City building totals down a bit from year ago; outgoing commissioner gets appointed to powerful city board

The proposed Best Western Plus hotel would be near the southwest corner of Rock Chalk Drive and George Williams Way. The proposed site is in the grassy area near the tall trees near the left edge of the photo above. The construction work in the foreground is utility work underway for the growing Oregon Trail residential neighborhood on the east side of George Williams Way

I figure it is a natural time to talk about building in Lawrence, given an army of men are still putting together the “some assembly required” Christmas presents, all the while refusing to look at the directions and muttering the famous phrase “they must have sent a half-dozen extra bolts with this.” Lawrence home and commercial contractors aren’t quite having those types of problems, but building totals in 2017 are down a bit, according to the city’s latest report.

The city has issued permits for $160 million worth of new construction through November. That’s down from $210 million at this point in 2016 and $216 million at this stage in 2015. But really, unless it is my December credit card statement, $160 million is not a bad number. It still ranks as one of the better years in Lawrence construction history. However, it just doesn’t stack up to 2015 and 2016, which were the two best years Lawrence has seen on the construction front.

For further perspective, since 2008, the average number of new permits issued has been $133 million through November. So, while this year is below our historic highs, construction activity is still about 20 percent above our recent averages.

If you were to label this year, perhaps it would be the year of the hotel. Lawrence thus far has had seven projects check in at $3 million or more. Of those, three of them have been hotels. The largest project started this year is a $10.7 million Best Western Plus near Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence. A $4 million Tru by Hilton hotel in the Bauer Farm development near Sixth and Wakarusa is the second largest project. The third hotel is a $3.9 million Country Inn & Suites that is being built on the eastern edge of town next to VenturePark.

The Best Western hotel should be a sight to see. It is about $7 million more expensive than the other two hotels, despite not being that much larger. The Best Western is planned to have about 120 rooms, while the other two hotels each will have a little more than 80 rooms. The Rock Chalk Park property is a Best Western Plus brand, which claims to have larger-than-normal rooms and other such amenities. But my understanding is the hotel isn’t the type that has its own bar and restaurant, which certainly does make for a larger project. So, it will be interesting to see what other bells and whistles the project is offering.

Actually, the entire Rock Chalk Park area will be interesting to watch next year. The hotel development will be completed, and I would expect construction on LMH’s new $65 million medical office building — which will be just a bit west of the hotel — to be underway. The key thing to watch is whether those two developments will spur other development near the sports complex.

I would think it certainly would cause some restaurants to locate near the center. I’ve been told restaurants want to be next to the recreation center, which attracts large weekend crowds as part of its youth basketball and volleyball tournaments. Those restaurants, though, have been waiting for a larger project to come into the development to help shoulder many of the water, sewer and other infrastructure costs that are required to develop in the area.

The LMH medical building qualifies as a large project, so this should be the year that theory is put to the test.

Here’s a look at some other facts and figures from the November building permit report for Lawrence:

• 2017 has been the year that apartment builders have taken a break. The city has issued permits for only eight apartment living units thus far. Last year, the city had issued permits for 1,205 apartment units, and in 2015, the city issued permits for 467. Don’t expect the break to last, though. As I’ve reported, plans have been filed for two apartment projects — one behind the south Lawrence Walmart and another near Clinton Parkway and Crestline that would total about 475 units with almost 1,350 bedrooms.

• Single-family and duplex construction is on last year’s pace. The city has issued permits for 167 single-family and duplex projects, compared with 166 at this time last year. While those numbers aren’t big compared with the time period before the housing bust in 2008, this year’s total is above more recent averages. Since 2009, the average through November has been 142 units.

In other news and notes from around town:

As we have noted a few times recently, Mike Amyx is ending his 22-year career as an elected official soon. His last City Commission meeting is Jan. 8. But it appears he is going to be headed to another set of meetings.

City commissioners at their year-end meeting Wednesday morning appointed Amyx to serve as a member of the Lawrence Memorial Hospital board of trustees. The hospital board is appointed by the city — the city technically owns the hospital — but the board is far more than your run-of-the-mill advisory board. The hospital board serves as the governing body for the hospital, meaning it oversees the hospital’s approximately $270 million budget.

With the appointment of Amyx, the LMH board is beginning to look a bit like Lawrence City Hall from the 1990s. In addition to Amyx, former Lawrence mayor Bob Moody is on the LMH board, and so too is former Lawrence city manager Mike Wildgen.

Watching LMH may be one of the more important tasks of 2018. In addition to the major west Lawrence expansion mentioned above, we’ll need to keep our eyes peeled for any news of potential partnerships LMH may undertake. As health care companies combine forces in both Kansas City and Topeka, I think LMH leaders are giving much thought to the long-term strategy needed to be successful in the future.