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Plans for rent-controlled housing near 23rd and O'Connell on the ropes; city concerned about historically low water levels at Clinton Lake
There is a fair amount of uncertainty hanging around Lawrence these days. When will spring finally arrive in earnest? Will Joel Embid stay or go? Was it a mistake to take out a sizable home equity loan with the assumption that I was going to win Warren Buffett's billion dollar bracket?
The answers to those questions are not clear, but it is becoming clearer that financial uncertainty is becoming a problem for a proposed low-income housing project near 23rd and O'Connell.
As we previously have reported, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has a strong interest in partnering with a local development group to build rent-controlled housing near the northwest corner of 23rd and O'Connell Road.
But Housing Authority board members met on Monday, and it appears the group is no closer to figuring out a way to fully finance the project, which would be geared toward providing housing for low-to-moderate income working families.
"I don't really see us getting anything done in 2014," Shannon Oury, the executive director of the Housing Authority, told me. "Maybe we would figure out financing in 2014, but we probably wouldn't start building until 2015."
As we previously reported, an unexpected rise in interest rates has left the housing authority with a financing gap. Oury said the Housing Authority and its partner — a development group led by Lawrence businessman Bill Newsome — have redesigned the project. It now has 72 units, down from 128. That has cut the size of the project to about $8.8 million, down from about $15 million previously. But Oury said the project still has a gap of about $1.5 million that needs to be financed.
Figuring out how to fill that gap is where the project stands. And, as Oury notes, experts aren't predicting interest rates to go down any time soon.
"It is going to be tough," Oury said of finding a solution. "Nobody really expected the rates for tax credit projects to move, but they did, and that has created quite a bit of uncertainty."
But Oury said the group will continue to look for solutions, and that the project is not yet dead.
So, it is just like my billon-dollar bracket. BYU is still a Final Four contender, right?
In other news and notes from around town:
• Well, I've recently been informed that my strategy of picking BYU because it sounds somewhat similar to BYOB, was not a good one. I also was informed that I may soon be living in a green van next to Clinton Lake.
At the moment, though, it will be a Clinton Lake that is a bit starved for water. City commissioners at their meeting tonight will be asked to take an action related to Clinton Lake's low water levels.
Commissioners are being asked to send a letter to leaders with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asking them to alter their normal plans for releasing water from Clinton Lake this spring and summer. The Corps' policy is that from April through September, the Corps will release water into the Wakarusa River at a minimum rate of 21 cubic feet per second. That minimum release is done "for the benefit of downstream fish, wildlife and aesthetics."
But city commissioners are asking the Corps to adopt a temporary policy that would allow for a minimum release of 7 cubic feet per second. The Kansas Water Office also has made that request of the Corps.
The reason the city and the Water Office is seeking a change is because Clinton Lake levels are at a historic low. Clinton Lake is about 4.5 feet below its normal elevation, which may not sound like a lot, but it actually is the lowest level the lake has been since it was filled in 1981.
The city has a strong interest in maintaining healthy supplies of water at Clinton because the city receives about 60 percent of its supply of treated water from Clinton. (That number also includes the water the city treats for Baldwin City and a host of rural water districts.) The city is not pushing any alarm buttons about running out of water. The city has legal rights to keep pulling water out of Clinton Lake until it reaches about 23.5 feet below its normal pool, according to a city memo. The city also has significant water rights, and a water plant, on the Kansas River. So, Lawrence is in a better situation water-wise than many communities.
But pulling water from a depleted lake can create treatment problems, and there are a ton of recreational users of the lake who don't want to see water levels fall any more than they have to. My understanding is that at current levels, boat ramps, docks and other features for boaters haven't been affected greatly by the low water supply. But that will change if the lake doesn't start rising soon. The heat of summer will increase evaporation.
I'm sure, though, that decreasing the flow of water out of Clinton could have some significant impact on the ecosystems along the Wakarusa River. We'll have to see how the Corps balances those interests. No word yet on when the Corps may make a decision about future water releases.