Freebirds Burrito set to open Jan. 31 in downtown Lawrence; company looking for co-tenant for building
There’s a search underway for a new nesting partner. No, the search isn’t for me. (It was a long vacation, but my wife didn’t tire of me so much that she kicked me out of the nest.)
I’m talking about a different bird: Freebirds Burrito. As we reported in July, restaurant chain Freebirds World Burrito has signed a deal to locate in a portion of the former Maurices building at 739 Massachusetts St. in downtown, and now is looking for a co-tenant for the space.
We reported this summer that the restaurant was set to open by the end of October, and then Freebirds seemed to become about as grounded as the KU football team’s passing game did this fall.
Well, work is clearly underway now, and a spokeswoman with Freebirds told me the restaurant is scheduled to open near the end of January, and I’ve since seen where the company’s website is listing Jan. 31 as the store’s grand opening date.
Caitlin Noble — director of marketing for Kansas City-based FBMidwest Development, which is the franchisee for Freebirds in the Midwest — confirmed Freebirds will take about two-thirds of the former Maurices building. The other third will be left for another tenant. Noble said another tenant hasn’t yet been found. No word yet on whether Freebirds is open to another restaurant locating in the spot, or whether they will hold out for a more traditional retailer. My understanding is that Freebirds is in control of the space because it has leased the entire building and will sublease the remaining space.
For those of you who have forgotten what the heck a Freebird is, it is more than just a really long Lynyrd Skynyrd song that disc jockeys play when they need to take a bathroom break.
But it is a little funky like Skynyrd. According to the company’s website, the chain got started in 1987 by a couple of “ex-hippies” in Santa Barbara, Calif. The company then expanded into College Station, Texas, where the restaurant became a hit with Texas A&M students, which is odd since I’m almost certain the restaurant doesn’t serve eggs benedict. Benedict, as in Benedict Arnold. Famous traitor. Texas A&M and its Big 12 betrayal. (This is not good: The first column of 2013, and I’m already having to explain jokes.)
What the restaurant does serve is a large mix of burritos, tacos, nachos and other similar dishes. Freebirds promotes that it is uses hormone-free, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, which the website says goes back to the company’s hippie roots.
Here’s another thing that may go back to the restaurant’s hippie founders: Pot brownies. I’ve asked several hippies if those were popular back in the day, and they said they couldn’t remember. I took that as a sign that they were very popular. But before you grab your tie-dye and start forming a line at Freebirds, you should know that these pot brownies are named such because they are served in a black pot. (The tie-dye would still be fun, though.)
When Freebirds opens in Lawrence, it will be the company’s second Kansas location. Its first Kansas location opened in 2012 along Metcalf Avenue in Mission. It also has restaurants in Westport and Lee’s Summit in the Kansas City area.
Perhaps you noticed that the recently-published list of top construction projects in Lawrence included two $1 million-plus homes.
Well, here’s another sign that the big wheels in the Lawrence real estate market may be starting to turn again:
The developers of the Fall Creek Farms project — one of the more exclusive neighborhoods in the city — are ready to start a new phase of development for the first time in about a decade. Plans call for about 70 new lots to be opened up.
The development is just south and west of Kasold Drive and Peterson Road, and it has its fair share of million-dollar homes. Some of the city’s top executives have called the neighborhood home, and KU men’s basketball coach Bill Self once did as well.
Now the development group, which is led by longtime builder Gene Fritzel, plans to open up four new mini-neighborhoods within the development, and several of them will come in at price points less than what Fall Creek has become known for.
John Esau and Carl Cline of the Lawrence branch of Keller Williams Real Estate are marketing the property. Esau said the development is offering lots to builders in four different price ranges:
• $55,000 to $65,000 lots for homes in the $350,000 to $450,000 range.
• $65,000 to $75,000 lots with homes in the $400,000 to $650,000 range.
• $100,000 to $125,000 lots for homes in the $650,000 to $1 million range
• $165,000 and up lots with homes above the $1 million mark.
If you have been in the Fall Creek Farms neighborhood, you might remember that there is a roundabout near the center of the development. Esau said the new construction will take place west of that roundabout and will stretch all the way to Monterey Way. Streets and utilities already have been installed for the new phase of development. In fact, the streets have been there largely unused for a number of years.
Esau said the timing seems to be right for the new development. He’s convinced that pent-up demand in the Lawrence real estate market is starting to surface.
“We’re hearing from customers that they want to build,” Esau said. “There is some renewed confidence. People have sat through three or four years of uncertainty or decline, and now they are realizing that if they are ever going to do this, now is the time.”
The most recent building permits numbers we reported showed that through November home building has increased by about 30 percent from the dismal totals of the past few years.
Real estate sales numbers also are showing some signs of improvement. The latest numbers I have are through October. They show total home sales are up 26.5 percent from the same period a year ago. In all, local agents have sold 784 homes this year. Sales of newly constructed homes are up 27.3 percent, totaling 70 sales for the year. The only down number is one that buyers probably won’t mind: Selling prices are down significantly. The median sale price on a home is down 5.9 percent to $158,250. Selling prices for newly constructed homes, however, are up 8.6 percent to an average of $265,000.
I should be getting November sales numbers in another week or so.
Lawrence’s Westlake Ace Hardware part of $88 million sale; customers not expected to notice changes at local stores
The nuts and bolts of the operation of Lawrence’s two Westlake Ace Hardware stores have changed, but company officials are promising customers won’t notice any changes in the, well, nuts and bolts and other items the company sells.
Ace — the giant retail, hardware cooperative based in Oak Brook, Ill. — has purchased the 85-store Westlake chain that operates Lawrence’s two stores.
If at this point, you are thinking that Lawrence’s two stores have long been named Westlake Ace Hardware, you are correct. But the stores have been owned by Lenexa-based Westlake Hardware, which does its purchasing of inventory through the Ace cooperative.
But the deal, which closed this week, means Ace now owns the Westlake stores. Since Ace long has been the supplier for the stores, product offerings at the store aren’t scheduled to change.
A spokeswoman for Ace also told me that there aren’t any plans to change store employees or how the stores are operated. No downsizing is anticapted as part of the deal. Shasha Bigda, director of corporate communications for Ace said consumers shouldn’t notice anything different at the stores. That includes the name. Bigda said the Westlake brand will continue to be used at the stores.
“That name is well known in the markets it serves,” Bigda said.
Reportedly, the deal was worth $88 million, and the terms of the purchase call for Westlake’s management team to remain in place and be based in Lenexa. The management team will report to a separate board within the Ace corporate structure.
The deal represents a new strategy for Ace, which like all cooperatives, is owned by the members it serves. In this case, the approximately 4,200 stores the company supplies, each own a piece of the Ace cooperative. But this new deal flips the equation and marks the first time Ace has owned outright a chain of hardware stores.
It will be interesting to see if that strategy continues for Ace, and whether it starts buying out more traditional mom-and-pop hardware stores in future years. Westlake long ago had stopped being what you would think of as a mom-and-pop operation. It was founded as a single store in Huntsville, Mo., in 1905, but by the 1970s it was expanding into other states. It had grown to become the largest dealer in the Ace cooperative.
The company was family-owned until 2006 when the private equity firm Goldner Hawn Johnson and Morrison purchased the company. So, if you want to think of it in simple terms, I think the end result of this deal is that the profits from the Westlake stores now will go to Ace rather than to the private equity firm.
In Lawrence, Westlake operates stores at 23rd and Louisiana streets and at Sixth Street and Kasold Drive.
And you thought your kitchen was busy this holiday season.
I chatted recently with Jeremy Farmer, executive director of Lawrence’s Just Food food bank, and he told me his organization has been busy putting together 916 Christmas baskets for households that were struggling to put a Christmas meal on the table.
The fact that there is an organization that can put together such a charitable effort is heart-warming, but what is disheartening is that the number of people in need of the service has grown significantly.
Farmer said Just Food did 750 baskets last year, so demand is up by about 22 percent. Farmer said the holiday numbers are indicative of the demand the food bank has been seeing all year.
“We definitely don’t see the higher numbers as a success point,” Farmer said. “It is a reminder that as a community, we have failed to solve this problem.”
Look for some significant changes in food bank operations in 2013. We’ll have more on it later, but the United Way program that encourages social services providers to better collaborate is moving into Lawrence’s food pantry system. Farmer said Just Food, which operates a warehouse of food supplies near 11th and Haskell, will begin operating satellite food pantries at several locations, including the Ballard Center and Penn House. In the past, there have been food pantries at those locations, but they have been run independently. Now, it sounds like most of the food pantries in town will come under the management of Just Food.
As I said, we’ll get more details on that in the future.
As far as the Christmas baskets go, the deadline to sign up and qualify for those has already passed. Just Food workers are distributing the baskets through Saturday. The baskets include vegetables, fruit, bread, meat, cranberry sauce, dessert and, of course, gravy.
Ah, gravy. Soon, I will be swimming in it. That’s my way of saying that Town Talk will take a few days off to celebrate the holidays. (And by celebrate, I mean dipping innumerable, edible items in gravy.) Look for the gravy-stained column to return after the New Year.
I sure hope you all have a safe and very happy holiday season.
The New Year is coming, and I’m sure so too will my tried and true resolution of vowing to start playing my old guitar again.
Well this year, maybe it will stick because it looks like me playing my guitar is the only thing needed to make Lawrence a Grade A retirement destination.
There’s a new report out by the folks with American Cities Business Journals that finds Branson, Mo., is the top retirement community in the Midwest. The authors of the study opine that its status as the Live Music Show Capital of America is one of the city’s calling cards as a retirement destination.
So, be on the lookout for Cousin Chad and the Empty Bottle Band, and you all can thank me later.
But the report also suggests Lawrence may need one other item to fulfill its relatively new goal of becoming a destination for retirees: Greasy hamburgers.
I’m talking greasy hamburgers in the miniature style of the Cozy Inn in Salina. That’s right, Salina ranks above Lawrence and every other city in Kansas as a retirement destination. I’m assuming it is because retirees flock there to tick off their doctors and their pesky cholesterol charts.
In fact, quite a few cities in Kansas ranked above Lawrence as a retirement destination. Of the six cities in Kansas ranked, Lawrence was next to last.
But I’m not sure this study should cause Lawrence to abandon its plans to become a retirement destination. (If you remember, the city and the county have created a new board that is tasked with making the community more retiree-friendly. The effort likely will draw funding from both governments in the coming year.)
The study by the good folks at The Business Journals Web site seems to be a bit weighted against college communities. Among the factors the study considers is how many retirees currently are living in a community. It does that by looking at the total percentage of the population that is 65 or older. Lawrence’s percentage is always going to be lower than a non-college community. The study also looks at the median age of a community’s residents, I guess with the thought that retirees will want to be around other retirees. Again, a college community won’t fare well in that category.
But there was one category where Lawrence did fare well: The percentage of retirees who were born out of state. I think this category is meant to measure how attractive a community is to retirees, with the assumption that people who were born elsewhere are making a conscious decision to retiree in the community.
Out of the 153 Midwest cities that were studied, Lawrence had the 9th highest percentage in this category — although Wichita and Kansas City actually ranked 8th and 3rd, respectively.
Maybe the folks at The Business Journals are on to something. Maybe university communities aren’t well-suited to be retirement communities, but several are trying to do so. They’re betting that the cultural and entertainment events that come with a university — plus the found memories of youth created by a university — will make college communities a magnet for the soon-to-retire Baby Boomer generation.
Lawrence is set to find out over the next few years. I’ll keep my picking thumb limbered up just in case we need a boost.
Anyway, here’s the list of Kansas communities and their ranking in the study of 153 Midwestern cities:
• No. 38: Salina
• No. 52: Topeka
• No. 56: Wichita
• No. 57: Hutchinson
• No. 147: Lawrence
• No. 148: Manhattan
The top five overall in the Midwest are:
• No. 1: Branson, Mo.
• No. 2: Brainerd, Minn.
• No. 3 Fergus Falls, Minn.
• No. 4: Sandusky, Ohio
• No. 5: Marinette, Wis.
You can see the full list, here.
Somehow, it just seems appropriate in this season of late-night battles with wrapping paper, the pre-planning for in-law visits, and the arguments with your spouse about thawing the Christmas goose in the bathtub that this topic would emerge: Drive-through liquor stores.
I am now beginning to understand why my wife rarely lets me leave the borders of Douglas County because I guess in some communities there are liquor stores that have drive-through lanes.
Lawrence may add its name to that list. Christian Walter, the owner of Myers Liquor, 902 W. 23rd St., confirmed to me that he has major redevelopment plans on tap for the longtime liquor store.
The plans include a drive-through lane, which he said would make Myers the only liquor store in town with drive-through service. The lane would be on the east side of the building and would exit onto adjacent Alabama Street.
The drive-through, though, is really just a small part of a larger plan. Walter is filing plans with City Hall to add an 1,800-square-foot retail space onto the west end of the liquor store building. That would almost double the amount of retail space at the corner. The existing Myers Liquor building also would get a complete facelift. Myers said he doesn’t have any plans to use the new space to expand the liquor store. Instead, he wants to attract a new retail tenant to the busy corner on 23rd Street, hopefully a tenant that would be complimentary to the liquor store business. (I vote for a Doritos store. Nacho cheese Doritos and Evan Williams is a country wine and cheese party where I come from. Yes, you are correct, my wife only let me host a wine-and-cheese party once.)
As for the drive-through lane, Walter isn’t making any promises it will come to be. His plans still have to win approval from Lawrence City Hall, and so he is probably a couple of months away from starting construction on any project. But Walter thinks the concept would go over well with customers in Lawrence.
“Our store really thrives on convenience,” Walter said. “This would just increase the convenience factor.”
It makes sense to me. But, of course, I thought thawing the goose in the bathtub was convenient.
I guess every tire must go flat at some point. One of Lawrence’s older tire and wheel shops has closed its doors.
Performance Tire & Wheel Group, 1828 Massachusetts St., shut down on Friday, and the manager of the store told me there are no plans for the company to reopen in Lawrence.
The company has two other stores in Topeka that will remain open. Lawrence store manager Steve Montgomery, who has been at the store for 27 years, said the family-owned business is going through an ownership change as one of the sons is buying out his father. A decision to close the Lawrence store was made as part of that change.
The company got its start in Topeka in 1946, and Montgomery estimated the Lawrence store has been in business for about 40 years, all at its Massachusetts Street location.
Montgomery said the three employees at the Lawrence location have been offered jobs with the company in Topeka. Montgomery said business at the Lawrence store had held up fine during the past several years, and the decision to close was more of broader strategic decision for the company.
No word yet on whether a new business is set to go into Performance’s space along Massachusetts Street.
Temporary closure of 15th/Bob Billings Parkway this summer upsets neighbors; city proposes new detour in hopes of alleviating concerns
We’ve been telling you for awhile now that the area near 15th and Iowa streets is going to be a mess for a good part of 2013. Well, it looks like the mess is going to spread into City Hall tonight.
As we have reported in the past, Iowa Street from about Harvard Road to the Irving Hill Road overpass is set to get rebuilt in 2013. The project, which has lingered in the planning stages for almost three years, has mainly focused on rebuilding Iowa Street and adding a center turn lane.
But the $6.5 million project also includes significant improvements to the intersection of Iowa Street and Bob Billings Parkway/15th Street. As we have previously reported, the construction plan for the project includes closing 15th Street/Bob Billings Parkway for several hundred feet on both sides of Iowa Street. In other words, you won’t be able to turn off Iowa Street onto Bob Billings to the west or 15th Street to the east, and vice versa. Iowa Street will have one lane of traffic open in each direction.
The entire project is expected to last from February through November, but the city is estimating that 15th Street/Bob Billings Parkway will be closed from May 20 to Aug. 16.
That part of the project seems to be catching some neighbors by surprise. I talked to Lawrence resident Nelson Krueger who lives in the neighborhood, and it sure sounds like there will be a push made at tonight’s City Commission meeting to get commissioners to leave the intersection fully open.
But city engineers are warning that such a change this late in the game is going to cause multiple delays to the project. Chuck Soules, director of public works for the city, told me the Kansas Department of Transportation — remember that Iowa Street is also U.S. Highway 59 — is scheduled to be advertised for bid on Wednesday, with bid openings on Jan. 17.
If Bob Billings/15th Street had to remain open during construction, KDOT has indicated it will pull the project from the January bid letting schedule. Soules said that means the start of the project likely would be pushed back by three to four months — it is scheduled to begin in February — and total length of the project would be increased by four months because it will take longer to do the construction work while traffic continues in the area. All told, that means more of the project will happen during Kansas University’s school year.
The city also is predicting that motorists on Iowa Street will see significantly longer delays if the intersection is left open. The key here is that Iowa Street will only have one lane in each direction. If the intersection is closed, the city can remove the traffic signal and keep traffic continuously moving through the construction zone. But if the intersection remains open, the traffic signal will have to remain in place, and with just one lane of traffic, vehicles are predicted to back up for long distances in both directions. Soules told me he can envision traffic backing up through the 19th Street intersection and close to 23rd Street.
The city probably did not help itself by officially designating the detour for the project as Sixth Street to Kasold or Clinton Parkway to Kasold. That will take motorists a long distance out of their way to get to Bob Billings Parkway.
As opposition has grown, however, the city has shifted its detour plan. Soules confirmed to me this morning that he has gotten permission from KU to use several West Campus streets as the official detour for the project. The plan is motorists could turn west at the 19th and Iowa intersection and go through the West Campus streets that run by the Lied Center and the Dole Institute of Politics and then re-enter Bob Billings Parkway at Crestline Drive.
Soules said the city always assumed that would be a de facto detour for motorists, but since those streets are maintained by KU, it needed the university’s permission before signs were put up to declare it the official detour.
We’ll see if that shorter detour makes neighbors happier.
Neighbors — led by Krueger and a few businesses along Bob Billings Parkway — have put together a presentation arguing that closing the intersection will hurt a whole host of businesses.
I received a copy of the presentation this morning, and the neighbors contend there are 2,000 residents in single-family homes and apartment complexes — the large Meadowbrook Apartment Complex is just west of the intersection — that will be impacted. The intersection will be closed during the critical time period of late July and early August when new residents are moving into the apartment complexes.
In addition, the shopping center at Bob Billings and Kasold stands to lose significant business, Krueger argues, because that is when many of those businesses establish relationships with those new residents.
Krueger also contends the city didn’t do enough to notify residents west of Iowa Street about the project. Soules said the city did send out notices to residents, but he said the notification did not stretch all the way to Kasold Drive.
City commissioners will get to sort it all out at their meeting tonight, which begins at 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been experiencing building permit withdrawal symptoms. Since about June, I’ve been unable to report any new building permit data for you because the city was having some issues with its new permit software and its ability to print reports.
(I’m assuming that is why I’ve had occasional sleepwalking bouts where I end up in my shop with a hammer and a mangled 2X4, but perhaps something else is going on there.)
Regardless, the city has gotten its report issue fixed, and we have new data to share. And for once, there is some good news in it for Lawrence homebuilders.
Through November, homebuilding activity is up about 27 percent compared to the same period a year ago. In fact, the number of single-family and duplex homes are at their second highest total since 2008.
The city has issued permits for 124 single-family or duplex projects, up from 97 in 2011. The 2012 numbers still trail the 157 permits issued during the same time period in 2010, but that was back when builders thought the first-time homebuyers credit had turned the market around. Interestingly, the 2012 numbers are ahead of the 2008 numbers, which is back before the national economy turned sour.
If November is any indication, builders are finishing the year with some momentum. The city issued 15 permits for single-family and duplex construction, which is more than double the average of 5.25 permits for the previous four years. (I feel for that guy who got the 0.25 of a house.)
When you look at the total construction picture in Lawrence — residential plus commercial — the numbers aren’t quite as good. Through November, the city has issued permits totaling $92.68 million, which is down about 14 percent from the same period a year ago. The $92 million mark of this year is still the fourth lowest total of the last five years, coming in ahead of only the dismal 2009 season.
But again, builders had some momentum in November. The city issued permits for $10.01 million worth of projects during the month, including three commercial projects valued at $1 million or more. They were: $1.645 million for the new Briggs Dodge building at 2300 W. 29th Terrace; $1.304 million for a new metal salvage building for Advantage Metal Recycling at 1545 N. Third St.; and $1.304 million for a classroom addition at the St. John School at 1208 Kentucky St.
So far in 2012, the city has issued 16 permits valued at $1 million or more. The other projects are:
• $8.325 million for Westfield Place Apartments, 204 Eisenhower Drive.
• $4 million for the Lawrence Community Theatre, 4660 Bauer Farm Drive.
• $3.986 million for the Varsity House Apartments, 1043 Indiana St.
• $1.9 million for an addition to the Del Monte pet food plant, 727 N. Iowa St.
• $1.5 million for the Lawrence Memorial Hospital North Wing remodel.
• $1.4 million for Raintree Montessori School addition, 4601 Clinton Parkway.
• $1.4 million for the Hy-Vee C-Store, 3900 W. 24th Place.
• $1.3 million for a retail shell building that will house a Papa Murphy’s, a credit union and other tenants at 650 Congressional Drive.
• $1.235 million for a remodel of the Kia dealership, 1225 E. 23rd St.
• $1.2 million for a new Briggs Nissan dealership 2300 W. 29th Terrace.
• $1.1 million for a single-family dwelling at 1714 Lake Alvamar Drive.
• $1 million for a single-family dwelling at 133 Running Ridge Road.
• $1 million for a retail shell building at 4701 Bauer Farm Drive.
Those aren’t bad numbers considering that in future months there will be another $18 million in construction for the Lawrence Public Library project; $10 million-plus for a pair of multistory buildings at Ninth and New Hampshire streets; and perhaps $25 million for a new recreation center in northwest Lawrence.
It sure appears that one of Lawrence’s larger and older real estate agencies is about to be sold.
Multiple sources are indicating that a deal is expected before the end of the year that will sell Stephens Real Estate to two employees of the Lawrence-based agency.
Doug Stephens, president of Stephens, wasn’t yet ready to comment about the speculation.
But talk around business circles is that Stephens employees Pat McCandless and Chris Earl will be principals in the new deal. McCandless declined to comment when reached. McCandless is the company’s director of personnel and Earl is Stephens’ sales manager.
Sources indicate the deal is progressing but hasn’t yet been finalized.
If the deal is completed, it will be the first time since the company’s founding in 1978 that it hasn’t been controlled by the Stephens family.
Longtime real estate broker Bob Stephens founded the agency after it split off from the Mitchell-Stephens Agency, which had its roots dating to 1970. Doug Stephens, Bob’s son, became president of the company in 1997, according to the company’s Web site.
The agency went on to become not only a large seller of homes, but the Stephens family became active in opening new areas of Lawrence and Douglas County for residential development.
No word yet on whether the pending deal will include a name change for the company, or whether the company has any plans to affiliate with a national real estate franchise. The company through its history has been one of the few agencies in the city that has not partnered at some point with a larger national real estate firm, such as a Century 21 or Coldwell Banker.
We’ll let you know if the deal becomes official.
I don’t think that's the smell of Olive Garden’s all-you-can-eat breadsticks in the air, but I can’t be certain. My wife is taking no chances: She’s digging out her massive breadstick-toting purse, and she is ordering me to dust off my dinner jacket with the really big pockets.
All of this is to say there is activity at the 27th and Iowa site that once was proposed to house the city’s first Olive Garden restaurant, until that deal fell apart when city commissioners balked at providing incentives for the restaurant chain.
A new development plan for the northeast corner of the intersection has been filed at City Hall. The plans call for a 12,700 square foot building to be constructed on the largely vacant site. Half the building would be devoted to a “high turnover sit down restaurant,” while the other half would be used for “general retail shops.” The plans don’t provide any specifics on the restaurant or the retailers that may be going into the location. In case you are having a hard time picturing the site, it is where the old Plum Tree Chinese restaurant used to be, and also the adjacent site where Mazzio’s Pizza used to operate years ago.
The developer — Mission-based MD Management — is the one who proposed the Olive Garden for the site in 2011. But these plans are different than the ones filed when Olive Garden was the proposed tenant for the site. The traffic study also notes the development will produce about 60 percent fewer motorist trips on any given day than the previous proposal. Those all may be signs that we’re talking about a different restaurant, but I don’t really know. Some folks who have insight into these sort of things seem to think that too. I’m doing some asking around, and I also have a call into MD Management.
At the moment, I haven’t seen anything that indicates the development company is seeking any sort of financial incentives, such as special taxing districts or property tax rebates, to develop the site. But I’ll keep my eyes open for that as well.
The property already has the proper zoning for restaurant and retail development, so most of the approvals needed from City Hall are relatively technical ones. Perhaps the answers will reveal themselves in fairly short order.
In the meantime, I have a feeling that since our breadstick garb has been unearthed, my wife and I will be making a trip to an Olive Garden. I just hope its never-ending pasta bowl promotion isn’t going on. You don’t want to know how she makes me smuggle out pasta and marinara sauce.
Tuesday night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting ended up being like a baked bean dish at this weekend’s Memorial Day barbecue: It was too much for one sitting. So, here are a couple of leftovers from the meeting.
I have had some people ask me whether Tuesday’s meeting ever produced an explanation about why the city’s cost estimates for the recreation center were so much higher than the actual bids the city received from nine contractors.
After all, the $10.5 million low bid received by the city was significantly less than the $18.4 million and $20.7 million estimates produced by two architects hired by the city.
City commissioners did receive a bit of an explanation. There were several aspects mentioned, but the biggest factor was that architects didn’t account for how much some key commodity prices have fallen, and how competitive the regional construction market has become for large construction projects.
The two architects — the team of CP Sports and KBS Constructors Inc., and Lawrence-based Gould Evans — both noted that several large commodity-oriented bids came in significantly lower than expected. For instance, CP Sports said the bids for steel, HVAC/plumbing and the electrical estimates came in $6 million below its estimates. And Gould Evans said the bids for steel, HVAC and wood flooring came in $4 million below its estimates.
Several of those commodities had been in high demand because of building booms in China and the Middle East, Craig Penzler, an architect with CP Sports, wrote in a memo to city officials. But “with international booms slowing, the large commodity materials are more readily available,” Penzler wrote. “We believe we are seeing an impact upon the pricing for larger projects.”
One of the more interesting outcomes of the bidding process was the bid the city received from Crossland Construction. Gould Evans hired Crossland to produce a mock bid for the project a few months ago. It provided an estimate of $16.8 million. When Crossland bid the project for real, its price was $10.7 million. Granted, the building’s design at the time Crossland provided the mock bid wasn’t exactly the same as it was at the time of the real bid, but it was pretty close. The two bids were not.
The explanation seems to be that conditions have changed rapidly in the past month or two. Or, in some cases, even in just a few hours. In his memo to city officials, Penzler said he had a conversation with one Topeka bidder who said subcontractors on the project aggressively started cutting their prices in an effort to win the job. According to Penzler, two hours before the bid was due to the city, the Topeka contractor believed his total bid for the recreation center was going to be about $16 million. Over the next hour, the bid had dropped to $14 million. And then just before the 2 p.m. bid deadline, it had dropped to just under $13 million.
Clearly, there is a lesson to be learned here: If the city had set the bid date a few hours later, contractors would have been paying the city to build the project.
Well, maybe that’s not quite the takeaway here. But it does show the power of bidding. As has already been reported, the city isn’t going through a competitive bid process on the infrastructure portion of this project. At Tuesday’s meeting, Public Works Director Chuck Soules said he is looking over the previous $8.3 million estimate for infrastructure. (It really is closer to a $9.3 million estimate when you include some site work and other items that aren’t technically called infrastructure but are part of the no-bid package.) Soules is comparing the cost estimate with bid prices the city has seen for similar work, such as the bids received for the Farmland business park project and the Iowa Street reconstruction project.
Soules said his preliminary analysis shows that it is unlikely that the infrastructure work should come in any higher than the $8.3 million estimate. But, as we reported, the city now wants to hear what developer Thomas Fritzel, who is building the infrastructure, says. They’ve asked Fritzel to provide a firm quote on the infrastructure costs within the next two weeks.
One last leftover from Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. And this one really is just a crumb. But it appears that next week’s City Commission meeting may produce a conversation about the use of drones in Lawrence airspace.
City Commissioner Terry Riordan said he had been approached by some citizens who want to discuss a city drone policy. Of course, the city doesn’t have drones. But apparently there are some people in the city who are concerned about future use of drones in Lawrence airspace, I presume by the federal government.
Commissioners indicated they weren’t going to put the topic on their regular agenda. It would seem unlikely that the city would have any influence over the federal government on the topic. But anybody is free to come and speak during the commission’s open public comment period at the end of each meeting. It sounded like some representatives of the group may do that at next week’s meeting.
You can bet I’ll keep an ear open for that.
UPDATE: I've talked this afternoon with Ben Jones, a Lawrence resident who is part of a group of about dozen or more people who have started meeting about the drone issue. He said the group will ask the city to consider an ordinance that would limit the city's use of drones — such as for police department surveillance and other such activities — until standards can be developed. He said the ordinance would be modeled after one passed in Charlottesville, Va..
The group does plan to speak at Tuesday night's City Commission meeting. Jones said the group, which crosses political lines, isn't expecting Lawrence to get into the drone business any time soon, but it thinks a resolution would be a good opportunity for the city "to get ahead of the curve."
Wicked Broadband project seeks $500,000 city grant; downtown hotel project seeks adjustment to incentives package; historical society seeks $20k for new exhibit
Reading the agenda for Tuesday night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting is kind of like reading my household’s credit card bill: There are plenty of questions, and all the answers seem to have dollar signs.
There are three outside organizations requesting financial assistance from the city, with two of them each asking for a half-million dollars.
We’ll try to fill in more details later, but here’s a look at the basics of the requests:
• Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband announced last month that it will start a pilot project to bring super fast 1-Gigabit Internet service to a neighborhood later this year.
A kick-off event for the project spelled out a lot of details about how the company, which previously did business as Lawrence Freenet, could bring the same type of high-speed Internet service to Lawrence that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. At that event, the idea of financial incentives from the city wasn’t envisioned. Well, it is now.
The company has filed an application for a $500,000 economic development grant from the city, plus is asking to receive up to a $20,000 a year rebate in franchise fees it pays to the city. It also wants to have the right to enter into $10 per year leases to use a portion of new fiber optic cables that the city plans to install throughout the community in future years.
Joshua Montgomery, co-owner of Wicked Broadband, said there are several factors that have caused him to rethink the need for city incentives for the project. But perhaps the largest is that he’s been contacted by several significant New York-based capital investment companies that are interested in investing in a locally owned, high-speed Internet service. Those investors have made it clear that the city of Lawrence needs to do something to show that it is committed to the idea of bringing a high-speed network to the city.
“If the city says that it is behind it 100 percent, that opens the door for the next $30 million in private funding that will be needed to spread this service to the rest of the community,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said the $500,000, one-time grant would allow the service territory for the pilot project to grow to 1,000 households, up from 500. The neighborhood or neighborhoods haven’t been selected yet. Wicked is taking pre-registrations for the service on its website. The neighborhood with the highest percentage of residents pre-registered will serve as the pilot project. An announcement is expected June 15.
Montgomery said he and his business partner and wife, Lawrence school board member Kris Adair, are putting up $500,000 in private money for the pilot project.
City commissioners on Tuesday aren’t being asked to approve the request. Instead, Tuesday’s vote is just to direct city staff to begin analyzing it.
Wicked Broadband’s service will be a direct competitor to existing Internet providers, such as Knology and AT&T, which generally do not receive such city subsidies. So, it will be interesting to hear what those companies have to say as the process unfolds.
As for Montgomery, he said he’ll argue that the city won’t be making an investment in a private company as much as it will be making an investment in a new infrastructure system that will be critical to future commerce. “It is an economic enabler,” Montgomery said.
The second request comes from a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton, which is seeking to build a new hotel at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
It is a bit more complicated to understand, and I’ll try to get a better handle on the numbers before Tuesday’s meeting. But the request seeks to raise the amount of Tax Increment Finance dollars the hotel is eligible to receive to $4 million, up from $3.5 million.
Unlike the Wicked Broadband request, this doesn’t involve the city writing a $500,000 check to the development. Instead, a TIF allows the project to get a rebate on a certain percentage of the property taxes it pays. It is kind of like a tax abatement, except the money has to be used to pay for infrastructure type of expenses. In this case, that includes a private parking garage for the hotel.
What makes it a bit complicated is that the developers also have proposed a multistory apartment/office project for the northeast corner of the intersection. It also uses Tax Increment Financing. It looks like a likely option is to increase the amount of TIF money available for the southeast corner hotel project by reducing the amount of projected TIF revenues available to the northeast corner apartment project.
If that is ultimately what happens, then the overall amount of incentive basically would be a wash. We’ll have to see how those details work out.
The more interesting part is what developers have said about the hotel project. It has had its necessary building approvals for months, but hasn’t yet started construction. A letter to the city now makes it clear that there are financial questions the investors are trying to answer.
Bill Fleming, an attorney for the development group, told the city in a letter that “the hotel investors are keenly interested in the ‘cost per key,’ which is the average cost for each hotel room.”
If the additional $500,000 in TIF money is not available to the hotel project, then that will raise the average cost per room the investors must pay.
“The investors may conclude the project is not feasible at that cost per key, and the project in that case will not proceed,” Fleming wrote.
That would be a major turn of events for the project, which faced stiff opposition from the adjacent East Lawrence neighborhood, and had to fight hard to win city approval.
Maybe the folks at the Douglas County Historical Society are more than just masters of history. Perhaps they also are masters of timing. After those two big-ticket items, they are asking for a mere $20,000 in city funding. The money will be used to help fund a permanent exhibit on the second floor of the Watkins Museum commemorating the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence.
The new exhibit is set to open on Aug. 17, and will “explore Douglas County’s history, issues that shaped the development of the community, and events that made it a focus of national attention.”
Ultimately, the exhibit will be expanded to the third floor of the museum. The bulk of the nearly $257,000 in exhibit costs has come from private individuals, businesses and grants.
City staff members are recommending approval of the $20,000 in funding. The money would come from the city’s guest tax fund, which receives its revenue from the guest tax charged at hotel and motel rooms.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday.
There are more signs that Lawrence is growing older.
There are at least two new projects in the senior housing industry in Lawrence. City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are set to finalize a sales tax exemption request for a $2.1 million construction project for Neuvant House in west Lawrence.
As we reported back in July, plans have been filed by Neuvant House to significantly expand its building at 1216 Biltmore Dr. Well, those plans are now moving forward.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Neuvant House is expected to receive industrial revenue bonds, which will allow the project to buy its construction materials without paying sales tax.
The project essentially will double the amount of space Neuvant House has to care for people with dementia and other ailments. The new building — which will be located adjacent to the company’s existing facility — will have 14 private rooms, some of which will be able to accommodate not only the patient but also a spouse.
The facility also will have several common areas, including a living room, an exercise room, a whirlpool room, a beauty shop and other amenities.
Neuvant House’s current facility specializes in treating people with dementia. The new facility will have a broader focus, according to Matthew Stephens, administrator for the Lawrence location. The company has had a waiting list at its current facility since about December 2011.
Construction is expected to begin soon, and probably will take about nine months to complete.
As for the industrial revenue bonds for the project, the state previously had a program that allowed projects like this one to apply for a special sales tax exemption on construction materials. But that program recently was discontinued, and such projects have been instructed to apply for industrial revenue bond financing instead. The city has no obligation to pay the IRBs if there is a default. And with these industrial revenue bonds, the project does not receive a property tax abatement.
The new addition is expected to pay more than $20,000 a year in property taxes, and create 10 new jobs with an average salary of about $30,000 per year. The company will save anywhere from about $55,000 to $90,000 in sales taxes with the exemption, depending on the final cost of construction.
The second project is at the longtime Lawrence retirement community Presbyterian Manor.
The entire Presbyterian Manor group recently refinanced much of its debt, and that freed up $600,000 in funds for the Lawrence facility to renovate its apartments.
The facility at 1429 Kasold Dr. has 73 independent-living townhomes and apartments. The new project is part of a multiyear funding plan to renovate the units. Rhonda Parks, executive director of the facility, said plans call for new kitchens, bathrooms, carpets, tile and other improvements. The work will be done as apartments and townhomes become vacant.
“The market has been good, and we’re very appreciative of that,” Parks said of the demand for senior housing in the community.
The new projects come at a time when the city and county are making a push to boost Lawrence’s appeal as a retirement community. Those efforts include talk of a major “intergenerational neighborhood” that would be built somewhere in the city and would include independent living and retirement home services.
Call it a rankings rut, and this one is pretty deep for the city of Lawrence.
A new national study has ranked Lawrence as the second-worst-performing small metropolitan area in the nation, based on a variety of economic measures. The Milken Institute ranked Lawrence 178 out of 179 metro areas in its most recent Best Performing Cities index. A web site for The Atlantic this week had an article analyzing the results.
This latest report adds onto the negative news released earlier this month by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis about Lawrence’s gross domestic product. It ranked 339th out of 366 metro areas, and was shrinking.
The Milken report uses some of the same types of economic numbers to create its index. But it places a particular emphasis on an area in which Lawrence is supposed to be positioned to excel: high-tech, knowledge-based jobs.
Simply put, the report found we aren’t excelling in that area. In fact, Lawrence didn’t excel in any area.
Over the course of the past year, Lawrence’s ranking in the report fell 79 spots, from No. 99 in the 2011 report to No. 178 in the most recent index. Only three other cities — Ithaca, N.Y., Great Falls, Mont., and Hot Springs, Ark. — had sharper declines than Lawrence’s.
The report takes a look at nine different categories, and Lawrence didn’t crack the top 100 in any of them. Here’s a look:
• Five-year job growth: No. 107
• One-year job growth: No. 172
• Five-year wage growth: No. 101
• One-year wage growth: No. 158
• One-year job growth percentage: No. 156
• Five-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 170
• One-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 151
• High-tech GDP as part of overall GDP: No. 164
• Concentration of high-tech companies: No. 148
I know how you all like comparisons, so I have gathered the rankings for several regional communities. I would ask for a drumroll, but the drama already has been sucked from this. Since Lawrence is second to last — last place was Carson City, Nev. — I’m guessing you’ve already deduced that every city in the region ranked ahead of us.
On a positive note, Manhattan, which has been on a roll in these type of rankings, wasn’t included in this index, likely because its population wasn’t quite large enough to qualify. But fear not, here is something for you to gnash your teeth over: Columbia, Mo., ranked No. 10 on the small cities list. Here’s a look at others:
• Iowa City, Iowa: No. 16
• St. Joseph, Mo.: No. 29
• Waco, Texas: No. 31
• Joplin, Mo.: No. 44
• Ames, Iowa: No. 61
• Topeka: No. 144
Several of the cities Lawrence often compares itself to, or at least watches, were included in the list of 200 large cities. Here’s how some of those cities fared in the rankings:
• Fort Collins, Colo.: No. 12
• Boulder, Colo.: No. 15
• Lubbock, Texas: No. 20
• Oklahoma City: No. 32
• Madison, Wis.: No. 71
• Lincoln, Neb.: No. 81
• Kansas City: No. 104
• Tulsa, Okla.: No. 118
• Springfield, Mo.: No. 144
• Wichita: No. 146
Take these rankings for whatever you think they’re worth. These indexes all have their own biases about what they think are the most important economic indicators. This one seems to be heavily focused on wages and high-tech business indicators. For what it is worth, those are two areas I hear local leaders emphasize a lot as well.
Another factor to remember is that this index — like all of them — is based on data that sometimes has some age to it. Most of the job growth numbers date back to 2011, and some of the wage numbers date back to 2010. It was no secret that Lawrence struggled during those periods. It also is worth remembering that Lawrence basically has entirely revamped its economic development team since that point.
Plus, some recent indicators have been more positive. Retail sales tax collections in 2012 had their best growth since the mid-1990s, there’s been a significant decline in Massachusetts Street vacancies, Hallmark Cards is in the process of shifting about 200 workers to its Lawrence plant, and even home sales and building permits have showed signs of a rebound.
Yes, I’m trying to put a little cheer in your Kool-Aid. But only for a moment. I’ll leave you with a finding from the report that ought to leave Lawrence leaders scratching their heads. The authors of the report noted that there were two types of communities most likely to do well in this year’s index: communities benefiting from the country’s new natural gas and oil exploration; and communities with “high concentrations of public-sector employees, especially in prominent universities.”
That second one sure sounds like us. But maybe our definition of prominent is a bit different from others. The top ranked small city, for the second year in a row, was Logan, Utah, home to Utah State University. Prominent? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure our basketball team can beat theirs.
City estimates it may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep concealed weapons out of city buildings
It appears the city soon will have to buy hundreds thousands of dollars worth of security measures. Either that, or the city will have to learn to live with a new state law that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring firearms into City Hall and other city buildings.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider formally asking the Kansas Attorney General for an exemption from the new state law until Jan. 1, 2014. The state law — approved by the legislature and signed by the governor this session — essentially contains an automatic one-year exemption period for local governments. The city also may be able to get three additional one-year exemptions, although that is less certain.
The law no longer allows city or county buildings to be posted with the "no gun" signs that make it illegal for anyone, including concealed-carry permit holders, to bring a concealed weapon into the buildings. Under the new law, governments can only post those signs if the buildings have adequate security measures, such as metal detectors and security officers.
Lawrence city officials have begun calculating the cost to purchase and staff such metal detectors. A memo from City Attorney Toni Wheeler estimates it will cost about $5,000 for each metal detector, plus at least $42,000 a year for a single police officer to staff the metal detector—and the Lawrence Police Department, Wheeler wrote, believes two officers may be necessary for each detector. That would place the annual operating costs for the program at more than $84,000 for each building with a detector. And the cost may be even greater, because the personnel numbers represent starting salaries and don’t factor in benefit costs or other costs to equip a police officer.
Wheeler says at least three city buildings — City Hall, Lawrence Municipal Court and the public access area of the Police Department’s Investigations and Training Center — all warrant consideration for security systems. Beyond those three, city commissioners also would have to decide whether recreation centers and other city offices need the security measures.
New security costs for the city are expected to be addressed in the City Manager’s recommended 2014 budget, which is scheduled to be released in July. The costs could add up. If the city decided to include recreation centers in the program, there would be a total of nine buildings to equip and staff. At a minimum of $42,000 per building, that's almost $400,000 a year, plus the cost of the metal detectors. At $84,000 per building — which would be the case if two officers are required — it would be more than $750,000 a year.
But say you wanted to have security measures in place for every city-owned building that currently prohibits concealed firearms. The city currently has 47 buildings listed in its administrative policy, which means it would cost $3.9 million to provide a two-member security detail at every location. That, of course, is not going to happen. It probably would be a bit odd to have a metal detector at the city’s Landscape Shop or the Wastewater Treatment Plant, for example. Those places probably will become buildings where concealed-carry permit holders can have a weapon.
It will be interesting to see how city commissioners react to the new legislation. The previous City Commission sent a letter to the legislature objecting to the bill while it was under consideration. Whether the city’s objections rise to the level of spending more than a half-million dollars on security each year, I don’t know. The city already spends some money on security: a police officer attends each Lawrence City Commission meeting, and a bailiff is employed by the Lawrence Municipal Court.
If the city gets serious about installing metal detectors, there will be quite a few items to discuss. It probably would require the public entrances at City Hall to be changed significantly, since there are three ways for the public to enter City Hall. The city also could have a discussion about whether security officers — rather than fully sworn police officers — would be appropriate to staff the metal detectors. That may reduce the personnel cost for a security program.
And then there are city buildings such as the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence Arts Center that attract large crowds on a regular basis. How would they be secured and staffed?
Of course, the city always could have the discussion of whether any harm would come from allowing licensed individuals to carry a weapon in city buildings. According to the Kansas Attorney General’s office, it already is legal for concealed-carry permit holders to carry a weapon on various pieces of city property. Every city-owned park, for example, is a place where concealed-carry permit holders are entitled to have a weapon. “Parks, parking lots and other open public property" are no longer able to be restricted through signs, according to the Attorney General’s Web site. That didn’t always use to be the case, but the law was changed, I believe, during the 2010 legislative session.
City commissioners won’t be the only ones that get to have this fun. Douglas County also will have to go through the same exercise with its buildings, although it already has a metal detector for the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Public schools won’t have to install metal detectors under the new law. School officials can continue to post the "no gun" signs on school buildings, which will make it illegal for concealed-carry permit holders to bring a weapon into the building.
The changes keep on coming in the Lawrence Internet market.
The largest Internet service provider in Lawrence has just announced that it is removing all of its usage caps from its Internet service packages, as the company changes its name from Knology to WOW! That means customers no longer will be charged for going over their usage limits, according to a press release by the company.
Englewood, Colo.-based WOW purchased Knology back in July, but it had not converted Knology over to the WOW brand until today. Signs for the company around town are being changed today, according to WOW.
But the changes related to Internet usage caps are likely to garner more attention from hard-core Internet users. The caps had generated concern among many users because customers’ standard monthly rates could rise depending on how much Internet usage they had in a particular month.
The change in the cap policy comes at a time when both private and public officials have been talking about shaking up the city’s Internet service provider market.
A city-hired consultant recently completed a report that found that current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.” City officials had the report commissioned because they have been interested in possibly allowing private companies to have access to a growing ring of fiber optic cable owned by the city.
On the private front, Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband — formerly known as Lawrence Freenet — has made a proposal to the city to further tap into that ring of fiber. (Ring of Fiber: Johnny Cash used to sing that song in his old age.)
At their meeting tonight, city commissioners will receive a request from Wicked for low-cost fiber leases with the city, and a one-time $500,000 grant to help the company build new broadband infrastructure in the city. The request is part of a pilot project Wicked is launching to bring to one Lawrence neighborhood the same type of superfast Internet service that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. If successful, Wicked Broadband wants to extend the high-speed broadband project to all of the city.
So, we’ll see what cards the folks at WOW start playing in what appears to be an increasingly competitive game in Lawrence. Consumers, I suspect, will be keeping an eye on whether the competition starts having an impact on rates.
All we need now is John McEnroe, or absent that, somebody in white 1980s-style tennis shorts with an excitable personality.
Yes, we’re talking about the looming tennis court debate that will be coming to Lawrence City Hall. As we reported last week, city commissioners have decided to reopen the issue of whether eight tennis courts near Lawrence High School should be lighted.
At the time, however, we didn’t have a date for when the commissioners were to have a public hearing on the issue. Well, the commission now has a tentative hearing date of June 4, at its 6:35 p.m. meeting at City Hall.
There’s been one other development in the matter: The city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board brought up the issue of lighted tennis courts for the site, and it is clear recreation officials aren’t on board with the idea, largely because of concerns about cost.
In case you have forgotten, members of the Lawrence Tennis Association believe lights should be added to the courts to make up for lighted courts that were lost when LHS renovated its campus. Neighbors in the area have opposed the lighting plan, expressing concern that it will be just one more example of LHS facilities creating a neighborhood conflict. They think the light will spill onto their properties.
City officials already have agreed to build eight outdoor lighted tennis courts as part of the city’s recreation center in northwest Lawrence. Several city officials thought that put an end to the issue, but members of the tennis association said they still see value in having lighted courts in the LHS area.
But at a recent meeting, the top officials at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department said they couldn’t support the idea of lighting the LHS courts and building the eight lighted courts at the recreation center. Cost was one reason they cited. They now estimate the cost of installing lights at the courts — which are on the property of the former Centennial Elementary school — at about $240,000, if done in a way to minimize light spillage. When the project was first proposed a couple of years ago, the department was planning on spending about $100,000 to light the courts.
Plus, the city would have to enter into a maintenance agreement with the school district to help make any future repairs on the courts. Parks and Recreation officials aren’t sure they want to do that, because two of the courts already are showing signs of needing significant repair. Currently, all maintenance is the responsibility of the school district. (In case you are wondering why it wouldn’t be the school district’s responsibility to add lights to courts it owns, the answer is because the district says it doesn’t really need the lights for its high school programs. The lights mainly would accommodate city residents that use the courts.)
Members of the tennis association are passionate about the issue and well-organized. They also note that the needs in the area are changing because KU will be losing most of its public courts on campus when the new School of Business building is constructed.
So, we’ll see how the debate goes. Let the volleying begin.
It didn’t take long for the tales of tragedy in Moore, Okla., to cause at least one city leader to begin asking questions of whether Lawrence is adequately prepared for a similar natural disaster.
City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer raised questions at last night’s City Commission meeting about whether Lawrence’s building codes for public buildings, like schools, are adequate when it comes to providing shelter from tornadoes.
“I think it would behoove us to look at ways to make our school buildings safer,” Farmer said. “If we don’t, shame on us.”
Farmer's comments Tuesday night came after he first broached the subject on his Facebook page earlier in the day. From his page: “I understand that natural disasters happen. I understand that we have better things in place to enhance warnings. But if we parade children into a hallway and tell them to cover their necks with their hands, and an EF-5 comes rolling through town, it won't matter. It’s time we stop making excuses for lives being taken because we were too irresponsible to think outside of a box, or too cheap to make sure this NEVER happens again.
“Reinforced tunnels, underground schools. Something. Smarter people than me are thinking about this. We have to figure something out. Innocent lives being taken because we didn't act when we possessed the innovation to stop it is unacceptable to me.”
Commissioners asked Planning Director Scott McCullough to produce a report summarizing what Lawrence’s building codes require in the way of storm shelters in public buildings and whether there are feasible additions that could be made to the code.
I would look for that report in the next few weeks.
As for what is really possible, I don’t know. Lawrence Public Schools spokeswoman Julie Boyle told me Lawrence public schools don’t have FEMA designated safe rooms, but obviously they do have plans to locate students and staff to interior portions of the buildings, which are better designed to withstand severe weather.
We’ll see how much, if any, serious discussion the idea of stricter building standards gets at City Hall.
Tuesday’s discussion arose after Mayor Mike Dever asked whether the city was planning to send any personnel to the Oklahoma City area to assist with the devastation following this week’s tornado.
City Manager David Corliss said the city hadn’t yet been asked for any assistance, but he plans to spread an offer of assistance to public administration officials he knows in the Oklahoma City area.
“I certainly will make it clear that we are available to do that,” Corliss said.
Let the number games begin. As we’ve previously reported, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is set to debate a proposal by Menards to locate a new store adjacent to Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.
As we’ve also reported, one of the factors that planners are supposed to take into consideration when considering such large retail projects is the city’s retail vacancy rate.
But at the time Menards filed its plans with City Hall, the last time the city had conducted a retail vacancy rate study was in 2010.
Well, there are now new numbers. The city recently has completed its most recent Retail Market Report, which looks at vacancy rates as they were in December 2012. Here’s a look at some of the findings:
• Citywide, the retail vacancy rate was 7.2 percent, down from the 7.3 percent found in the city’s 2010 report and up from the 6.9 percent found in the 2006 report. In other words, there hasn’t been much change in the overall number.
• Downtown had a vacancy rate of 9.4 percent, up from 9.1 percent in 2010; South Iowa had a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, up from 2.7 percent; East 23rd had a vacancy rate of 10.4 percent, down from 13.6 percent; West 23rd Street had a vacancy rate of 6.1 percent, down from 6.7 percent.
• The 19th and Haskell area had the highest vacancy rate in the city at 30.2 percent. North Lawrence was second at 16.4 percent, although the numbers indicate a turnaround is happening in the area. In 2010, it had a vacancy rate of 27.5 percent.
• Turnarounds happened in a couple of other areas too. The Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa area has a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, down from 26.4 percent in 2010.
• The report also provides information about the type of retail uses in downtown. The report found 116 merchant-based retail businesses in downtown, which is down from 126 in 2006. Restaurant and beverage oriented uses grew to 83, up from 68 establishments, during the same time period.
The report is an interesting one for people who watch Lawrence’s commercial real estate market. Perhaps the most interesting part about it, though, is how different it is from a private report that was put together during roughly the same time period.
The Lawrence office of Colliers International released a report in January that measured vacancy rates for late 2012. It found an overall retail vacancy rate of 5.4 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in the city’s report.
In downtown, Colliers found a vacancy rate of 4.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent in the city report.
The differences, I believe, come down to the methodology of the two reports. I don’t know all the differences but I think a lot of it comes from how the two studies define retail space. For example, the city study counts some industrially zoned space as potential retail space because the city’s development code would allow for retail to be located in the space. Also, there are places like the former Riverfront Mall building. Whether that space is counted as retail space, which is what it was built for, or office space, which is how it is pretty much being marketed now, makes a difference in the vacancy rate calculations.
Vacancy rates: They’re like my kids saying they’ve “cleaned” their rooms. It is a subject where interpretations and definitions matter.
As far as the Menards project goes, we’ll see how much weight planners, and ultimately city commissioners, give to the vacancy rate subject.
The city’s comprehensive plan, Horizon 2020, says large retail projects shouldn’t be approved, if there is evidence the project will push the city’s overall retail vacancy rate above 8 percent.
If the 190,000 square foot Menards store and the 65,000 square feet of outlying parcels — restaurants and other smaller retailers surrounding the store — were built and then were entirely vacant, the city’s vacancy rate would rise to 9.7 percent. It would be odd, however, for Menards to build a store and then not occupy it, but technically that is the assumption city planners are supposed to make under the rules of Horizon 2020.
Several planning commissioners the last time they considered this issue, however, indicated concern with making that type of assumption. The city also is in the process of rewriting that portion of Horizon 2020, but those changes haven’t yet been made. So, it is possible that planners may discard the idea that they should assume the new Menards building will be vacant after it is built.
Staff members put together another calculation that shows what would happen if the Menards building is occupied but all of the 65,000 square feet of surrounding retail is vacant. The result would be the citywide vacancy rate would rise to 7.7 percent, which is still below the 8 percent threshold that Horizon 2020 says is critical.
So, we’ll see what comes of all this. I’m not sure how much this retail market study is going to play into the Menards decision, but this report likely will play into future debates about whether Lawrence has too much or too little retail space for a community its size.
The Menards discussion will take place at 6:30 tonight at City Hall.