New details on proposed hotel, restaurant development in eastern Lawrence

A site plan for a proposed hotel and restaurant development near 23rd and O'Connell. Courtesy: City of Lawrence and Bartlett & West engineers.

After a week of vacation, I’ve got hotels on my mind and my credit card. (I learned that in southern California you’ll spend $70 to park your rental car at the hotel. But, on the bright side, it didn’t cost me anything other than blood pressure medicine to park for hours at a time on the freeway system.) All this is to say I’ve got a few more details on Lawrence’s latest hotel project.

We reported in August that a deal was in the works for a new hotel to be built in eastern Lawrence where Don’s Steakhouse used to be near 23rd and O’Connell. But back then details were slim on what hotel was coming to the location. Well, I’ve now learned that a Country Inn & Suites is slated to go on the property.

Area businessman Mark Gwaltney, who is leading the development group, confirmed that the hotel chain has approved moving ahead with the project. Country Inn & Suites is kind of a late entrant to the project. Back in August, Gwaltney had told city officials that he was working with the large IHG hotel group on an extended-stay hotel, which led to speculation that IHG was bringing its Candlewood Suites brand to town.

But my understanding now is that IHG has a different Lawrence location in mind for that project. If you remember, we’ve also reported that the former Ramada Inn site near Sixth and Iowa streets is looking for a new hotel brand. A Candlewood could be a real possibility for that site.

As for Country Inn & Suites, it is part of the hotel group that has the various Radisson brand of hotels. The company describes Country Inn & Suites as an “upper midscale” hotel. Plans filed at City Hall call for a three-story building and 89 hotel rooms, plus a separate structure for an indoor pool. According to the hotel chain’s website, other amenities include a fitness center, free high-speed internet, free cookies and, importantly, complimentary hot breakfasts. (No, breakfast was not complimentary at my Disneyland hotel, and Donald Duck did not take it as a compliment when I asked if he came with orange sauce.)

The site plan application filed at City Hall lists the project to have about a $5.5 million construction value.

Gwaltney said he hopes to break ground on the project before the end of the year, but said that may be optimistic. The project will occupy the site where Don’s Steakhouse previously was located, which is on the north side 23rd Street, just west of O’Connell. The project also will demolish the old Diamond Everley Roofing headquarters, which is just east of the Don’s Steakhouse business.

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Plans filed at City Hall show that portion of the property housing a restaurant. Gwaltney confirmed no deal has been struck for a restaurant yet. He said now that the hotel company has committed to the project, they’ll start reaching out to potential restaurant operators. He said they’ll look at both sit-down restaurants and fast food chains for the location.

Gwaltney is predicting the area around 23rd and O’Connell will change quite a bit in the future. He said he’s trying to get ahead of the changes by redeveloping the old Diamond Everley site — he’s an executive with that company — and the old steakhouse property.

“I just envision the area becoming more of a hub, more like what you would see on south Iowa Street or Sixth Street,” Gwaltney said. “I think the whole area is going to see a lot of renovation. I think the land will become more valuable than many of the old businesses that are on it.”

Others are thinking that way too. In recent weeks, the old Knights of Columbus building has again been listed on the market. As we reported last year, the Knights closed its longtime banquet facility that is just north and east of 23rd and O’Connell. The approximately two-acre property had been on the market, but then the for-sale signs disappeared. They have now reappeared. I talked briefly with Lance Johnson, the commercial broker listing the property. He said no deal is imminent, but said the changing nature of the area should attract interest in the property.

Both the Knights of Columbus property and the proposed hotel site are adjacent to the city’s new Venture Park business park, which is one of the reasons that Gwaltney said a hotel development makes sense for the site. But what is more likely to spark development in the area is the pending opening of the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway next month.

Others have been predicting new development near the 23rd and O’Connell intersection for quite awhile. A development group led by Doug Compton and Bill Newsome helped build the development at the southeast corner of the intersection that houses Tractor Supply. The development has additional space for retailers — a grocery store has long been on the wish list — but the project has failed to attract any new tenants since Tractor Supply came to the site more than five years ago.

One of the reasons why that development hasn’t taken off is because there are still lots of open green fields near the site. But that may be changing. It will be interesting to see if an eastside housing boom takes place on the large amounts of open land west of O’Connell Road.

Already construction work is underway on apartments on the east side of O’Connell Road, a bit south of 23rd Street. Lawrence businessman Roger Johnson also has begun building homes in a new subdivision west of O’Connell Road behind Tractor Supply and a bit west of the Douglas County Jail. I’ve had real estate agents tell me those homes will sell well because they can come in at lower price points than homes in west Lawrence.

There’s lots of open land west of O’Connell Road. The area will be more accessible when the eastern interchange of the SLT opens just a few blocks away. Some of you remember when the eastern part of Lawrence went through a housing boom in the 1990s and the Prairie Park neighborhood was created. That neighborhood was billed as working-class homes that were more affordable than what was being built further west. As affordable housing becomes the buzz phrase at City Hall, we’ll see whether developers turn to eastern Lawrence again.