Parking proposal for $75 million apartment project produces lots of questions, high stakes for Oread neighborhood

photo by: Nick Gerik

The HERE Kansas apartment and retail project at 1111 Indiana St. is pictured on March 20, 2016.

“Mess” was the word of the day at last week’s Lawrence City Commission meeting. Commissioners were talking about the potential parking situation at the troubled HERE @ Kansas apartment/retail project that is under construction near Kansas University.

Well, trust me, my insurance agent and I understand messes when it comes to construction projects. (Actually, my insurance agent is becoming less understanding all the time.) I know that if you don’t get a mess cleaned up appropriately, there can be consequences, which for me often involve a hard couch in a cold basement. The potential consequences for the community from this multimillion dollar project could be even greater than that.

After all, the project has 624 bedrooms and 13,500 square feet of commercial space. The project’s automated parking garage provider filed for bankruptcy, and now developers are scrambling to provide parking. They’ve proposed a new valet system, plus they say they’re working on adding 100 more spaces somehow, but haven’t yet provided details.

photo by: Nick Gerik

The HERE Kansas apartment and retail project at 1111 Indiana St. is pictured on March 20, 2016.

So, with that said, here’s a look at several questions that seem to still be unanswered as commissioners again prepare to debate the HERE project at their Tuesday evening meeting.

Shouldn’t the city and the public know what the plan is for the 100 other parking spaces before the city approves this rather odd valet system? Developers say no because they are willing to leave 13 apartment units unfilled, and all the commercial space unfilled, until the other 100 spaces are found. That seems like a risky proposition for the city. If the 100 other spaces aren’t found and the 13 apartment units continue to sit vacant, you can bet the development group will apply political pressure in the future to fill those apartments, with or without new parking. This City Commission may not cave to that pressure, but who knows what future commissions will do.

— What ever happened to the idea of using a different automated parking system? When we first reported the bankruptcy of HERE’s parking provider in October, a HERE official told me that he was already in discussions with other vendors. In other words, Boomerang Systems — the parking garage company that went bankrupt — isn’t the only company that makes automated parking garage systems. Why can’t HERE contract with another company? I suspect one problem is timing. These parking systems aren’t something you buy off the shelf. They have to be designed and custom built, is my understanding. That process won’t happen before August, which is when the company wants to open the project. But saying that an automated parking system can’t be delivered on time is different from saying an automated parking system can’t be delivered at all. It is worth remembering that one of the reasons the previous City Commission granted a controversial 85 percent, 10-year tax rebate for the HERE project was because of the high-tech parking garage system.

— Will this parking system create problems for the neighborhood? The development group previously has said it will structure its leases in a way that not every apartment resident will be required to have a parking spot in the garage. In other words, you can pay one lease rate and get an apartment with a parking spot, or you can pay a lesser lease rate and get an apartment without a parking spot. Presumably, only tenants without vehicles will be eligible to get a lease without a parking spot. But how will such a system work in reality? Is such an option only available to tenants without cars? Even so, it would seem that a student who wanted to save money could find a way around the system to get a lease without a parking space. The student then could simply hunt for a parking spot in the surrounding Oread neighborhood. That could be a dangerous precedent.

Furthermore, a cynical mind might believe there is an incentive for the apartment group to have fewer residents park in their garage. Remember, it will be a valet garage. The apartment group will have to pay valet attendants. It seems reasonable to think that the amount of money paid to valets will be less if there are fewer cars using the garage on a regular basis. That seems like a potentially dangerous formula for the neighborhood.

photo by: Mike Yoder

The HERE @ Kansas apartment and retail project at 1111 Indiana St. is seen looking south from the intersection of 11th and Indiana Streets, Monday, March 14, 2016.

— What ever happened to the idea of building a parking garage next to the HERE project? If you recall, the development group in January had proposed to build a 96-space parking garage on property just south of the HERE building. But then in March it announced it was abandoning those plans. Could a new parking garage in Oread help solve this problem? Apparently there is a site available for one, and the City Commission already has set a precedent that tall buildings are OK in the Oread neighborhood. If you build a new parking garage tall enough, it certainly could accommodate a lot of vehicles. Perhaps that is where the city could compromise on this project. It could work to expedite approval of a new parking garage in the Oread neighborhood. The garage could be used by HERE while it works on a more elegant solution to add automated parking to its building. Then, the new offsite garage could be leased for any number of parking purposes in the crowded Oread neighborhood.

Granted, a new off-site parking garage may not solve the biggest problem seemingly facing the project: time. It seems that the current proposals put a heavy emphasis on getting the project open by August. It is understandable that developers want to meet that timeline. It also is fine to have sympathy for the developers. The developers didn’t want any of this to happen, and they are paying a price for it. But, it also is reasonable to expect that the project is going to be delayed. Its entire parking plan failed. That was a calamity, and often calamity produces delays.

That’s really what city commissioners have to decide in this project: Is a delay reasonable? There is a balancing act for commissioners. The city does need to consider at least one more question: What happens if this project fails? If the project fails and the building becomes empty or underutilized, it would be bad for the Oread neighborhood. But a rushed parking plan that isn’t fully thought out could create negative consequences for the neighborhood for years to come.

It indeed is a messy situation. Commissioners will seek to sort it out at their meeting at 5:45 p.m Tuesday at City Hall.

photo by: Mike Yoder

The HERE @ Kansas apartment/retail project at 1111 Indiana St., rises above the nearby KU football practice fields Monday, March 14, 2016. HERE developers have abandoned the plan to build another parking garage south of the development on Indiana Street and is finalizing another solution to reach the required number of spaces necessary for the apartment/retail project. At far right is the Oread hotel.

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