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A look at a unique eastside housing development and why the city may spend nearly $60K to save a tree in it
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the City Commission took action on the purchase of the lot at its Tuesday meeting. The item was on the agenda for consideration but final action was deferred pending more research.
A new Lawrence housing development is going to have a very special tree. It has to be special. The city of Lawrence is considering spending nearly $60,000 to save it.
Forget the old question of “have you hugged a tree today?” The new question is whether you have talked to your banker about one?
But this tree may be worth the trouble. It is estimated to be about 100 years old and one of the largest bur oak trees in the entire state. Soon, one of Lawrence’s more unique housing developments will sprout up next to it.
The owners of Struct/Restruct, a Lawrence-based design and construction firm, will build eight new houses on the property just east of 12th Street and Haskell Avenue, on the site that used to house the salvage yard for the 12th and Haskell Recycling Center. Original plans called for the development to have nine houses, but city officials are considering buying one of the lots to save the big oak.
Struct/Restruct owners Eric Jay and Matt Jones didn’t have plans to cut the tree down, but they did plan to build a house on the lot where the tree sits. City officials expressed concern that homebuilding on the lot may harm the tree’s root system or require some of its massive canopy to be disturbed.
Ultimately the city may decide the solution is to buy the lot to ensure a home would not be built on it. The city is considering to pay $58,000 for the lot, which is what a private appraiser pegged its value at. As part of the deal, the Struct/Restruct duo is donating an additional 2.3 acres of open space that is just north of the housing development. The property would have been difficult to develop, and Struct/Restruct hopes the city someday will use the property for a park.
To find out more about the tree, I’ve got a call in to a couple of Parks and Recreation officials, who I believe were instrumental in convincing the city to purchase the lot. In the information provided to commissioners, there wasn’t a whole lot of detail about the tree, other than it is estimated to be more than 100 years old and is a “majestic” and “large, towering specimen.”
Jay said he had heard that it was the second largest bur oak in the state, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. In case you are curious, the champion bur oak tree in Kansas is in Pottawatomie County and has a nearly 21-inch trunk, stands 93 feet tall and has a crown of nearly 90 feet, according to a recent publication from the Kansas Forestry Service. The second-place finisher is not published, but it seems like the Lawrence oak is in that ballpark.
The tree, though, isn’t the only thing to watch for in that neighborhood. As I mentioned earlier, the housing development will be unique. Struct/Restruct builds modern homes, and a requirement for buying a lot in the development is that Struct/Restruct will be the builder and the design will have to meet certain guidelines established by the company.
The homes can be kind of tough to describe, as Jay struggled to put the design philosophy into words. I did an article on the company and its string of renovations in the 900 block of Delaware in 2012. Back then I described their designs as featuring unique peaks, sheets of glass, and nontraditional exteriors of concrete, stainless steel cables and distinctive timber.
Many of the homes often use timber that came from Lawrence trees or reuse items that have a history in the community, such as the roof sheathing that was removed as part of the renovation of the Poehler Lofts building in East Lawrence. It now serves as ceiling planks in one of the homes along Delaware Street.
Jay said interest in the housing development — which has land prices of about $70,000 per lot — is strong, with a few lots already having letters of intent signed.
“They range from a couple in their early 40s with no kids to a couple who are nearing retirement,” he said. “It is all over the board, really. I think people want to be closer to walkable stuff, including downtown.”
Jay said he thinks the entire Brook Creek Neighborhood is on the rise. The neighborhood is only a few blocks from the burgeoning Warehouse Arts District, which includes the Poehler Lofts and other new living units. Brook Creek also was the neighborhood where KU’s Studio 804 architecture class built its new concept house, which Jay said has been attracting strong interest from buyers.
“I think you are going to start seeing a lot more buying of properties in Brook Creek,” Jay said.
Some of you may be wondering about what the city’s plans are for the lot it purchased and the more than two acres of open space that was donated. I haven’t seen any specific plans, and they likely will be a while in the making. The properties are adjacent to the city’s Brook Creek Park, so it would be natural for it to be an extension of that space.
Some of you may remember that there briefly was talk about using the 2-acre site to house a BMX bicycle track. Jones, one of the co-owners of Struct/Restruct, is a BMX fan. Back in 2013, I reported that he was considering using the 2-acre site to house a BMX pump track.
Jay said folks shouldn’t necessarily count on that happening. He said the city has been made aware that there is an interest in such a BMX track, but Jay said the city hasn’t made any commitment to use the land that way.
“I think they are probably skeptical from an accessibility standpoint, getting emergency vehicles in and out of there, plus other traffic issues,” Jay said.
Once the land is transferred to the city, it will be up to the city to decide what to do with it, and Jay said the deal wasn’t contingent on any BMX plans.