Taco Zone plans to open downtown restaurant; police ask for $24K as engineer finds structural problems in evidence storage area

photo by: Mike Yoder

A mountain of boxes fill the main evidence storage room on the second floor of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th Street. The room is in the former gym from when that part of the building was a jail, and it now includes a steel staircase for two makeshift floors inside.

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.