West Lawrence fun center plans on hold again as neighbors speak out; the big question looming for city’s rental licensing program

Mini-golf, mini-bowling, many concerns, it appears. As we’ve reported multiple times, plans have been filed for a “family fun center” on vacant ground near the southeast corner of Clinton Parkway and Inverness Drive in west Lawrence.

When we last reported on the project in February, it was scheduled to receive a key vote at the Lawrence-Doulgas County Planning Commission that evening. It didn’t. Instead, it got deferred until March’s meeting, which took place Monday. But again, no vote for the fun center. The issue was deferred before the meeting ever began.

I’ve got a message into the architect for the project to find out if the development group still plans to pursue the project. I haven’t received any word back on that. (I also don’t have a clear understanding of who the development group is behind the project.)

What is clear is that an organized opposition effort to the fun center is underway. Raintree Montessori School is among the leaders of that effort. In its newsletter to parents this month, Raintree takes a strong stand against the project

“We feel relocation to another property more suited for recreation would be the only acceptable compromise,” it writes in the newsletter.

The fun center is proposed to have a variety of activities. They include:

• A two-story club house that would have private party rooms, arcade and snack areas on the ground floor. The second floor would include a bar that serves 3.2 beer and has a NASCAR driving experience arcade and miniature bowling.

• Outside, an 18-hole miniature golf course, six batting cages, a patio area and a children’s “tot-lot” play area also are planned.

• A future second phase of the development proposes a 33,000 square-foot, outdoor go-kart track. The carts are proposed to be electric and produce little noise, according to information submitted by the developers.

A prevailing theme in the opposition to the fun center is that those type of uses aren’t appropriate for an area that has so many schools nearby. Bishop Seabury, Raintree, Sunflower elementary, and Southwest middle school are all within walking distance of the site.

Raintree leaders mentioned that proximity as being a problem, and so too did an earlier letter from the Wimbledon Terrace Townhomes Association. It expressed concern about “hundreds of little children who might be intimidated by the large numbers of teenagers and young adults who would frequent the project.”

I’m not sure how such intimidation exactly would play out, but it is worth noting that the city’s planning staff is recommending approval of the project, in part, because it is a walkable destination for a variety of people. Creating walkable destinations has been a real catch phrase at City Hall in recent years. (No one has ever accused City Hall of having extraordinary catch phrases.)

There are other reasons, though, that neighbors have objected. In addition to the fun center, the development in recent weeks has added a request for two lots that could house drive-thru businesses, such as a fast-food establishment. The architect, Lawrence-based Paul Werner, has told me that he doesn’t envision a traditional fast-food restaurant at the location. Instead, he thinks some type of coffee shop with a drive-thru would be more likely. But it sounds like several neighbors haven’t liked the addition of drive-thrus.

“The roundabout on Inverness can barely handle the traffic now, but adding this type of use to the neighborhood will increase traffic exponentially,” Raintree writes in its letter. “The availability of alcohol late at night in a high traffic area has the potential for causing serious problems, and the noise and lights from the center will disturb the sleep of countless residents nearby, not to mention the increased incidents of vandalism.”

Raintree is sponsoring a petition drive against the project.

I suspect we’ll find out in the coming days whether this project has any legs left to it. If it doesn’t, it will be interesting to see what comes next for this area. It is a highly visible piece of vacant property on a major city street. It basically is surrounded by apartments. Neighbors already have strongly voiced their opposition to future apartment development.

In other news and notes from around town:

• There were times during the nearly four hours of discussion at City Hall last night about the rental registration program that I thought we perhaps were going to settle the issue with a game of mini-bowling or a putt-putt contest. (Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking on my part.)

But, instead, it was a night of back and forth between opponents and supporters of the program. As we reported, the program was approved on a 3-2 vote.

I left the meeting, though, with one big question about the program: Will it survive the next election?

One of the changes to the program last night was its start date. A divided commission pushed the start date back by six months to give the city more time to prepare for the program, although staff wasn’t asking for more time to prepare for the program.

The new start date means the first inspections of multifamily rental units won’t begin until July 2015. That means no inspections will have taken place prior to the next City Commission elections, which are in April 2015. (Unless state law changes on municipal elections.)

Politically, I’m not sure what the ramifications of that change will be. Originally, the program would have had four months of inspections under its belt before voters went to the polls in April. I think some city officials were hopeful those four months of inspections would have shown that the program will not be nearly as burdensome as many landlords believe. Now, there won’t be any such chance to prove that before the elections.

Of course, you could also argue that if the city did inspections and they went poorly in those first four months, that may have been bad politically. I asked Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, who pushed for the delayed start date, whether he was concerned that a new commission could take office and end the program before it every really got started. (Registrations, but not inspections, will begin in January.) He said he wasn’t. His belief is the timing won’t affect the politics of this. He may be right.

But it is worth noting that two of the three commissioners who supported the rental inspection program have terms that are expiring in 2015: Commissioners Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm. Mayor Mike Dever, who voted against the program, is the other commissioner who has a term expiring in 2015.

I don’t know what will happen, but I think it will be very interesting to watch whether a slate of candidates committed to repealing the rental inspection program emerges by early 2015. As some of you may remember, Manhattan had a program for two years, but then a new slate of commissioners came into office and repealed it.

The plan commissioners approved on Tuesday was meant to be a compromise aimed at making landlords more comfortable with the program. It is questionable whether it accomplished that. Landlords came out in large numbers to oppose the plan, and some of them appeared to be well-funded. I counted at least four attorneys who rose to speak against the proposals.

That leaves me with just one more question: Are we absolutely sure mini-bowling can’t solve this?

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