Plan falls through for local group to purchase former Journal-World printing plant, develop downtown conference center

photo by: Nick Krug

Developers presented plans for the redevelopment of the old Lawrence Journal-World production facility at the City Commission's work session, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017.

A plan for a local development group to buy the former Journal-World printing plant at the northern entrance to downtown and eventually win city approval to build a conference center and hotel has been dealt a setback.

The development group led by Lawrence businessmen Mike Treanor and Doug Compton unexpectedly backed out of the deal just prior to it becoming finalized earlier this month.

The property, which stretches from Sixth and Massachusetts streets to Sixth and New Hampshire and also includes property on the east side of New Hampshire Street, is back on the market. That may allow out-of-town developers who specialize in conference and convention centers to become involved, or it might lead to developers who are interested in developing something different at the site.

The property is owned by the Simons family, the former owners of the Journal-World. Dan Simons said prospects for redevelopment of the site remain strong.

“With this property, you really have the largest, single ability to redevelop in downtown Lawrence in the city’s history,” Simons said.

The property does have lots of frontage on Massachusetts Street and generally is one of the first properties you see as you enter downtown from the north. It will be an important piece of property to watch. If re-development doesn’t occur at the site, downtown Lawrence will find itself with two major pieces of properties — one at its north end and another at its south end — occupied by either vacant or nearly vacant industrial buildings. The other is the former Allen Press property near 11th and Massachusetts streets that has been largely vacant for more than a decade. (Full disclosure: The Journal-World is not involved in the redevelopment deal. Its offices are in a building just south of the proposed redevelopment site.)

photo by: Nick Krug

The Lawrence Journal-World press facility, located at the northeast end of Massachusetts Street.

The Simons family thought it had a deal with a group led by Treanor, one of the top architects in town, and Compton, one of the largest commercial property owners in the city. Simons said the family is still open to doing a deal with that group, but said the proposed deal is dead.

“We had a great group that was put together, but at the last second they encountered some situations and couldn’t close on the project, so we are on the market again,” Simons said.

Bill Fleming, an attorney for the Treanor and Compton group, didn’t specify what led to the decision to back out of the deal. However, he said the timing wasn’t quite right, and said that City Hall leaders still have some work to do on what they want to see in the way of future development in downtown, noting that work is underway on a downtown master plan and parking plan.

“It will be hard to do something sooner rather than later until those processes are complete,” Fleming said. “But I still believe a conference center would be great for downtown Lawrence, whether it is by us or someone else.”

Fleming said the Treanor and Compton group may be interested in becoming involved with the property again at a later time.

The Treanor and Compton group did finalize a purchase from the Simons family of the former Reuter Organ buildings that are on the east side of New Hampshire street. Fleming said plans haven’t been finalized for how those buildings could be redeveloped.

photo by: Nick Krug

The former Reuter Organ Building is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.

I’ve certainly heard talk of upper-story condos with perhaps retail or restaurant on the ground floor of the larger, older stone building that used to house Reuter’s production plant. There is a smaller red brick building that housed Reuter offices as well. That has been leased office space in the not too distant past.

That will be an interesting project to watch, but the stakes are higher with the former printing plant property. Look for whoever purchases the site to be thinking big. The Treanor proposal included what would have been the tallest building in downtown — a 12-story condo and apartment building — plus both underground parking and new parking garages. Because the Simons own property on the east side of New Hampshire Street that is adjacent to a city-owned parking lot, there has been discussion that the city parking lots also could be redeveloped as part of the project.

A map of the corner of Sixth and Massachusetts streets shows first-floor plans for redevelopment of the site of the former Journal-World production facility.

Getting city approval for any of this, however, was still uncertain, at best. City Manager Tom Markus has publicly expressed concern about the city getting involved in subsidizing the operation of a conference center. However, the development group believed it could operate the conference center without a subsidy, but the development of the property would require incentives like tax increment financing and other tax breaks. Simons said his read of the political situation is that some on the commission have shown support while others have been lukewarm.

But the dynamics could change with an out-of-town group that brings a different plan and different set of experiences.

“There are out-of-town developers who specialize in conference centers, and we definitely have heard from them,” said Doug Brown, the broker with McGrew Commercial who is listing the property. “That might end up being a better fit.”

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Dec. 12, 2017 — Lawrence City Commission to continue discussion of downtown conference center

March 5, 2018 — City manager speaks about hurdles facing the idea of downtown conference center