, we reported back in August that Millstein was seeking a new location for the company’s production plant. But a plan to move the operation to a rural homestead didn’t win the necessary approvals. Currently, the company — which has been around since 1978 — operates on a fairly small scale. It produces about 2,000 pounds of tofu and tempeh per week. It primarily sells its products in local grocery stores and a few chains in the Kansas City area.
Millstein told me he thought the site would work very well for the project. He’s proposing to keep the two gabled greenhouses, in part, because he considers those structures to have historical value. Millstein has been a longtime historic preservationist with several buildings in downtown Lawrence. He said he’s contemplating removing the one hoop greenhouse on the site and replacing it with a production facility. He said one other food producer in the area has expressed an interest in sharing the space. He also said he thinks there could be someone who would want to operate the greenhouses to sell micro greens or other such products to area restaurants and grocery stores.
“It has a chance to be a really symbiotic green project,” Millstein said.
The project, though, does have to win some approvals from City Hall. Millstein said he is hopeful neighbors will find the project compatible with the neighborhood.
“I think there probably would be less commotion with this project than when it was Sunrise,” said Millstein, who said the most of the time the site would have fewer than 10 employees at it.
The project also still has some financial questions. Freiburger said the nonprofit is seeking to raise $250,000 to meet its share of the purchase price of the property. The nonprofit — whose legal 501(c)3 name is Lawrence Community Food Alliance — has started a fundraising drive. Freiburger said one neighbor of the site already has pledged $25,000 to the project.
“We feel like it really can become something amazing for the neighborhood,” said Freiburger, who lives near the property. “And the longer the site sits vacant, I know there is a fear that it will become apartments or something like that.”
People can find out more information about how to donate at the group’s website, sunriseprojectks.org.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have much tofu in my stocking this past holiday season. (I once did ruin a good pair of shoes, though, trying to hide tofu in my stockings at a dinner party.) Regardless, there are new numbers out about retail sales in Lawrence during the holiday season, and they suggest stockings may have been a touch light this year.
The city has received its latest sales tax report from the Kansas Department of Revenue. Technically, the report is the first one for the 2015 calendar year, but since sales taxes are paid in arrears, the numbers provide a picture of sales activity during the holiday season. This report generally shows sales from about mid-November to mid-December.
The report found sales tax collections in Lawrence fell by 1.4 percent, compared with the same period a year ago. Lawrence seemed to be on the wrong side of the trend this past season. Of the other large retail markets in the state, only one other posted a decline. Here’s a look:
— Kansas City: up 1.8 percent
— Lenexa: up 2.2 percent
— Manhattan: up 2.3 percent
— Overland Park: down 3.5 percent
— Salina: up 5.1 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 0.4 percent
— Topeka: up 0.8 percent
But we don’t yet have a full picture of the holiday spending. The next report will more fully capture that last two weeks before Christmas, so perhaps here in Lawrence we were just later in getting our holiday shopping started.
As always, City Hall officials will keep a close eye on sales tax collections this year. Healthy sales tax growth is an important part of the city’s budget. It will become an even more important aspect if commissioners are serious about trying to figure out how to build a new police headquarters without increasing taxes.
Sales tax revenues in 2014 grew by a very healthy 4.1 percent. One month isn’t anything to fret about, but if Lawrence wants to match or exceed that pace in 2015, it won’t want many more reports like this most recent one.
Ulta Beauty, Boot Barn file plans to locate on south Iowa Street; rumors of Academy Sports; update on south of SLT development
Cowboy boots, a new pair of Wranglers and some fancy lipstick: A Saturday night destined to end poorly on Facebook. No, that’s not what I’m talking about at all. I’m talking about the newest national retailers that are coming to Lawrence. Ulta Beauty and Boot Barn have filed plans to go into the Dick’s Sporting Goods development at 27th and Iowa streets.
Ulta touts itself as the largest retailer of beauty products in the country. It sells about 20,000 different beauty products including brands such as Revlon, Maybelline, Neutrogena, Clinique, Lancome and several others that I have not heard of but perhaps have unknowingly paid for. The company’s website says every store also includes a full-service salon.
You may be less familiar with Boot Barn. Its website says the company has about 150 stores in 24 states, with the closest location to Lawrence being a store in Blue Springs, Mo. The company advertises that it carries more than 8,000 styles of boots, jeans, shirts, hats, belts, jewelry and other items. But boots clearly are a big deal here. The company lists multiple categories of boots, including: western boots, work boots, motorcycle boots, casual boots (you’ve got to have a good pair for the beach), equestrian boots, outdoor boots and some unfamiliar category called “shoes.” (I think it is French.)
No word yet on when the retailers will open in Lawrence. The plans do call for additional construction work at the 27th and Iowa location. It appears about 5,000 square feet of additional space will be added to the building to accommodate the two retailers. Both stores will be about 9,500 square feet in size. Plans call for Ulta to be on the south end of the building, next to the PetSmart that currently is under construction. Boot Barn will be on the north end of the building, next to the existing Dick’s Sporting Goods.
If you remember, the 27th and Iowa street location also is the site where Chick-fil-A is supposed to be locating. We reported in November that the company had filed a plan to open a restaurant in the parking lot of the Dick’s Sporting Goods development. These latest plans don’t provide many details on that portion of the development, but a location for a restaurant is still shown on the plan. In case you are wondering exactly where it will be, the plans show it just north of the Midas automotive repair shop. My understanding is the Chick-fil-A application is moving through City Hall without any problems, but I’ll let you know if I find out differently.
In other news and notes from around town:
• You might remember that Ulta Beauty was once slated for a proposed retail project southeast of the Iowa Street and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange. So, the exodus from the project has officially begun.
There’s certainly a lot of speculation — although no confirmation yet — that one of the other big tenants that had been announced for that development is close to signing a deal to locate elsewhere on south Iowa Street. Multiple sources have told me that Academy Sports is looking seriously at the 25th and Iowa area where Discovery Furniture is closing down its Lawrence location.
We’ll have to wait and see if that deal happens. But it is now clear that a 300,000 square foot shopping center is not going to be built south of the SLT. Chris Challis, a representative of the North Carolina group seeking to develop the property, confirmed to me that they’ve officially withdrawn their plans for city consideration.
But that doesn’t mean the group is going away. Challis said the development group is still very interested in building retail on the site. He said he expects to file plans for a development that would be a little more than half the size of the original 300,000 square foot proposal.
At one point we had reported the group was trying to revive the project by landing Sam’s Club for the site. Challis said the group indeed was in discussion with Sam’s, but never could get the company to provide the level of assurances that would have been necessary to win City Hall support.
Challis said city regulations will require the group to wait until the third quarter of 2015 until the new plans can be filed for the site. He said he is hopeful that a smaller project will gain more acceptance from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. If you remember, the Planning Commission recommended denial of the project on a 4-2 vote in July. But only six of the 10 planning commissioners participated in the meeting. The project never did get a hearing before the City Commission. The tea leaves were pretty clear at City Hall that the project did not have the votes needed to win at the City Commission level. Several commissioners made it known that they wanted to give the already-zoned retail area near Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence more time to develop.
So, this delay of about six months before a new plan can be filed on the SLT site will be interesting. Will city attitudes change if the Rock Chalk Park development has not attracted a major tenant in that six-month period? Tough to say because at this point it is tough to say who will be on the City Commission in six months.
Challis said the process has been frustrating, but he hopes the development group has gained some credibility with local leaders. He noted that Ulta is locating in Lawrence, and that all signs point to Academy wanting to do so as well.
“The only positive I can take out of this so far is that I think we have been shown to be committed to the market and truthful about the tenants that are interested in being here,” Challis said. “We are confident there are still other retailers that are very interested in being in Lawrence and on south Iowa Street.”
In case you have forgotten, the other tenants that Challis’ group had publicly disclosed for the development were Old Navy, Designer Shoe Warehouse and Marshalls/Home Goods. So, it may be worth keeping an eye out for those retailers in the future.
Kansas City’s Spin Pizza coming to Sixth and Wakarusa area; rumor of another restaurant for South Iowa; Mojo’s chicken wings make a return
One half of Lawrence’s great restaurant mystery is solved. (No, I haven’t found where the top button of my slacks went after all-you-can eat chicken fried steak night.) But now we do know the identity of one of the two restaurants locating next to the Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa: Spin Neapolitan Pizza.
The popular Kansas City-based artisan pizza joint confirmed it has inked a deal and hopes to be open in Lawrence by the fall. The restaurant will be just east of the Wal-Mart store on vacant land that will be the site of a new building that will house two restaurants separated by a retail shop. Other tenants for the building haven’t been identified yet.
“Lawrence has been on Spin’s radar for a long time,” said Brent Boles, the managing partner of the franchise group that will open the Lawrence restaurant.
If you are not familiar with Spin Neapolitan Pizza, you probably are wondering how they ever came up with the idea of putting that delicious combination of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream on pizza. Well, come to find out, I’m an idiot when it comes to understanding things Neapolitan because I just ruined four gallons of perfectly good ice cream. The Neapolitan, of course, refers to the style of pizza and its crust. So, we’re talking hand-spun, thin crusts that are cooked in a stone oven.
The restaurant touts itself as an artisan-style pizzeria, which means it has a variety of toppings that you may not necessarily think of for pizza. For example, cheeses range from the traditional mozzarella to asiago, feta and something called taleggio. Meats include staples like Italian sausage and pepperoni, but also Italian bacon, Scimeca’s meatballs, and salami. In addition there are things like arugula, pine nuts, crushed glazed pecans, fig onion marmalade and sun-dried tomato relish that you can put on your pizza. The menu also touts a wide selection of “verdure arrosti,” which I think means, “you speak Italian and I don’t.” (Quit playing with Google translator or else you’ll never get any work done today. It means roasted veggies.)
The restaurant has been popular in Kansas City since it opened its first restaurant in 2005. We’ll see how the Lawrence market responds. Upscale pizza is a part of the dining market that has some momentum right now. Local chef Rick Martin got the trend going in Lawrence with his popular Limestone Pizza Kitchen and Bar, which opened in downtown Lawrence last year. A deal also was in the works by the owners of Coal Vines, another Kansas City artisan pizza joint, to locate a restaurant in downtown in the former Round Corner Drug building. But that project has been very slow to develop, and from people I talk with, it seems uncertain whether it will.
In other news and notes from around town:
• While we’re talking restaurant news, I’ll pass along the latest bit of speculation I’ve heard. A restaurant chain called Raising Cane’s has plans to locate in Lawrence. But don’t look for it to be the other restaurant locating at Sixth and Wakarusa. My understanding is it plans to locate on South Iowa Street. I’ll do a little more work to confirm the location, and then report back.
As far as what Raising Cane’s is all about, that is simple: chicken fingers. Its menu consists of always fresh, never frozen chicken fingers with a special dipping sauce. I think it also serves a chicken sandwich with the sauce, but don’t go looking for any beef there.
• Since we’re talking about restaurants and chicken, I might as well mention this blast from the past as well. How many of you remember Mojo’s, the once popular chicken wing restaurant that was located on Vermont Street? Well, the owners of that now defunct restaurant have signed a deal with the barbecue restaurant Biggs on Mass to bring back the restaurant's popular selection of wing sauces.
Doug Holiday, owner of Biggs on Mass, told me the restaurant has started serving its smoked chicken wings with Mojo’s Bayou Burn sauce. The plan is for the restaurant to feature a sauce of the month. Mojo’s had more than a dozen sauces for its wings, including one called Phat Elvis.
There were many a night that I went to bed dreaming about Phat Elvis. Now that I see that in print, I realize it may require more explanation. But I have no time for that. I’m off to be part of a panel for Leadership Lawrence this morning, which indeed should cause all of you to worry about the future of Lawrence leadership.
These past couple of weeks have been a little bit like the days leading up to Christmas: There has been a lot of guessing going on about what’s in the package. (80 percent chance of a pea green tie, in my experience.) The package I’m talking about today is the audit on Rock Chalk Park infrastructure costs. It is due to be released on Thursday.
My best advice has been to be patient because we’ll find out soon enough (but, of course, if I was so smart I wouldn’t have an abundance of pea green ties but a paucity of lime sherbet slacks to complete the outfit.) Regardless, I understand the curiosity. There is a multitude of paths the auditing firm could have travelled down in this audit, but a limited amount of time for them to do so. It does create natural questions about what got examined and what was left largely unreviewed.
Here’s my best effort to spell out some of the issues that may be worthy of examination:
• The Value Question. One issue that seems highly likely to be included in the audit is whether the city was charged a reasonable amount for the work done at the project. In other words, is the approximately $12 million that was billed to the city roughly in the ballpark of what similar infrastructure projects are costing elsewhere? It is an important question to ask, but in a way, the city is really in a lose-lose situation on this one. If the audit finds it is not a reasonable number, lock up the mayoral china because there are lots of things that are going to get broken at City Hall. But if the audit finds it is a reasonable price, that is still not going to satisfy many members of the public because they aren’t interested in whether the city got a reasonable price. They’re interested in finding out whether the city got the best price. They want to know whether the city would have gotten a better price by simply following the city’s standard bidding practice. If you remember, much of the controversy surrounding this project is because the city allowed the $12 million worth of infrastructure work to be completed without going through the normal bidding process. That question became heightened when the city decided to bid the recreation center after the public objected to the proposed no-bid process for that building. The low bid came in at $10.5 million versus the $18 million that the city had projected. Yet, city officials stuck with the no bid process for the infrastructure because their partner in the project — KU Endowment — was convinced the bid process would add too much time to the process, and it felt it was important that a construction group led by Thomas Fritzel build the infrastructure to ensure that it met their quality standards.
• This pot of money and that pot of money. A natural question on this project has been whether funds meant to pay for infrastructure — roads, parking lots, utilities and such — were used to pay only for infrastructure costs, or whether some of those funds also were used in the construction of the stadiums that will be leased by KU Athletics. The city is responsible for reimbursing Fritzel’s Bliss Sports II for its costs associated with building the infrastructure. The city is not responsible for reimbursing Fritzel’s Bliss Sports for any of the costs to build the stadiums. In many cases, the same contractors working on the infrastructure project were the same contractors working on the stadium project. For both projects, they were sending their bills to groups led by Fritzel.
As public uproar on the project grew, the city requested more and more documents related to how contractors were getting paid. Those documents showed several checks were written by Bliss Sports to pay for work that was related to the infrastructure. It is unclear why the company that is responsible for building the stadiums would be paying for infrastructure costs. The more important question, however, is did Bliss Sports II — the company responsible for paying for the infrastructure costs — ever write any checks related to the stadium project? I asked KU Endowment officials last month whether they had ever taken the relatively simple step of looking at the check book register of Bliss Sports II to determine what checks had been written on that account. They told me they had not, and that they didn’t find such an exercise relevant.
What does seem to be relevant is the use of a construction loan that was to be used specifically for the construction of the infrastructure. The city is paying the interest cost on that loan, so it has a strong desire to ensure that the construction loan wasn’t used to help even out dips in cash flow on the stadium project. I have yet to see any documents that clearly show how the withdrawals from the construction loan match up to the payments made to infrastructure contractors. I’m not saying they don’t match up, but it isn’t clear that they do.
• Inaccurate documents. One of KU Endowment’s roles in the process has been to review the amount that Bliss Sports II is seeking reimbursement for on the infrastructure project. The main vetting process has relied on subcontractors of Bliss Sports II signing documents attesting to how much they have been paid by Bliss Sports II. But looking at those documents, it did not take long to realize that there were several technical inaccuracies in the documents.
Some of the documents were backdated, which isn’t a great practice. Several of the documents said the contractors were paid by Bliss Sports II, when in fact the cancelled checks showed they were paid by Bliss Sports or other parties. Some architects and engineers who worked on the project didn’t sign the documents at all. Are these just technical glitches, or are they a sign that KU Endowment’s vetting process was inadequate?
• All in the family. Some of the subcontractors on the infrastructure project are other firms that also are controlled by Fritzel. Those subcontractors signed documents attesting that they too had been paid certain amounts — more than $1.4 million. But when it came time to see the cancelled checks for those payments, they couldn’t be produced. KU Endowment officials later said that the companies, since they were related, didn’t actually make payments but rather made notations of receivables and payables on their books.
I have green ties, not green eye shades, so I don’t know all the ins and outs of accounting practices in such instances. But there seems to be a basic question of how much documentation the city should require from the Fritzel-related subcontractors. Think about it for a moment: Fritzel is the entity asking to be reimbursed by the city. Fritzel also is essentially the entity, in the case of this $1.4 million, who is attesting to how much the work cost. Would it be wise for the city to ask for some cancelled checks that the Fritzel subcontractor paid to its employees and suppliers to help verify that the costs are what they have been purported to be?
For example, documents submitted to the city show the Fritzel controlled entity DFC Company of Lawrence paid one employee $60 an hour to do staking work at the site. That one employee worked 863 hours, or more than 70 hours a week, during one period of time. Another was paid $40 an hour and work over 800 hours in the same time period. Are there cancelled payroll checks that verify that?
Some people have said it is inappropriate for me to raise such questions because it insinuates that Fritzel is being dishonest. I have found that argument irksome. I’m not insinuating Fritzel has done anything wrong. I’m asking a question about whether the city has done its job in verifying the costs. The public was promised a robust effort in verifying the cost of this project since it was not going through the city’s normal bidding process. Now is the time where the rubber meets the road on that promise.
Missing documents. And finally, there is the simple question of seeing some documents that the city has been unsuccessful in obtaining from Bliss Sports II. For example, it has been acknowledged that Alpha Omega Geotech did inspection work for both the city-funded infrastructure project and the privately funded stadium facilities. But the city has yet to ever see an actual invoice from Alpha Omega. The parties have acknowledged that such an invoice exists. This seems to be the type of invoice the city would want to particularly look at to ensure that the costs are being accurately allocated to the appropriate projects. Why has there been such reluctance to turn that invoice over to the city?
So, those questions may or may not get answered in the forthcoming audit. We won’t have to wait long now. Keep an eye on the LJWorld web site on Thursday for information following the audit’s release.
Compton purchases former Borders Bookstore site; Incumbents, Rasmussen leading the pack in City Commission fundraising
Dreams of a downtown grocery store in the former Borders bookstore building at Seventh and New Hampshire appear to be much like the milk in my refrigerator: expired. Lawrence businessman Doug Compton has signed a deal to purchase the building, and he has no plans to move his proposed downtown grocery from 11th and Massachusetts to the site.
Compton confirmed to me that he has a contract to take over ownership of the building in late May. He said he didn’t purchase the building to squelch the plans of a grassroots organization that has been working to bring a grocer into the 20,000 square foot space. But, that will be the end result.
“I will dictate what goes in there,” Compton said.
Compton said he purchased the building because it makes sense for him to own it given the amount of investment he is making along New Hampshire Street. Compton is the developer behind both the multistory apartment/office building at the southwest corner of Ninth and New Hampshire and the hotel/retail building at the southeast corner of the intersection. His company is beginning work this week on another multistory apartment/office building at the northeast corner of the intersection. He also has filed plans to build an apartment project atop the existing Pachamamas building at Eighth and New Hampshire.
Compton said he doesn’t have any particular tenant lined up to take the Borders space.
“I’m not afraid to own it and lease it,” Compton said. “It won’t sit empty that long. I’ll find a tenant for it. I think interest is going to get stronger in downtown.”
The building comes with its own private parking lot, a rarity in downtown. Compton said he thinks the building has good potential as a retail site, but said he’ll also explore the idea of converting it over to an office building.
“I have heard there was an office tenant looking for 6,000 to 7,000 square feet of space in downtown recently,” Compton said. “That would be a good place for something like that because it is hard to find downtown office space with parking right outside the door.”
Compton also said he may need the building to relocate some tenants from other projects that he would be constructing in downtown.
We’ll have to wait and see who eventually ends up in the Borders building, but there is an even more interesting question emerging: Will the grassroots supporters of a downtown grocery store now get behind the idea of a grocery store at 11th and Massachusetts? Some of the group members — led by City Commission candidate David Crawford — have opposed the plan because they thought the Borders site would be a quicker and better solution. The two sites are pretty close to each other — about a minute by car and just a few minutes by foot — so that likely isn’t the issue.
Compton’s plans call for the grocery store — which would be run by the Lawrence-based Checkers company — to be the anchor tenant for a seven-story building that would also house offices and apartments. The project also would include a parking garage to serve the development.
There is still a big question about whether historic preservationists will object to a seven-story building being constructed across the street from the historic Douglas County Courthouse and the Watkins Museum of History. The project will have to work through that, and the community will have to decide whether a tall building detracts from the character of an adjacent historic building. I know that is a common concern with historic preservationists, but I’m not sure it is with the common man. We’re poised to find out.
The idea of a downtown grocery store has been a rallying cry for many groups for many years. When Lawrence often can’t agree on much of anything, the idea that downtown needs a grocery store has been the one thing that brought us together like a bag of Doritos in front of the television set. It will be interesting to see if the downtown grocery crowd now fully throws its support behind the 11th and Massachusetts plan.
Who knows if that will happen, though? I swear each morning that I’m going to stand up to my wife and tell her that buying milk on its expiration date isn’t worth the nickel we save. Yet, here I am, chewing my milk.
In other news and notes from around town:
• One area where you often don’t find a thrifty nickel is in the world of campaign finance. Even in the world of Lawrence City Commission politics, candidates will spend thousands of dollars to win a seat on the commission. Many times — although not always — they are spending the money of campaign contributors. It usually is interesting to see how much money candidates have raised, and where it is coming from.
The latest campaign reports have been filed, and they do tell a story. There has been speculation that this may be a rough year for incumbents, but thus far that hasn’t been the case in the world of fundraising. Incumbent Bob Schumm is the leader of the pack in the most recent campaign finance reporting period. Terry Riordan, the other incumbent seeking re-election, came in third. In between the two is Stan Rasmussen, who was the leader in the previous reporting period and has raised more than $19,000 since late 2014.
These latest reports measure how much candidates have raised from Jan. 1 through Feb. 19. Here’s a look at the entire field:
— Schumm, a city commissioner and retired restaurant owner, raised $14,155 during the time period. The contributions came from 87 individuals or companies, including a $500 donation from himself.
— Rasmussen, an attorney for the U.S. Army, raised $10,975 during the time period. The contributions came from 85 individuals or companies, including a $300 donation from the PAC Lawrence United. In case you have forgotten, Lawrence United is the political action committee that became active in City Commission elections two years ago, and supports a growth-oriented agenda for the city. During the last election, the PAC — in addition to contributing directly to candidates — did a significant amount of advertising supporting candidates as well.
— Riordan, a city commissioner and Lawrence pediatrician, raised $8,665 during the time period. The contributions came from 67 individuals or businesses, including a $600 from himself.
— Mike Anderson, a local television talk show host, raised $5,430 during the time period. The contributions came from nine individuals, including $2,500 from himself.
— Matthew Herbert, a Lawrence High teacher, raised $3,795 during the time period. The contributions came from 51 individuals and businesses. Herbert also had raised $3,030 during the previous reporting period, which ran from March 21 to December 31.
— Stuart Boley, a retired IRS auditor, raised $3,430 during the time period. The contributions came from 16 individuals, including a $300 contribution from the political action committee of the Plumbers & Pipefitters union. Boley also raised $1,600 during the previous reporting period.
— Leslie Soden, the owner of a Lawrence pet sitting company, raised $2,144 during the time period. The contributions came from 17 individuals plus an unitemized number of contributors who gave less than $50 apiece.
— Kristie Adair, a Lawrence school board member and co-owner of Wicked Broadband, raised $1,655 from 22 individuals. Adair also raised $5,050 during the previous reporting period.
— David Crawford, a retired instructor for the boilermakers union, raised $1,250 during the time period from 19 individuals, including $300 from himself.
— Cori Viola, a KU law student, raised $1,217 from nine individuals plus an unitemized number of contributors who gave less than $50 apiece.
— Rob Sands, a full-time officer in the Kansas National Guard, raised $1,035 from three individuals, including $500 from himself.
Campaign finance reports from candidates Greg Robinson, Gary Williams and Justin Priest had not yet been received at the County Clerk’s office as of this morning.
You can see all the reports and the lists of who is contributing money to each candidate here.
During these cold days of winter, I try to think of all the standard summer scenes to warm me up: baseball, a day at the lake, a hot tub full of bratwursts. But you know it is really cold when the thought of orange construction cones warms my cockles. But find your cockles and prepare them to be warmed, because the city has its list of summer road projects in hand.
City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are set to approve the city’s game plan for 2015 road construction. It won’t be nearly as aggressive as the last two seasons, when much of Iowa Street was only accessible by hovercraft. Here’s a look at some of the larger projects:
— 31st Street just east of Ousdahl Road. The city will spend about $280,000 to rebuild the base and pavement. It's the section of road that will run in front of the new Menards home improvement center. Currently, the street is closed due to the South Lawrence Trafficway project. Kansas Department of Transportation officials hope to have 31st Street west of Louisiana open by mid-summer. I’m sure city officials will seek to have their portion of the project done before then.
— Bob Billings Parkway from Wakarusa Drive to Foxfire. The $1.2 million project will install new pavement, improve the medians, add bicycle lanes, add conduit to accommodate future fiber optic cables and repair deteriorating sidewalks on the north and south sides of the street. The median of the four-lane street will be reduced in width to accommodate the bike lanes. Look for construction to run from about May through August.
— Bob Billings Parkway and George Williams Way. City officials will install a traffic signal and turn lanes at the far west Lawrence intersection, which is bound to get much busier in the near future. Work is underway to complete the new Bob Billings interchange on the South Lawrence Trafficway. KDOT plans to have that interchange open by November. When the interchange opens, a lot more traffic will start traveling on Bob Billings Parkway, as it likely will become the major gateway road leading to the KU campus. In addition to the traffic signal, the project also will include a center turn lane to accommodate traffic turning onto Legend Trail Drive. The project is expected to cost about $775,000. Work is expected to be completed this summer.
City officials, though, expect additional improvements ultimately will have to be made on Bob Billings Parkway to accommodate the additional traffic. But don’t look for those in 2015. City officials hope to use this year to figure out what the improvements ought to be. Additional traffic signals or roundabouts on the corridor are definitely in the mix. So are additional left-turn lanes. A more immediate concern is that the section of Bob Billings Parkway between Kasold and Wakarusa undergoes significant maintenance every year due to base failures and pavement cracking. The city has about $2.25 million in its capital improvement plan for Bob Billings Parkway improvements. But rebuilding the section from Kasold to Wakarusa would eat up all of that money, leaving none for the other traffic upgrades that are likely necessary.
The current thinking in City Hall is to hold another round of meetings with neighbors this spring and determine whether a short-term plan could be ready by 2016. That could include restriping the street to accommodate some turn lanes and limiting turning movements at some intersections. City engineers believe a longer-term plan to replace sections of the road and add sidewalks, bike lanes and other intersection improvements will be needed, but figuring out when it will fit into the city’s budget will be the trick. When the city starts talking about building a police headquarters without raising taxes, remember projects like this one. This is the type of project that may get delayed a bit to accommodate a no-tax-increase police plan.
— The city will repave or “microsurface” a number of streets in the central part of Lawrence. A large number of streets west of Mississippi Street, east of Iowa Street, south of Sixth Street and north of 15th Street will get a new coat of pavement this summer. There are a few other pockets of town that will receive some planned street maintenance work. See the map below for details.
— One of the larger infrastructure projects that will be underway this summer isn’t really a road project. It will be the building of a new storm water pump station near Sixth and Maple streets in North Lawrence. The $4 million project, which is designed to reduce flooding in parts of North Lawrence, has been on the list of city improvements for a long time. Voters were promised as part of the 2008 campaign for a new infrastructure sales tax that the pump station would be completed. Look for construction to start in April and last into December.
Operator of The Cave admits liquor violations, but state drops fine to $2,000 as part of settlement; dates set for city and school board forums
The operator of The Cave, the large nightclub inside The Oread hotel, has pleaded guilty to four counts of violating the state law prohibiting establishments from giving away free liquor or advertising free liquor. But information from the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control division shows the nightclub received a smaller penalty than once envisioned.
According to the details of a recently released settlement, the operator of The Cave — Kangaroo LLC — was required to pay a $2,000 fine. State prosecutors agreed to drop their previous penalty recommendation that the nightclub be forced to close for two weekend days of business.
If you remember, the allegations against The Cave came to light after the bar posted a series of tweets that caused local officials to bemoan that the bar was promoting irresponsible drinking. The Journal-World in March reported that The Cave’s Twitter account repeatedly posted a photo of a man who appears to have passed out in a bar booth and wet his pants. The photo was accompanied by language promoting the bar’s frequent $1 drink nights.
Other posts by the establishment included one that said “alcoholism isn’t a real thing until after college,” and about the need for “blackout buckets” at the nightclub. Those posts sparked concern from leaders who are concerned about alcohol abuse, but other tweets advertising free liquor may have been more at the heart of the ABC investigation.
The Cave’s social media accounts on multiple occasions advertised that “ladies drink free” until 10:30 p.m. on Fridays. Other postings announced the winners of free punch cards that could be redeemed for alcoholic drinks. State law doesn’t allow nightclubs to provide free drinks.
According to the settlement agreement, ABC officials dropped their demand that The Cave be shut down for two days after it became clear that the case was going to proceed to an evidentiary hearing stage. As reported by the Journal-World in December, officials with ABC and the nightclub reached a tentative settlement just prior to a Dec. 11 evidentiary hearing. ABC officials at that time declined to release the details of the settlement. The department provided the Journal-World a copy of the settlement late Wednesday.
The news of the settlement comes at the same time that the Oread hotel’s sister property — The Eldridge — is seeking a 95 percent, 15-year property tax abatement for an expansion of its downtown hotel. The expansion will include new rooms, but also will include additional restaurant and drinking establishment space.
Members of the public have asked whether the city will take any steps to ensure that public tax breaks aren’t used to support drinking establishments that violate the law in ways that The Cave did. So far, city commissioners have not publicly addressed the issue.
Lawrence resident Dan Dannenberg at the City Commission’s Feb. 10 meeting asked a series of questions about how the city could assure the public that tax abatements wouldn’t be used to support a drinking establishment like The Cave, which he noted had required a high level of police calls in recent years. Commissioners indicated that they would get answers to Dannenberg’s questions, but they never addressed the subject again during their Feb. 10 meeting, and they also did not address the subject when they again discussed The Eldridge incentives at this week’s meeting.
The idea of whether the city should have some ability to withhold tax incentives when a business breaks the law or is the site of frequent unruly behavior — The Cave has required several large scale deployments of the city’s police force to break up fights outside the establishment — came up last year. The Oread and The Cave receive significant tax breaks. The Oread property receives about $500,000 a year in public tax incentives, and is scheduled to receive city-approved tax breaks for about 15 more years.
After the allegations against The Cave emerged in March, several city commissioners expressed interest in adding language to the city’s tax incentive policies that would allow the city to reduce or cancel tax incentives for projects that have caused public safety problems.
City staff members in April did propose language that would give the city the ability to reduce or cancel incentives for projects that cause public safety problems. The language was inserted into a proposed agreement for a seven-story apartment and office building that is proposed for the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets. But commissioners removed the language after the development group objected that it could jeopardize the financing of the project. Commissioners agreed that the new language was too much of a last-minute addition to the project, but commissioners said they were still interested in adding the language to future projects. Commissioners directed the city’s Public Incentive Review Committee to study the issue. The PIRC did have a discussion on the topic, and some concerns were raised that the language could have a chilling effect on the ability of developers to finance future projects.
But the debate, to my recollection, ended there. Normally, items discussed at PIRC make their way to the City Commission for discussion. I don’t believe that has ever been the case with that topic. As noted previously, the topic hasn’t gotten any discussion by city commissioners as they have debated the incentives package for The Eldridge.
But the process isn’t quite done yet. City commissioners must still give final approval to the tax incentive package at their March 10 meeting.
• That March 10 vote of the commission was thought to be primarily procedural in nature. Ordinances have to get read to two times at City Hall. Normally the first reading is when all the debate takes place, and the second reading is pretty much just a technicality. But now commissioners may want to reopen the debate. Douglas County commissioners last night approved an 85 percent, 15-year tax abatement for the project. City commissioners approved a 95 percent tax abatement.
Nancy Longhurst, general manager for The Eldridge, was quoted after last night’s meeting as saying she thought the 85 percent abatement “will work for us.” That is a different message than what she delivered to city commissioners a day earlier. On Tuesday, Mayor Mike Amyx asked if the 95 percent abatement was absolutely critical to the project.
“For the scope of this project, that is what it is absolutely going to take to make this happen,” Longhurst said. “We’re firm on that.”
Maybe Longhurst just meant that 95 percent from the city was critical. Why the project would need a larger tax abatement from the city than the county, however, is unclear. The property tax bill from the county actually is larger on the project than the property tax bill from the city. The county has a significantly higher mill levy than the city.
Amyx did ask Longhurst specifically what would happen if the county or the school board — which will debate the issue on Monday — decided on a lower tax abatement percentage. Longhurst said she wasn’t sure. We’ll see if the question comes up again at the commission’s March 10 meeting.
• Speaking of questions, Lawrence city commission and school board candidates will start answering them at candidate forums. The largest city commission candidate forum of the primary season is set for Monday. The Voter Education Coalition and Channel 6 will host a forum at 6 p.m. on Monday at the Lawrence Public Library. The forum will be taped and rebroadcast on Channel 6 several times before the March 3 primary.
At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Merchants Pub & Plate, 746 Massachusetts, the VEC and the online radio station LawrenceHits.com will host a forum for school board candidates.
The date also has been set for a large city commission candidate forum after the primary. The six remaining candidates in the race will be asked to participate in a forum hosted by the VEC at 8:45 a.m. on March 7 at Maceli’s, 1031 New Hampshire.
When it comes to numbers and the South Lawrence Trafficway, we can all make jokes about the number of years it has taken to complete, or the number of arguments it has sparked. But when city, county and school board officials got briefed on the project Tuesday, one number was nothing to laugh about: The number of fatalities on the western leg of the SLT is about 55 percent higher than the average for similar Kansas roads.
From 2009 to 2013, there have been three fatalities on the SLT, which runs from Iowa Street to the Kansas Turnpike on the western edge of Lawrence. (Hopefully you’ve noticed the other half of the project, from Iowa Street to Kansas Highway 10 on the eastern edge of Lawrence, is under construction.) If you go back to 2000, the number of fatality accidents on the SLT grows to nine.
Engineers said one of the reasons for the higher-than-average fatality rate is that the road is two lanes instead of four. Another is because the road has some dangerous at-grade intersections, including one at Kasold Drive and another at 27th and Wakarusa. That one is particularly busy as users of the adjacent sports complex enter and leave the facility. That intersection was the site of a fatality when a motorist struck a bicyclist in July 2013.
Eliminating those at-grade intersections and expanding the road from two lanes to four lanes are major goals of the Kansas Department of Transportation. The department has a study underway that aims to create a concept plan for adding two lanes to the western portion of the SLT; the eastern portion is being built with four lanes. The $1.5 million KDOT study was funded before the state’s fiscal crisis really took hold, so KDOT leaders are optimistic the study will be completed. Finding money to design and then build whatever concept the study comes up with is another issue. There is no funding in future budgets to build the expansion, and it's tough to say when that may change, given that the current “concept plan” at the Statehouse involves shaking couch cushions for loose change.
The public should keep its eyes open for a public meeting in late March or early April where KDOT starts revealing ideas for how it could expand the road to four-lanes. Of particular interest to the development community and motorists will be whether KDOT proposes any additional interchanges on the western portion of the SLT.
The idea of an interchange at Kasold seems pretty remote based on comments from engineers on Tuesday. An interchange near the city’s ball fields near Wakarusa and 27th seems more feasible. Engineers also indicated that they might want to make significant changes to the interchange where the SLT connects to the Kansas Turnpike, commonly called the Lecompton interchange.
Tuesday’s meeting also produced a host of other facts and figures about the SLT project, so here’s a look at a few:
— Get ready for a lot more traffic once the eastern leg of the trafficway opens in the fall of 2016. The western leg of the SLT currently carries about 6,000 to 12,000 cars per day. When the eastern leg of the trafficway opens, those numbers are expected to grow fairly immediately to 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles per day.
— Here’s one reason engineers want to make the western portion of the SLT four lanes: Today it takes about 8 minutes to drive from Iowa Street to the Lecompton interchange on the western end of the road. In 2040, if the road remains two lanes, engineers estimate it will take 28 minutes to make the same trip. By 2040, the road is expected to have about 29,000 vehicles per day.
— Construction is well underway on the Bob Billings Parkway and SLT interchange. Steve Baalman, area engineer for KDOT, said the interchange is expected to be completed by November. Once completed, that will be an area to keep an eye on. That’s the place where the city’s growth probably will first truly jump the trafficway, at least when it comes to large amounts of residential development. How quickly that jump happens will be the big question. Another big question will be how quickly retail develops around the interchange. The city already has approved some retail zoning on the eastern side of the SLT.
— Lots of work has been happening on the eastern leg of the SLT. In terms of dollars spent, about 60 percent of the project is complete. Thus far, contractors only have used 40 percent of their allotted contract days.
— Twenty-four bridges have to be built as part of the project. Work is underway on all but three of them.
— If you remember, the SLT project also includes a project to build a new 31st Street that will run from Haskell Avenue to O’Connell Road. That road is basically 95 percent completed, Baalman said. But it isn’t opened to traffic because the connection to 31st Street east of Haskell can’t yet be made. Baalman said he expects 31st Street to open to traffic before the entire trafficway opens in fall 2016, but he said he can’t estimate yet when that opening will be.
Large apartment complex files plans for major renovation; the mystery numbers surrounding renters in Lawrence
One of the city’s larger apartment complexes is set to get an upgrade. Plans have been filed for a significant remodeling of the apartment complex near 24th and Ousdahl that used to be known as Colony Woods.
Paperwork filed at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department shows the complex has been purchased by a new owner, and it looks like the ownership group wants to increase the amenities offered at the complex.
Lawrence-based Paul Werner Architects is doing the design for the new project, and it includes a complete renovation of the clubhouse, including a new fitness center, student lounge, pool table area, computer lab, study room, and new outdoor space that will include a patio, pool, hot tub, fire pit and barbecue area. Plans also call for the complex to have security entrance gates added, and a whole new landscaping package. My understanding is some interior renovations of the apartment already have taken place.
As for the ownership group, it looks like a Florida-based company has purchased the property. The property is owned by an LLC that is registered to individuals with Calidus Holdings, a Florida-based investment group that was formed in 2011 and has started purchasing student housing properties throughout the Midwest and southeastern U.S.
Although I’m not entirely sure, it looks like there also may be a name change in store for the complex. Even though a lot of folks have still thought of the property as Colony Woods, I think it has been operating under the name of Campus Court for awhile. The plans filed at City Hall are titled The Rockland, and I'm told the complex is transitioning over to the name The Rockland.
A little distance between the complex and its Colony Woods past probably is a good thing. I know there’s a whole generation of KU alumni who are quite thankful that party pics and Facebook didn’t exist during Colony Woods’ heyday.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Some readers told me they noticed a national article that talked about how the percentage of renters in many U.S cities continues to grow, and they wondered what the situation was in Lawrence. So, now seems as good as any to go over the latest numbers.
First, a new report by New York University’s Furman Center found that nine of the 11 largest U.S. cities now have more renters than homeowners. That’s up from just five of the largest U.S. cities being rental dominated in 2006. Among the new cities where renters have become the new majority are Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Washington, D.C.
Lawrence, of course, wasn’t included in the study. But renters being the majority in a town is old hat for Lawrence. The latest numbers are from the 2013, five-year American Community Survey by the Census Bureau. That report found that 53.9 percent of all occupied housing units in Lawrence are rentals. That equates to 18,592 rental units in Lawrence compared with 16,399 owner-occupied units.
What people, I think, are more interested in is how much that percentage has been growing. When it comes to interpreting those numbers, here is my takeaway: I need some of that fine punch I used to get at Colony Woods. The numbers show that the percentage of renters in Lawrence has held steady or actually decreased slightly over the years. In 2010, the percentage of renters was 53.2 percent, according to the 2010 Census. In the 2000 Census, it was 54.1 percent.
But for those of you who track apartment construction in Lawrence, we know two things: 1. We really need a better hobby than tracking apartment construction. 2. There have been a lot of apartments built in Lawrence since 2000. But you wouldn’t know it by the Census numbers.
The 2010 Census showed that there were 18,623 rental units in Lawrence. The 2013 Census survey estimated that there were 18,592 rental units in the city, a decline of 31 rental units. But if you look at building permit numbers from the city, they show that 921 new multifamily apartment units were built between the end of 2010 and the end of 2013. Sure, some apartment units have been torn down in that time period too, but not that many.
One key to remember is that the Census Bureau is measuring occupied housing units. Vacant housing units is another calculation. Now, clearly, apartment developers aren’t building tons of new units in Lawrence to watch them sit empty. I’m guessing a fairly small percentage of the 921 new apartment units built in that time are sitting vacant. But the bigger question is, how many older apartment units are sitting vacant in Lawrence as the result of those newer units coming online?
One way to interpret the Census Bureau’s numbers is that apartment demand in Lawrence has held about steady, and what has been taking place is that newly constructed units have been filling that demand at the expense of older units. Or, an alternate theory is there are a lot of single family homes sitting vacant that used to be occupied by homeowners who are now renters.
It is tough to say for sure what is happening, however, without really knowing the rental vacancy rate in Lawrence. The Census Bureau has figures on that, but I don’t know a lot of people in the rental industry that rely on those numbers too heavily. A group of private apartment owners in town used to commission a local study of the apartment vacancy rate, and they used to share that number with me. But that hasn’t happened for years now. The study may still happen, but the sharing part doesn’t.
The rental vacancy rate is a number that city planners also struggle to determine. As far as I know, there is no real city-generated number that estimates the rental vacancy rate in the community. That is different from the retail vacancy rate. City planners do work to create a retail vacancy rate, which is used in helping determine whether new retail zoning projects should be approved. But that approach isn’t taken in determining whether new apartment development should be approved.
So, to answer the original question posed, I would make three points about the status of renters in Lawrence: 1. As has long been the case, renters continue to be the majority in Lawrence. 2. It is not clear that the number of renters in Lawrence is growing, although it is clear the number of apartment units in the city is growing. 3. I really need to find that punch recipe.
Lawrence lands on national list of cities that love to volunteer; City Hall set to impose new restrictions on payday, title loan companies
You know what they say about Lawrence: We’re a town full of do-gooders, which explains why there are people in the street jousting with snow shovels today to win the privilege of shoveling their neighbor’s sidewalk. Well, maybe that hasn’t quite been the case, but there is a national ranking out that does show Lawrence residents are more volunteer-minded than most.
The huge professional networking site LinkedIn has been studying the data of it is millions of users to find out how many of them list volunteer activities on their LinkedIn profiles. Come to find out, Lawrence has one of the higher percentages of LinkedIn members who identify themselves as active volunteers.
Lawrence had the fourth-highest concentration of volunteers of any city in the country. Based on a blog entry from the company, I think that means LinkedIn looked at the number of users it has in each community, and then calculated the percentage of users in each city that listed activities under the “Volunteer Experience and Causes” section of their profiles.
College communities seem to do well in the ranking. That makes sense because the study also found that millennials were the group most likely to have volunteer experience listed on their LinkedIn profiles. The complete list of communities in the top 10 are:
Fort Collins, Colo.
State College, Pa.
In other news and notes from around town:
• UPDATE: Upon further review, I need to correct a couple of statements about the proposed regulations for title loan and payday loan businesses. After re-reading the city memo, a special use permit isn't proposed as part of the regulations. The League of Women Voters had asked for such a requirement, but it isn't included in the proposed code changes. Instead, the regulations create definitions for payday and title loan companies. They also spell out which zoning categories the businesses would be allowed to locate in. It appears that there are still 14 zoning categories where the businesses would be allowed to locate, so I'm not sure it will create many restrictions on the businesses. My apologies for suggesting otherwise. I simply misread the staff memo.
Original post: One area that Lawrence evidently is not feeling too charitable about is the idea of payday loan or car title loan businesses. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are set to approve new regulations that would place additional restrictions on where such businesses could locate in Lawrence.
City commissioners as part of their consent agenda will consider new code language that will require future payday loan and title loan companies to receive a special use permit before being allowed to open an office in several zoning districts in Lawrence. Normally special use permits are required for businesses that have some noxious land use impacts. Bars are required to have special use permits in some situations, like when they are part of a mixed-used development, for example. Businesses that have large amounts of outdoor storage, like recycling centers, sometimes are required to get special use permits too.
As the code is written now, payday loan and title loan businesses can locate about anywhere a traditional bank would be allowed to locate. But planning staff has noted that several neighborhoods have raised concerns about the businesses, and some zonings in the past have had conditions added that would prohibit such businesses.
What is mildly interesting is that the information being presented to the City Commission doesn’t really get into any detail about what problems the businesses are creating. Are repossessed cars being stored in the parking lot? Are they creating traffic problems? Are there noise problems?
Certainly, there have been concerns raised about some of the lending practices and whether such companies are taking predatory actions against their customers. City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer even has suggested creating city regulations regarding how the companies can operate. But a quick legal review found that creating city regulations that would fit into the state framework of regulations may be difficult.
I’m not sure that a special use permit will give the city much leverage in regulating how payday loan businesses operate, such as regulating the interest rates they can charge and such, but the new regulations will create a new hoop for such businesses to jump through before they can open in the city.
Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
Taco Zone plans to open downtown restaurant; police ask for $24K as engineer finds structural problems in evidence storage area
Eons ago when I was in college, taco night meant 33 cent tacos at the Taco Tico. You would put $10 on the counter, your belt on the table, and settle in for a couple of hours of gastronomical delight. But that doesn’t appear to be the college taco scene anymore, and we all may get to check it out for ourselves soon enough. The Taco Zone, a business that got its start serving upscale late-night tacos in Lawrence bars, has inked a deal to open a downtown restaurant of its own.
Documents filed at City Hall show that the Taco Zone has filed plans to remodel a vacant storefront at 13 E. Eighth St. to accommodate a new restaurant. The location is a couple doors down from the Sandbar and is in what used to be an e-cigarette shop.
“It is definitely going to be a regular brick and mortar store,” said Brad Shanks, who co-owns the business with his brother in-law Brian Ayers. “It will allow us to expand our menu a bit.”
Shanks said he expects the restaurant to open in early spring, but was shy about sharing other details for the business’ plans at the moment.
Taco Zone got started by serving tacos on the patio of the Replay Lounge in downtown Lawrence. Shanks said the plan is for the Taco Zone to continue serving at the Replay, but the Eighth Street restaurant will broaden its market.
It looks like the Taco Zone has a menu that changes frequently, but it definitely isn’t Taco Tico fare. (Which is probably good because about $8 into a night at Taco Tico you would begin to remember what put the “ico” in Tico.) The Taco Zone’s Facebook page lists dishes such as Salsa Verde Braised Pork, Chicken Tinga, Chili Rojo Beef and Sweet Potato, and a Chicken and Chorizo taco.
When it comes to taco shop competition, soon all that will be missing in downtown is Bobby Flay lookalikes brawling in the streets. As we’ve reported multiple times, the Westport-based taco/Mexican restaurant Port Fonda indeed is opening in Lawrence. It will open in the ground floor space of the new Marriott hotel building at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. A few more details are starting to emerge about the restaurant’s Lawrence’s plans. It looks like they hope to open in July, and in addition to the Mexican food, they also plan to serve brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Voters said no in November to a $28 million plan for a new police headquarters facility, but now police department leaders are saying they can’t wait any longer on addressing one critical space need. The department will ask city commissioners on Tuesday night to approve funding for an “emergency need” related to evidence storage space. But taxpayers can breath easy. The price tag for this fix is coming in at about $24,000.
As was well documented during the police headquarters campaign, the department’s current evidence storage room at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center is highly cramped. But now the department said it is no longer just cramped but potentially dangerous. The department hired a structural engineer in December to assess the space. The report from Bob D. Campbell and Co. found that the weight of all the evidence in the second- and third-floor evidence rooms exceeded the structural floor capacity of the building by about 35 percent. The engineer said the evidence room as it exists today is not in compliance with the city’s building codes.
So, the department has begun a process of releasing or destroying evidence, which involves researching old cases and receiving approvals from offices such as the District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to ensure that the evidence is no longer needed for future prosecution. The department reports the process has been “successful, yet time consuming, as it involves several hours of research.”
But releasing or destroying evidence is only part of the solution. The department also is now proposing to do something it really did not want to do during the campaign: expand into the vacant space at the department’s Investigations and Training Center in West Lawrence. As was well-documented in the campaign, about half of the building that houses the department’s investigations, training and administration functions is empty and largely unimproved. Department leaders said the building wasn’t designed to serve police needs, and it wouldn’t make for very efficient space.
The latest structural concerns about the current evidence room, however, has the department turning to that space. The department is asking city commissioners to approve $23,766 to purchase a shelving system that can accommodate a significant amount of evidence that would be moved from the downtown Judicial and Law Enforcement Center and into the west Lawrence Investigations and Training Center.
If approved, this certainly won’t solve all the Police Department’s facility needs. The headquarters plan also was designed to address lack of office space, locker room space, lab space, equipment storage and several other factors. It probably will provide fuel to some opponents who contended there was more the department could do with its existing space.
The larger issue, though, is how long the police headquarters issue will remain in limbo, and whether more temporary fixes are on the horizon. There certainly are signs that a new plan for a police facility may be on a longer time frame than what previously had been envisioned. What I mean by that is there are a number of city commission candidates who are saying they support the idea that the department needs a new facility, but they don’t support a sales or property tax increase to pay for it.
It is not impossible to think that the city could figure out a way to address police facility needs without a tax increase. But it likely would involve doing the project in phases, which could stretch it out over several years.
I suppose one option is to use the city’s 10-year infrastructure sales tax that voters approved in 2008. It would take a closer reading of that ballot language to determine whether those dollars could be used for a police headquarters — public safety equipment was part of the language, and the city does use the tax to purchase fire engines. But using the tax for a police headquarters could open up a big political can of worms. The police headquarters was never mentioned as a use during the campaign.
A more likely scenario may be to use property tax-funded debt. The general rule of thumb is that the city can issue about $5 million to $7 million worth of debt each year without requiring a tax increase. Enough debt comes off the books that new debt can be placed on the books, and hopefully the city’s tax base grows a bit, which adds to the city’s debt capacity. So, one scenario could be that the city issues debt over a two to three year period that could fund $15 million to $20 million worth of construction. But the big issue with that plan is that police facilities essentially would take up all the city’s free debt capacity for the next several years. By free, I mean the amount that can be issued without a tax increase.
The city already has some other projects tentatively planned that will require debt. So, a pending discussion at City Hall may be whether some of those other projects get axed or delayed for several years. Here’s a look at the city’s capital improvement plan for 2015 through 2019. Most of what is on the books for 2015 involves projects that already are underway, so not paying for them isn’t an option.
In 2016, three projects stand out as potential cuts, but they all come with ramifications. One is about $1.5 million to rehabilitate Fire Station No. 1 in downtown. If commissioners, cut or delay that project, they likely will be accused of addressing one public safety need at the expense of another. Another is about $1.4 million to approve 19th Street from Harper to VenturePark, the city’s new business park that is working to attract tenants. That one probably can be delayed without much public outcry, but what happens if a potential business wants the connection? The third one is $2.5 million for the Ninth Street arts corridor project. The city already is spending public money to create a design for the project, with the idea that construction work would begin in 2016. The project has a group of vocal supporters, and has won a national grant award. Several city commissioners and candidates are excited about the project. But it is the largest single property tax-funded project on the city’s Capital Improvements Plan in 2016. If city commissioners are serious about building a police headquarters without a tax increase, I’ve heard people in City Hall say the Ninth Street project has to get another look.
In some ways, I’m surprised that conversation didn’t happen before the city hired the design team for the Ninth Street project. But it did not. We’ll see if it becomes an issue during the campaigns.
Attendance and revenue numbers at Rock Chalk Park recreation center off to good start; city still struggles with super fast broadband issue; new beer festival coming to downtown
While an auditor scrutinizes a whole bunch of numbers related to Rock Chalk Park, there is one set of numbers everyone seems pleased with: the latest figures on users and revenue at the city’s recreation center at the sports complex.
“I think not only are we pleased by them, but really we’re awed by them,” said Ernie Shaw, the leader of the city’s parks and recreation department. “I don’t think anybody had any idea that we would see numbers like this in the first three or four months.”
As we’ve previously reported, the recreation center — Sports Pavilion Lawrence — has been drawing between 50,000 to 60,000 visitors per month since it became fully operational in October. But January was the first big month for the 181,000 square-foot center to host large youth tournaments. Attendance jumped to 80,144 in January. Basically that’s the equivalent of hosting five sold-out Kansas University men’s basketball games in a month.
The city’s latest report also included for the first time some projected revenue numbers for the center. Parks and recreation officials are now reporting the center has 36 tournaments booked for 2015. Those tournaments are expected to generate just shy of $160,000 in rental revenue for the center. In addition, the department either has finalized or is close to finalizing agreements with six sporting organizations that plan to hold camps or other events at the center in 2015. Those events are expected to add another $90,000 in rental revenue.
That puts the city on pace to receive $250,000 in rental income at the center in 2015. That’s important to the city’s budget. The recreation center never was designed to directly make money for the city, or even to break even. City Manager David Corliss told commissioners early on that he expected the center would have about $1 million in operating expenses per year, and hopefully would generate about $600,000 a year in operating revenue. The shortfall would be made up through an annual infusion of sales tax funds.
Obviously, $250,000 is not $600,000, but there is still one more large revenue generator for the recreation center that hasn’t been accounted for yet. The center also is expected to generate new class fees for the parks and recreation department. The city, however, doesn’t have an estimate yet on what those numbers may be for 2015. But Shaw expressed optimism that they’ll be significant.
“I think we’re pretty much on track to meet our budget goals,” said Shaw, who did note that it is taking more personnel to run the center than the department had expected. But he said thus far that is not likely to result in an increase in the overall budget for the center, but rather just a readjusting of various line items within the budget.
It may be a little difficult in the future to figure out just how much revenue Rock Chalk Park is generating for the city because it won’t be as simple as just counting the number of classes that are held at the facility. Shaw noted that the space at Rock Chalk has allowed opened up space in the other recreation center for classes, which would not otherwise be available if not for the new recreation center.
Probably the best number to keep an eye on will be the total revenue figure for the recreation division of parks and recreation. That’s where all the class and league fee dollars flow through — everything from aerobics classes to adult softball. The hope is that total revenue number will grow now that the city has more space to offer more classes and activities. In 2014, the city collected about $2.2 million in recreation revenue. In 2015, it is budgeted to collect $2.8 million.
Look for some more numbers in the future. The city has been asking tournament organizers to survey their participants to determine how many are spending the night in Lawrence as a result of the tournaments. That has been hard to determine otherwise. Thus far, the tournaments have largely attracted teams from the immediate region rather than from multiple states. Officials have noted it probably isn’t likely that teams from Kansas City and Topeka are spending the night in Lawrence, but perhaps some teams from Manhattan, Salina, Wichita and other such locations are. Look for those type of numbers in the next few months.
Some other interesting numbers from the city’s latest report include:
— Area residents were still plenty interested in recreation classes in 2014. The $2.2 million in recreation programing fees was up from $1.9 million in 2013. That’s an increase of about 18 percent.
— 178,931 visitors came to Sports Pavilion Lawrence between October and the end of December. That was more visitors in three months than any of the the city’s other recreation centers had for the entire 12 months of 2014. The next closest attendance number was at Holcom Park Recreation Center, which had about 147,000 visitors for the entire year.
— Attendance numbers at all the city’s recreation centers other than Sports Pavilion Lawrence were down for 2014 compared with 2013. Attendance at Holcom fell by 11 percent, the Community Building was down 9 percent and the East Lawrence center dropped by about 4 percent. But Shaw said those lower attendance numbers aren’t a bad thing. One of the concerns prior to Rock Chalk Park was that the city’s existing centers were overcrowded, and it was particularly difficult for neighborhood users to just drop by and have opportunity for free play at the center. Shaw said as more league games and practices have been shifted to Rock Chalk Park, that has opened up more free play opportunities at the neighborhood centers.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The way city commissioners have gone about figuring how to attract additional high-speed gigabit broadband service to Lawrence has been a lot like many a pick-up basketball game I’ve played at city recreation centers: There have been frequent breaks for reassessment.
There was another such delay at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. Commissioners are trying to approve a “fiber policy” (mine involves three bowls of Shredded Wheat per morning) that will regulate how private companies can have access to city-owned fiber optic cables that are throughout the community.
A big question in that policy is the idea of “open access.” That would mean any private company that uses any city-owned fiber to complete its network in Lawrence would be required to allow other companies to use any fiber it has installed in the city. In other words, say Company A wants to build a high-speed broadband network in the neighborhood just west of the KU campus. It would spend the few million dollars to bury fiber optic cable in that neighborhood. Then, Company A would splice that newly built network into a large city-owned fiber cable that runs along Iowa Street. That Iowa Street cable hooks into an even larger fiber cable that runs along Interstate 70, and — boom — we’re connected to the larger world. (Remember, this is just an example, and my technical expertise has only recently advanced to the point that I no longer giggle when people say ‘I just tweeted.’)
Here’s the key part about open access: Once Company A hooks onto the city-owned fiber, an open access policy would require Company A to allow any other company to use the fiber optic network it has installed in the neighborhood near KU. Company A would be allowed to charge the other companies a wholesale rate for use of that fiber, which would be a rate that ultimately would be regulated by the City Commission.
Joshua Montgomery, a co-owner of Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband, has been lobbying the city to adopt an open access policy. Some city commissioners have said they like the idea because they think it would benefit consumers by creating more competition. But overall, commissioners have struggled with the idea.
A city-hired consultant on Tuesday night told commissioners there was good reason to struggle with it. The idea of open access is admirable, but the consultant told commissioners it may do the city more harm than good.
“It is not necessarily going to result in what you are hoping for in Lawrence,” said Joanne Hovis with the consulting firm CTC Technology & Energy. “It potentially will make investors look at your market and see it as a less profitable market compared to others.”
In other words, instead of spurring competition, it probably will cause serious broadband investors to never build a network in the city to begin with. If they can build a network in one city and not have to share it with competitors, they’ll probably do that rather than build one that must be shared in Lawrence.
Plus, Hovis cautioned that if the city did try to mandate open access, the city could be subject to some lawsuits because it is not clear cities have the regulatory authority to require such open access.
“I would strongly recommend a legal review if you are going to do this,” Hovis said.
But putting the open access issue aside, Hovis told commissioners the rest of the city’s fiber policy looks “extraordinary.” She said the city-owned fiber network and the proposed lease rates for that fiber likely would be attractive to several private providers.
City commissioners, though, still did not act on the fiber policy. Instead, they said they want to review a few more provisions in it. In the meantime, two private providers continue to wait on the city to sign deals that would allow for gigabit service to be extended into select Lawrence neighborhoods.
Wicked Broadband — which if you remember has now dropped its request for a city loan guarantee — wants to do a pilot project in an area near Ninth and Iowa streets and one near Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa Drive.
Baldwin City-based RG Fiber is proposing a larger project that potentially would extend the gigabit service into neighborhoods along major city corridors such as Iowa, Sixth and 23rd Streets. It plans to do the Lawrence project in conjunction with a project in Baldwin City that will bring the super fast broadband service to Baker University and other homes and businesses in Baldwin City. RG has committed to have that service operational in the spring, and the company has said it needs to finalize a deal with Lawrence soon, or else it will have to use an alternative route to reach Baldwin City.
• While we continue to wait to become a high-speed broadband community, it is becoming clearer that we’re already a high-brow beer community. As we previously reported, downtown Lawrence again will host the Kansas Craft Brew Expo on March 7 at Abe & Jake’s Landing. But now, a second beer event has sprung out of that weekend.
The folks at Abe & Jake’s, the fine event venue along the Kansas River in downtown, have teamed up with the downtown restaurant Merchants Pub & Plate to host what they are calling “That Dam Beer Event” on March 6. The event will feature more than 14 craft breweries — all of them different from the breweries that will be at the Beer Expo the following day. The breweries will all feature limited releases or specialty offerings. Merchants will pair each beer with locally sourced food.
Mike Logan, owner of Abe & Jake’s, said the idea for the event came about because the Beer Expo often sells out of tickets. The name for the event plays off the idea that it will be hosted in the venue along the banks of the Kansas River and right next to the Bowersock Dam.
Tickets for the event are $50 a person. They go on sale at 4 p.m. today. They can be purchased online or in person at Merchants Pub & Plate, The Phoenix Gallery or the Granada Theater. Like the Beer Expo, this event also will donate a portion of its proceeds to Downtown Lawrence Inc.
The Merc starts $320,000 renovation project; city writes letter opposing election changes; charging city inmates for jail time to be debated
Increasing competition in Lawrence’s natural grocery market has us all reacting in different ways. I’m undergoing training to make sure I don’t accidentally end up at a sample station for tofu bacon. The Merc, the city’s longest running natural grocery store is preparing a bit differently. It is undertaking its second major renovation in the last year.
The Merc, 901 Iowa St., began an approximately $320,000 renovation project this week that is expected to last into April. The store remains open during the project, and much of the work will be done at night after the store has closed for the day.
Among the planned upgrades:
— Wider aisles and new interior signage.
— Improved energy efficient LED lighting in the store and in the parking lot.
— A reorganized and updated meat and seafood department.
— Relocation and expansion of the bulk foods section.
— An expansion and relocation of the Main Street Credit Union branch that is located inside the store.
— Energy efficiency upgrades to the store’s heating and cooling systems.
— An updated community classroom area.
The latest project comes on the heels of a $500,000 renovation The Merc undertook in late 2014. That project included improvements to the coffee and juice bars, check out lanes and other areas of the store. Store leaders had said at the time that they planned to do a phase II renovation.
The renovation work comes as a new competitor is set to enter the market. As we previously have reported, Sprouts is set to open its Lawrence store near Wakarusa and Overland drives in the second quarter of this year. There certainly has been speculation that another natural grocery chain is eyeing Lawrence. The development group for a proposed retail area south of the SLT and Iowa street interchange has said a specialty grocer would like to be part of that project. It is far from certain whether that retail development will ever get off the ground, but it may be that the specialty chain still has an interest in Lawrence regardless. There’s been no official word on which company is interested in the market. Whole Foods always gets thought of, but I’ve heard some talk of a different chain — The Fresh Market, which has expanded into Kansas with stores in Overland Park and Wichita.
As for The Merc’s latest project, expect some refinement of the store’s product mix and pricing structure, company officials have said. I’ve got a call into store general manager Rita York Hennecke to find out more details about that and other planned improvements at the store.
The Merc said it is financing the $320,000 project from loans through its Owner Loan Program. The Merc is a cooperative that is owned by more than 7,000 community members, although the store is open to both members and nonmembers.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The Lawrence City Commission is officially weighing in on the statehouse debate about whether local elections should become partisan affairs. There is talk in Topeka of making city and school board elections partisan races that would be on the November ballots, along with races for governor, senator and legislators and other such races.
Mayor Mike Amyx has written a letter opposing the idea and has submitted the letter as testimony for a hearing today by the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections. Amyx cites a host of reasons for opposing a change in the local election cycle, which currently takes place in the spring and on a ballot that doesn’t feature statewide or partisan races. Among the reasons cited by Amyx:
— “Voters will focus on state and national races, and may not devote sufficient time to educate and inform themselves on local candidates and local issues,” Amyx wrote.
— “We don’t need or want our local elections to be partisan,” he wrote. “We prefer the voters focus on issues and individuals, not political party labels.”
— He questions whether the change to a partisan system would preclude active duty military personnel and other federal employees from seeking local office. He cites regulations from the Hatch Act and a Department of Defense Directive that both place restrictions on when government employees can serve in partisan positions.
Supporters of the proposed change have argued that combining local elections with state and national elections will produce higher voter turnout. Voter turnout in local city and school elections in Lawrence often is less than 20 percent.
• When Lawrence police officers arrest someone for a municipal crime that ultimately involves serving time at the Douglas County Jail, the city gets charged about $70 a day by the county for the cost of housing those inmates. For the last three years, the city has had a program where it tries to recoup those jail costs from the inmates who served the time. That policy is set to get a second look.
Commissioner Jeremy Farmer at Tuesday evening’s City Commission meeting said he wanted to discuss rescinding that policy. He said the city’s collections efforts haven’t been overly successful, and he is concerned it is placing a financial burden on people who have served their time and are trying to get their lives back in order.
It looks like the issue will come up for discussion by the commission in the next week or two. The topic had started to become an issue in some City Commission campaigns. Cori Viola, a KU law student who has filed for a seat on the commission, has been highlighting the issue on the campaign trail.
Compton plans to build five-story apartment building at Pachamamas site downtown; grocery project moving along; West Lawrence RadioShack store to close
Get ready for another multistory apartment project in downtown Lawrence. Local businessman Doug Compton has confirmed he has a deal to convert the Pachamamas restaurant building at Eighth and New Hampshire into a five-story building that will house about 60 apartments.
As we previously reported, the owner of Pachamamas had put the building on the market and plans to shut the restaurant down after Valentine’s Day (which, sweet mother of Holy Roses and Overextended Bank Accounts, is Saturday.) Compton told me he has signed a contract to purchase the building, and expects to close on the deal by mid-May.
But don’t look for the building to get torn down. Instead, look for four additional stories to be built atop the existing structure. The building used to be an armory and was built to a heavy-duty standard. My understanding is the building was constructed to allow a helicopter to land on the roof, and Compton said he has photos of tanks parked on the roof. (Don’t look at me, I wasn’t driving.)
Engineers have attested that with just a few modifications the building can easily support another four stories. Compton said that is appealing because it could put the project on a fast track. He said he plans to have the project under construction this summer. That would mean Compton would have two multistory apartment buildings under construction on New Hampshire Street at the same time.
He said work is expected to begin any day on a seven-story apartment and office building at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets, on the site where Black Hills Energy previously had its offices. The project, which was approved by city commissioners last year, is expected to add about 115 apartment units to downtown.
The current proposal for the Pachamamas site would add 56 new apartments, with most being one- and two-bedroom units, Compton said. But unlike the project at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire, the Pachamamas project won’t include an underground parking garage. Downtown zoning allows projects to be constructed without providing off-street parking. Compton said he is not planning to build a parking garage as part of the project. He said by not spending millions on a parking garage, he expects that will allow for lower rental rates than what he has been able to offer at his other downtown projects.
“We’re trying to bring this in at a different price point,” Compton said.
The project still needs to win approval from Lawrence City Hall. It will face hearings at the city’s Historic Resources Commission and also may need City Commission approval, especially if the project requests any financial incentives. Compton didn’t say whether the project would seek any incentives.
If the project moves forward it will be the third major apartment project Compton had undertaken on New Hampshire Street since 2011. He started with the 901 Building at the southwest corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets. When the Pachamamas site is completed, Compton’s projects will have added a little more than 225 apartments in essentially a one-block stretch of New Hampshire Street. Compton also was the lead developer on the multistory building at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire that houses a Marriott hotel.
“We feel like we’re really close to changing the whole dynamics of New Hampshire Street,” Compton said.
As for Pachamamas, it appears the fine-dining establishment is in its final days. UPDATE: I got in touch with Ken Baker, chef and owner of the establishment, and he said the restaurant will be open through Valentine's Day, but that will be the last night of business for the establishment.
Baker said he doesn't have any other restaurant ventures planned at the moment, but said he wouldn't rule it out for the future.
"There has just been a crazy outpouring of emotion from clientele and staff over the last several weeks," Baker said. "It has been a wild ride, and a big part of me will miss it. But I think there is more on the horizon."
Compton said he did not purchase any part of the restaurant business. He said the ground floor of the building will be used for a restaurant or retail use, but he said he did not have a tenant in place.
“If somebody wants to lease the space and open that type of restaurant again, I’m happy to do it,” Compton said. “I don’t have anything lined up for it yet.”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Compton said that plans to bring a grocery store to the corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets are progressing well. As we previously reported, owners of the Lawrence-based Checkers grocery store want to open a grocery as part of a multistory building Compton hopes to build at the site of the Allen Press property in downtown.
Compton said his group has been tweaking a few aspects of the design and parking plans for the project after having further meetings with officials from Associated Grocers, the wholesale provider for the grocery store.
“Everything is still moving along,” Compton said.
That project, which would be a seven-story building that would include office and apartment uses, must still win several approvals at City Hall.
A group of residents, led by City Commission candidate David Crawford, continue to lobby to have a grocery store project proceed at the former Borders bookstore site at Seventh and New Hampshire streets. My understanding is the group continues to be in discussions with the Michigan-based owners of the building. The owners of Checkers had tried to strike a deal for that site but couldn’t come to terms with the owners. I’m not sure what the group of citizens has in mind — whether it is lobbying city commissioners to provide some incentives to make the site more palatable to Checkers or whether it is working to bring in a different grocery store company.
If it is incentives, it will be interesting to see how commissioners choose between the two sites, which in the grand scheme of things are relatively close to each other. I haven’t timed it officially, but via car, the two sites are probably within 60 to 90 seconds of each other. On foot, they are within a few minutes of each other.
• If you use your Tandy 1000 computer or other cutting-edge device to follow my Twitter feed — @clawhorn_ljw — you already know that we reported yesterday evening that the RadioShack store at Sixth and Kasold is slated to soon close.
The RadioShack chain on Thursday filed for bankruptcy protection, and on Monday a list of store closings was presented to the court. The store at the shopping center at Sixth and Kasold is included on the list, but the store at The Malls shopping center at 23rd and Louisiana is not on the list. But look for changes there as well. National media outlets are reporting that any RadioShack store that isn’t closed will be put up for sale. Some reports say that Sprint will take over about 1,750 of the stores, and the locations will carry Sprint and RadioShack products.
As for the store at Sixth and Kasold, an employee there said she wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. But it looks like going-out-of-business sales soon will start at all the locations that are closing. The company has said discounts will begin at 50 percent off.
The company plans to close about 1,700 stores, in addition to several stores that already have been shuttered. As we previously reported, that included the Lawrence store on south Iowa Street, which closed several weeks ago. The chain had about 4,000 stores.
I just spent a week on the water — via a Caribbean cruise ship — so I can speak with authority about the keys to nautical survival: all-you-can-eat buffets. I can’t promise that such buffets are coming to Clinton Lake, but a major expansion of the Clinton Lake Marina will give boaters there much more room to host all sorts of activities.
Megan Hiebert, owner of the marina in the Clinton Lake State Park, told me work has been completed to install 70 new covered boat slips, and work will begin in the spring to add another 17. But the slips aren’t your standard slips that just provide a secure place for your boat to dock. The slips also include a patio area for each slip owner.
“The only thing separating you from the lake is a railing,” Hiebert said. “We have people who have ordered new patio furniture and decorative lights and electric grills,” Hiebert said. “It will be just like their back deck, without the fire pit.” (Regulations prohibit open flames on the deck.)
The expansion will bring the total number of slips at the marina up to 475. The expansion is just the latest in what has been a major investment in the marina since Hiebert purchased the facility in 1998. At that time, the marina had fewer than 200 boat slips and offered far fewer services than what it does today.
Heibert said she decided to go with the dock system that included the patio areas — each patio is about 100 to 150 square feet in size — because there has been a strong demand for lakeside property on Clinton Lake. Current regulations have made it difficult for any true lakeside developments to be built along Clinton Lake. Plus, Hiebert said she has long promoted the marina as a small community, and she thinks the patio areas will help bring boat owners together to socialize even more.
The new slips, which are on the eastern end of the cove and provide a good view of the dam, will lease for about $5,000 a season, depending on the size of slip needed, Hiebert said. She said the the patio component added about $1,200 a year to the lease rate.
“That is lakefront property for basically $100 per month,” she said.
Of course, some of those months will be in the cold Kansas winter, but that’s not a problem, if you have planned ahead: Eat enough during the summer buffets and you’ll have plenty of layers to keep you warm in the winter.
Publicly traded firm buys Lawrence-based engineering company; Holiday Inn closing banquet area for renovations; city to consider adding police dogs to force
Lawrence’s efforts to become an engineering hub may have received a significant boost. A publicly traded company has completed a multimillion dollar deal to purchase a rapidly growing Lawrence-based engineering firm.
Willdan Group Inc. — an Anaheim, Calif.-based firm that is traded on the NASDAQ — has bought Lawrence-based 360 Energy Engineers. 360 Energy Engineers is a 5-year-old company that spent many of its years in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on KU’s West Campus, but recently moved into office space in the Hobbs Taylor Loft building in downtown Lawrence.
360 Energy had been posting double-digit growth rates for the last several years as it has focused on designing projects to save school districts, hospitals, municipalities and other organizations money on their energy bills. But the sale to Willdan is expected to provide even more growth opportunities, said Joe Hurla, who was one of three co-owners of 360 Energy and is staying on with Willdan.
“We looked at it as a great opportunity,” Hurla said. “We have been growing steadily and profitably, but Willdan brings a lot of capabilities and a lot of resources that we just didn’t have.”
There may be reason for area engineers to celebrate too. (In the engineering world, that means they’ll throw a party and do crazy things with all the function keys on a graphing calculator.) Hurla said Willdan’s plans are to keep the operations in Lawrence and ultimately grow them.
“We’re here for the long term,” Hurla said.
Hurla said Willdan is very interested in expanding into the Midwest market. Plus, the company likes the availability of engineers in the area, and the lower cost of operations in the Midwest.
“The idea is for it to become the Midwest hub, and the idea is to bring more engineering jobs to this market,” Hurla said. “They’ll be good-paying jobs for this market, but it is a lot more affordable to have engineers based in Lawrence than in California or New York.”
360 Energy has about 15 employees in Lawrence, plus has offices in Denver and Little Rock, Ark. The company has engineered a variety of projects related to heating and cooling upgrades, high-efficiency lighting projects, building envelope improvements, and other projects that would cause us nonengineers to hurt ourselves with a slide rule. The company uses performance contracting, which allows organizations to finance the projects through the future energy savings that will result.
Hurla said that’s a market that Willdan has wanted to become a larger player in. Willdan — the name is the combination of the first names of its two founders — announced it purchased 360 Energy and a smaller Oregon-based engineering firm for a total of $21.2 million.
In other news and notes from around town:
• First President Obama registers as a guest, and now there is news that Lawrence’s Holiday Inn and Convention center is set to get a major renovation.
Stephen Horton, general manager of the facility at 200 McDonald Drive, confirmed renovations of several rooms already are underway. But the bigger work is set to begin this summer when the hotel’s banquet and convention space will be shut down for about 10 weeks for upgrades.
I learned of the pending work because some large events that were scheduled for the Holiday Inn are now scrambling to find other locations this summer. Horton declined to provide details about how many functions — think weddings, think nonprofit fundraisers, and a host of other events — will be affected by the temporary closure. It also wasn’t clear to me when the decision to close the banquet facilities was made.
There’s a rumor going around town that all the inspections and such that were related to President Obama’s stay found something that hotel officials decided needed to be fixed sooner rather than later. Horton, though, said that’s not the case.
“I have no idea where that came from,” Horton said.
(Indeed, people have crazy ideas about what happened with the president. I heard one person who thought the presidential motorcade rented limousines from an area vendor. That also isn’t true, although I’m sure the president would occasionally enjoy the amenities in a nice prom limo.)
Details about the renovation are still being developed by architects, Horton said. But the general idea is to make the entire hotel more “fashionable, modern and contemporary.”
“We are certainly going to do all of that,” Horton said.
There has been a lot of hotel development in Lawrence in recent years, but the Holiday Inn is still the largest hotel in Lawrence with 192 rooms. It also has the largest convention/banquet space with about 15,000 square feet. Horton said the project won’t add any rooms or meeting space, but rather will upgrade the existing space.
“It will make us absolutely a lot more marketable,” Horton said. “It will make us a destination spot for some groups that maybe have been going to Kansas City in the past.”
Horton said the entire set of renovations likely will take most of 2015 to complete.
• Lawrence’s newest crime fighters may have four legs. The Lawrence Police Department is requesting funding to start a police service dog program. The department currently relies on police dogs from Topeka or other jurisdictions to help in cases involving search and recovery, narcotics and other such issues.
A new report from the department details just how often Lawrence officers are in need of dogs. The department asked two officers who are assigned to criminal interdiction to track how often they request a police dog from another department. From April 2014 to November 2014, they requested a police dog on 211 occasions. They received a police dog from other jurisdictions just 53 times. The report notes that police dogs helped seize large amounts of illegal narcotics, and even assisted in discovering a financial scheme that involved about $100,000 in fraudulent gift cards. The department said a police dog also would be invaluable in helping track a missing child or an at-risk adult.
City commissioners will consider the issue at their Tuesday evening meeting. A police dog costs about $9,500 to purchase, and there are other startup and operational expenses as well. The department has presented several funding scenarios. On the low end, the department could start a program with two police dogs for $36,000, if it used existing vehicles and personnel. On the high end, a program with two dogs, new vehicles and new personnel would cost about $270,000.
City commissioners meet at 5:45 on Tuesday at City Hall to discuss the issue.
• We’ve been telling you for months about a planned senior, affordable housing project behind the United Way building in southern Lawrence. Well, the project is ready to begin construction, but first the nonprofit group that is developing the housing is seeking $100,000 in assistance from City Hall.
Lawrence-based Tenants to Homeowners is requesting $100,000 in city funds to help pay for several city-required infrastructure improvements to the site at 2525 Cedarwood Avenue. The project will include 14 duplex living units with a total of 23 bedrooms. The project also will include a community center for the neighborhood, which will have a “telehealth” kiosk that would allow residents to take vital signs and communicate with their doctors.
“This development will be a showpiece for residential infill, innovative senior affordable housing and community partnerships,” Rebecca Buford, executive director of Tenants to Homeowners told city commissioners in a letter.
Tenants to Homeowners is estimating the entire project will cost about $1.9 million to build. It will use grant money and rental income from the units to finance the project, but it still has a gap of about $135,000. It is seeking $100,000 from the city. It notes that Douglas County already has made a significant donation to the project. Douglas County gave the property for the project, a donation valued at about $260,000.
City commissioners will receive the request at their Tuesday evening meeting, but are not expected to decide the issue until receiving a staff report in future weeks.
• A little housekeeping: Town Talk will be off for the next week while I get my batteries recharged in advance of what will be a busy City Commission election season. That process involves jumper cables, a city code book and a mayoral gavel, so hopefully I’ll return to action in a week.
Waffle restaurant to open in East Lawrence; new plans filed for bistro/bar near Poehler Lofts; a goodbye to The Pool Room
I can’t tell you how many times people have tried to convince me that the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is false. But I refuse to believe them, or my cholesterol readings, so word of a new East Lawrence restaurant that serves just waffles has gotten my attention.
The Waffle Iron will open inside the Decade coffee shop at 920 Delaware St., which is basically next door to Hobbs Park and the Allen Press industrial property. The restaurant will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Its first day of business will be this Saturday.
The Waffle Iron is the brainchild of Sam Donnell, who is on an admirable quest: creating the perfect waffle.
“I kind of got into waffles by accident,” Donnell said. “I was working on a farm in Hawaii, and it had a waffle iron and a lot of people to feed. I got into it, and realized there are so many tricks you can do to make the perfect waffle. It set me on a journey to find the perfect waffle.”
The restaurant will serve three types of waffles: yeast leaven waffles; gluten free waffles and buttermilk waffles, which is a recipe that Donnell says he’s been working on for about two years. Each week, he’ll also offer a different selection of toppings for the waffles. For example, he plans to start out with lavender honey, jasmine whipped cream, toasted coconut meringue, and a concoction that surely has to end up on a coroner’s report at some time: brown sugar, maple syrup, bacon butter. No, I don’t know what that even looks like, although I have dreamt about it for quite some time.
In case you are wondering, Donnell says the perfect waffle should have a lot of air, be crispy but not crunchy, and include his secret ingredient, which is . . . I don’t know. Why would you think he would tell me his secret ingredient?
The restaurant won’t serve any other types of breakfast food or sides to go with the waffles. But, of course, Decade — which opened last year in an old building that used to be an ice house — sells a variety of gourmet coffee and other specialty drinks.
In other news and notes from around town:
• For months, we have been telling you that Lawrence developer Tony Krsnich has plans to open a bistro/bar in a small building just west of his popular Poehler Lofts project at Eighth and Pennsylvania streets. But the plans have been a bit like my exit from the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet: Slow in materializing.
The idea, though, isn’t dead, but Krsnich is asking for some new considerations from Lawrence City Hall to help spur the project along. Krsnich’s company has filed a rezoning request for the property, which would remove a previously imposed City Hall requirement that any business on the site make at least 55 percent of its revenue from food sales. That is the same type of requirement that exists for most properties in the downtown area, but city commissioners extended the requirement to the East Lawrence property after some neighbors expressed concern that the site would become the home to a rowdy bar.
Krsnich has long said a traditional, loud bar has never been in his plans. He notes that he owns the residential property — the Poehler Lofts — right next door to the site, and a loud bar as a neighbor is not usually the best rental strategy. Neighbors, though, have pointed out the zoning runs with the property and probably will outlast any one particular ownership group.
In a filing with City Hall, Krsnich’s company said it had reached preliminary agreements with three separate business owners to run a bistro at the 804 Pennsylvania site. But each business owner backed out of the deal after doing further research about the 55 percent food requirement.
The filings say the plan for the location to be primarily a bistro are still accurate, but an owner doesn’t want to run the risk of losing his or her license because of falling just short of the 55 percent food requirement.
The project would be unique because it's proposed for a small 1,300 square-foot building that wouldn’t have a kitchen. Instead, the outside area near the building would be equipped to to host a food truck or multiple food trucks. Patrons would purchase food from the food trucks and then eat it in the bistro or on the connected patio area. The bistro also would serve some pre-made food items, and also would serve coffee and baked items in the morning hours. But the plans also call for the business to serve a “range of spirits, craft cocktails, craft beers, and affordable domestic beers.”
“We would love for people to bring their dogs down to the patio for a weeknight beer, come with close friends for a cocktail before they head home after dinner, or provide a place where business owners down the street can bring clients to discuss their next partnership opportunity,” the new plans on file at City Hall state. “This will be an establishment that people will have pride in, and, because of that, will maintain an atmosphere that is suitable for all.”
The plans state that Krsnich isn’t open to making major modifications to the building that would allow for a commercial kitchen to be installed, which may make it easier for the business to meet the 55 percent food sales requirement. The stone building dates back to the early 1900s, and was used as a warehouse for ammunition and gunpowder sold by the adjacent Poehler Mercantile Co.
“It would be a travesty to tear down a building so rich in history and distinction,” the plan states. “However, the simple act of removing this (55 percent) restriction would allow for the public to get to experience this building while providing an arena for a new business owner to succeed.”
We’ll see how neighbors react to the latest proposal. The rezoning request will have to go through the Planning Commission process, which means it will be several weeks before city commissioners are asked to make a final decision on the request.
• One place you would never confuse for a bistro was The Pool Room, and there is news about that longtime Lawrence establishment. The pool hall at 925 Iowa St. — behind The Merc — has closed. It closed several weeks ago, and I’ve been trying to get in touch with the former owner, but to no avail. So, I don’t have many details, but the landlord for the property confirmed the business has indeed left. No plans for the fairly large commercial space have been developed yet, said Don Theno, the Lawrence real estate broker who represents the property.
The Pool Room, if I’m remembering correctly from its sign, had been in business since 1988. No word on what caused the closing, but the pool hall business had become more competitive in recent months. LeRoy’s opened at 729 New Hampshire St. in 2013, and the city’s other longtime pool hall — Astro’s at 601 Kasold Drive — continues to be in operation.
• Happy Kansas Day, by the way. Kansas became the 34th state in the union on this day in 1861. All of us should make it a point sometime today to sing “Home on the Range,” eat some sunflower seeds and play with an ornate box turtle. You’re a true Kansan if you known the significance of the box turtle.