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Activity along O'Connell Road heats up with $15 million affordable housing project
There are only two explanations for the large swaths of bare dirt at the former Farmland site at 23rd and O'Connell: The area is either preparing for future development, or I've been hired to do the area's landscaping. (This August has been an exception. I actually have a healthy, lush stand of green . . . weeds.)
The former Farmland Industries site, of course, is being prepared to become a new industrial park. We've reported on that several times. But prepare to see more action on the south side of the 23rd and O'Connell intersection as well.
The leader of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has confirmed to me that it is moving forward with a new 128-unit affordable housing development on portions of the southwest corner of 23rd and O'Connell. Also, a private development group has filed plans at City Hall to rezone about 10 acres for a multifamily rental development near O'Connell Road and East 28th Street.
We've previously reported that the Housing Authority has been studying the feasibility of an affordable housing, rent-controlled project on the corner. But now the project has moved to a new level. Housing Authority Director Shannon Oury said her board has agreed to devote up to $1 million in reserve funds to help the project get started.
The authority is still partnering with a private development group led by Lawrence developer Bill Newsome. Newsome's company owns the land on the corner and has been working with the state to secure tax credits to help finance the project. Once the units are built, however, the Housing Authority will be responsible for renting the units and using proceeds from the rent to pay off the project. The project is expected to have a total price tag of about $15 million.
Oury said her organization is excited about the project, in part, because it will be a bit different than traditional affordable housing projects.
"We're really gearing this project toward the working class," Oury said.
Families and individuals with incomes that are 40 percent to 60 percent of the median in Douglas County will be eligible to rent at the project. According to a HUD Web site, the median family income in Douglas County is about $70,000, which means a family making 40 percent of that would check in around $28,000 while a family at 60 percent would be at about $42,000.
Oury said the timing seems to be right for the project because the housing market is starting to gain steam again, which often means higher prices and more difficulty for working families to find affordable housing.
"We want to make sure we keep affordable housing developing as all the other housing develops too," Oury said. "We don't want to create a situation that we've seen in other vibrant communities where they price moderate- to low-income people out of the market."
The project still has to win the necessary planning approvals from Lawrence City Hall. That process will provide more details about what the project will look like, although this post from January includes a rendering of a proposed design. Oury said she hopes to have units ready to rent by the first quarter of 2015.
Farther south on O'Connell Road, plans are in the works for an apartment complex. A group led by Lawrence builder Heath Seitz and real estate appraiser Jeff Hatfield have filed for annexation and rezoning of about 10 acres at 1338 E. 1600 Road. That is the vacant land that is just east of the roundabout at 28th and O'Connell.
I'm still waiting to get details from the development group about what type of apartment complex it's planning. The zoning request seeks RM-15 multifamily zoning. The request also notes that the city's Southeast Area Plan calls for the property to be developed with medium density residential uses.
"There is strong demand for affordable housing, especially as our community increases its efforts to market Lawrence as a retirement destination," the developers say in their application.
The RM-15 zoning will allow for a variety of development, everything from row houses to the more traditional two and three-story apartment buildings. The developers will be required to file more details about their plans for the property as the project moves through the approval process. And if I hear more from them, I'll pass it along.
But clearly, the O'Connell Road area is one to watch. Part of it is that developers are betting on the former Farmland Industries site becoming an area for new jobs. People like to live near their work. Another part is that there has been a lot of investment in recent years to get improved sewer service to the area, and developers want to put that investment to work. The infrastructure upgrade will continue in a big way. The city's new sewage treatment plant will be just a ways south of O'Connell Road. The plant will be on the south side of the Wakarusa River, basically at the point where O'Connell Road dead ends at the river.
But another factor that likely is playing into all of this is that the area along O'Connell Road is going to be a pretty handy place to live from a transportation standpoint. Remember that as part of the South Lawrence Trafficway project, 31st Street is going to be extended from Haskell Avenue to O'Connell Road. That means the neighborhoods along O'Connell are going to have a major new thoroughfare that takes residents right onto South Iowa Street and the major shopping district. (If you see my wife scouting for property in the area, now you'll know why.)
In addition, the area will have very easy access onto the South Lawrence Trafficway itself. One of the few major interchanges for the trafficway will be less than two miles to the east, about where Noria Road currently intersects with K-10 Highway. The SLT will make the neighborhood an easy place for people who need to commute either to Kansas City or Topeka.
The next thing to watch is whether the increased residential development in the area will spur more commercial development at the southeast corner of 23rd and O'Connell. A development group led by Newsome owns that property as well. It already is zoned for retail development, but at the moment, only a Tractor Supply store has located in the development.
I know Newsome's No. 1 choice of a tenant would be a grocery store for the corner, but grocers usually like to see a certain amount of rooftop development before they commit to an area. How many rooftops it will take will be the big question for the future.
In the meantime, though, I may go out and support the Tractor Supply store this weekend. It is time to get back to landscaping, and Tractor Supply sells grass seed. It also sells chemicals to kill grass. Decisions, decisions.