I know in my household that the word “affordable” is one that can have varying definitions. For example, unlike some, I do not consider a 5 percent off coupon to the Coach store to be a de facto definition of the word. The extra large value bag of Doritos? No brainer. It says ‘value’ right on the bag. My struggles with the definition, though, are probably less important than the struggles city commissioners may soon have.
City Commissioner Matthew Herbert recently had an interesting post on his Facebook account about the issue of affordable housing. Herbert was the lone vote against a 50 percent tax rebate for a brewery/apartment project in East Lawrence’s Warehouse Arts District at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. The project included a provision that two of the 14 new apartment units would be set aside as qualified affordable housing units with a monthly rent of $840 a month.
The gist of Herbert’s post was: Since when is $840 a month the definition of affordable for a one-bedroom apartment? Herbert, who is a public school teacher, also owns a rental business. Herbert notes that he has apartment units all over the city, including just a couple of blocks from the East Lawrence site. He said none of his properties rent for $840 for a single bedroom.
“In fact, 100 percent of my properties are half that cost or less,” Herbert said in his post. “I don’t do that to the save the world. I do that because that is the market rate.”
Now, my understanding is Herbert is more in the house rental business than the apartment rental business, so rental rates might not quite be apples to apples, so take that for whatever you think it is worth.
However, there is a housing organization that does track rental rates for apartment units in the county. The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority lists 2016 fair market rent rates. The fair market rate for a 1-bedroom unit is $639, which also includes utilities.
So, Herbert may have a point. Why is an apartment that is about $200 above the fair market rent rate in the community considered affordable? One answer could be that because the other units in the East Lawrence project are expected to rent for $1,000 to $1,200 per month. That indeed would make the $840 unit a good deal; however, a good deal and affordable are not synonyms. I can point you to a closet full of purses and a lien on my house held by Coach to illustrate that point.
With the word “affordable” there is always the question: Affordable to whom? Different answers to that question may be what’s going on here. I talked briefly with Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. She sits on the city’s affordable housing task force, which recommended approval of the East Lawrence project.
She said the units could be considered affordable because it allowed someone who makes 60 percent of Douglas County’s median income to live in the apartment and not spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Technically, it takes a household of two people in order to do that. The median income for a single person household isn’t quite great enough to stay below the 30 percent threshold.
A key part of this though is that the person makes 60 percent of Douglas County’s median income. That is not the typical person that you think of as being part of an affordable housing program. At the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, the majority of their clients make 30 percent or less of the median income. In other words, these two units are for households that make about twice as much as the typical client at the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority.
“You can kind of see that we are talking about two different groups here,” Oury said.
Maybe that group of 60 percent earners also are facing an affordable housing issue. There does seem to be less evidence of that, though. Oury’s organization can point to a substantial waiting list of people at the 30 percent and below level who are seeking housing. A key question seems to be: What is the evidence that 60 percent earners are having difficulty finding an average one-bedroom apartment that rents for about $640 a month, or $750 a month, for that matter? Census data from 2014 estimated that nearly 40 percent of all rental units in Lawrence — that’s one bedrooms to four bedrooms and beyond — rent for $750 or less.
Maybe one bedroom units priced below $840 a month are in really tight supply, but near as I can tell, there is no report out there that estimates vacancy rates for that type of apartment.
This seems to be another reminder of just how complicated of an issue city officials are wading into with affordable housing.
Now, whether this means the city shouldn’t provide a tax rebate to the East Lawrence project is a different question. Hopefully the affordable housing component wasn’t too large of a factor in the city’s vote. After all, we’re talking about two units in a town that has about 40,000 housing units. You would have to do 20 of these projects a year for 10 consecutive years to even get to 1 percent of the city’s housing units. Presumably more than 1 percent of the city’s population is facing affordable housing problems.
Hopefully, city commissioners approved the incentives because they think the project will create good economic activity in an area that needs it, and that the project wouldn’t have happened without the incentive. If the the project results in a couple of rent-reduced apartments, then that’s icing on the cake.
What would be dangerous, though, is if commissioners are approving these projects thinking they are making a significant dent in Lawrence’s affordable housing issue. Both the number of units and their rent rates may suggest otherwise.
A familiar face at Lawrence City Hall may end up being the test case for new thinking about tax breaks for downtown residential projects. Former City Commissioner Bob Schumm has confirmed to me that he’s filed a request for tax breaks for a multi-story office/condo project he hopes to build on Vermont Street.
We’ve reported multiple times that Schumm has filed plans to build a five-story building on a pair of vacant lots in the 800 block of Vermont Street, just south of the old Headmasters salon building. Plans call for a ground floor of office space, and Schumm says he has a tentative deal for a bank to be the anchor tenant of that space. The second floor would house about 30 small, high-tech office spaces. The remaining floors would consist of 11 condos that Schumm would sell, and one top floor living space he plans to keep for himself.
Plans also call for 22 underground parking spaces. Schumm has said the underground parking garage likely would require him to seek some financial incentives from City Hall. Well, that incentive request has now been filed.
Schumm is seeking 10 years' worth of tax rebates under the Neighborhood Revitalization Act. The first five years would include an 85 percent tax rebate on the new tax value added to the property as a result of the project. In the final five years, the tax rebate would shrink to 50 percent. Schumm also is requesting industrial revenue bonds, which would allow him to receive an exemption from paying sales tax on about $2.8 million worth of construction materials for the project.
The request comes at an interesting time. City commissioners are considering a host of changes to the policies that govern financial incentives, especially those offered to residential projects. The city is seeking to draw a brighter line that it won’t offer tax breaks greater than 50 percent for residential projects. The commission is also considering a provision that would require such projects to have at least 10 percent of its units be rent-controlled to serve as affordable housing units.
That new policy isn’t in place currently, so technically Schumm’s project doesn’t have to meet the provisions. But that’s really just a technicality. Approving or rejecting a tax incentive is entirely discretionary on the part of the commission. Commissioners can set the amount of the tax incentive and the terms however a majority of them choose.
So, it will be interesting to see what type of incentive package this commission thinks a major downtown development should receive. Most of the other downtown development projects that have received incentives were approved by the previous city commission.
Schumm says his project has a strong argument for public incentives. It can be summed up in one word: Parking. Schumm says he has received bids for the underground parking garage. They have come in at about $1.1 million for the 22 spaces of parking. Schumm says it is clear to him that he can’t pass along the cost of the parking spaces — about $52,000 a stall — to the owners of the condos. In the Lawrence real estate market, people simply don’t pay that much for parking, he said.
“The thing is, nobody wants to pay for parking,” Schumm said. “And in downtown, there is no requirement to provide parking, but the city wants you to provide parking.”
That is where things get really interesting. Schumm is correct that downtown zoning does not require projects to provide any off-street parking. The city decades ago — like many cities — decided public parking spaces would serve downtown.
But downtown has changed over the years, and the city is urging more residential projects in downtown. As more people live in downtown, more of a strain gets put on the public parking supply. Developers have said they they’re willing to put in in their own private, below-ground parking garages to accommodate some of the new parking demand they are creating. But they often say they can’t put in the parking and still have a financially-viable project without some assistance from the city.
That’s where this project stands. Schumm knows the drill well. He’s been a downtown businessman since the 1970s, and until he lost his re-election bid last year, he was one of the longer serving city commissioners in the community.
Schumm says he thinks he has a strong case to get the incentives, but if he doesn’t, the project could still proceed under a different path. He could change the development from one that has condos to one that has apartments. By doing that, he thinks he could eliminate the below-ground parking garage. In other words, he’s confident that renters will be willing to hunt and peck for a parking spot in nearby public parking lots, but condo owners likely will expect a dedicated spot. Lawrence developer Doug Compton is already making that bet. He’s adding apartment units to the former Pachamamas building at Eighth and New Hampshire, and he’s not adding any private parking spaces.
“I’m confident he’s not going to have a problem renting those units,” Schumm said.
Schumm said he’s confident he could rent apartment units too. His proposed project is right across the street from a large, public parking lot, and it is only a short block away from the new public parking garage at the library. Schumm notes that as a downtown property owner, he’s already paying a special assessment on his property tax bill to pay for a portion of that new parking garage.
“I wouldn’t feel bad about using the garage,” Schumm said.
And perhaps he shouldn’t feel bad about it. Did commissioners build the garage only for certain types of parkers to use, such as library patrons or people using the nearby municipal swimming pool? I’m not sure that they did. But parking is in high demand at times in downtown. If residents of downtown are taking larger amounts of public parking, that will make it more difficult for visitors to find parking, and that could have ramifications.
That’s the type of tradeoff that commissioners have to weigh.
As for the affordable housing component, Schumm said his project doesn’t have any plans to set aside units for affordable housing stock. He noted most of the City Hall talk with affordable housing has been focused on rental units, and his project doesn’t call for any rentals. He said if such a requirement is put on his project, he’ll try to meet it. But he said it probably would require a greater incentive in order for the project to pencil out. As it is currently planned, Schumm said the condo units are projected to be marketed at $275 per square foot, or about $275,000 for a 1,000 square foot condo.
Schumm has been following this closely. He has even went up to Iowa City, where new City Manager Tom Markus came from. He’s talked to developers up there, and quickly learned that developers in Iowa City had figured out how to make a similar affordable housing requirement work because they received large incentive packages, often times significantly larger than what has been offered in Lawrence.
I think that is a point that hasn’t quite got full discussion yet in Lawrence: If Lawrence wants to require affordable housing in projects, does it need to increase the amount of incentives it has historically offered?
For those of you who have been following along with City Hall reporter Nikki Wentling’s series on affordable housing, there have been signs that Markus thinks that discussion needs to be had too.
“Our incentives packages tend to be pretty conservative [in Lawrence],” Markus said in an article earlier this month. So, that too will be interesting to watch.
Schumm said he is hoping that through all of this, city commissioners remember the importance of having people living in downtown. Schumm said he’s become convinced new living units in downtown are the primary factor that will protect downtown from increased competition of new development on the edge of the city.
“The pressure from development on the periphery will never end,” Schumm said. “The way to take care of downtown for the longterm is to ensure people are living here. Then you have people here 24 hours a day, and that will bring in the different mix of retailers to downtown.”
We’ll keep you updated on Schumm’s incentive request. City commissioners will receive it soon, but won’t act on it right away. It will go to city staff and also to the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee for a recommendation before it is voted on by city commissioners.
New sandwich shop coming to southern Lawrence; car dealership buys property along south Iowa Street; advocate to sell KU versus Kentucky basketball tickets to raise money for affordable housing
There’s a new sandwich chain coming to south Iowa Street, and I’ll be honest, it has me worrying about my penmanship. The sandwich chain Which Wich is coming to a shopping center near 26th and Iowa streets, and will bring its unique concept that involves customers writing out their own orders with a Sharpie.
Which Wich is going into the Tower Plaza property, the shopping center that includes First Watch and that is next door to Applebee's on south Iowa. In recent weeks, we’ve reported that and the quick order pizza shop Pie Five also are going into the center, which currently is undergoing a major renovation.
Which Wich is a sandwich chain that got started in Dallas in 2003 and has been growing rapidly ever since. The company makes sub sandwiches but does so in a way that's a bit different from, for example, Subway. Customers go to a wall that is full of empty bags. Each bag has a different number that corresponds to a broad category, such as ham, beef, chicken, seafood, vegetarian, Italian and other types of sandwiches.
Then, you take a Sharpie pen and start marking up the bag with your specific sandwich instructions, like your choice of toppings and such. This part excites me because, for reasons we don’t need to get into at the moment, I am specifically prohibited from possessing a Sharpie at home. The process ends by you marking your name on the bag, taking it to the counter and then waiting for your name to be called. This part concerns me because I doubt the restaurant will have a specialist in hieroglyphics on staff, which many a member of the Journal-World newsroom will tell you is a necessity if you hope to read my handwriting.
After you're done eating your sandwich, the restaurant encourages you to keep playing with the Sharpie by drawing on the back of your sandwich bag and then hanging it up in special part of the store. (Warning: Sharpies use permanent ink, or something pretty close to it. There’s a year’s worth of photos of me wearing a stocking cap pulled low over my forehead to prove it.)
As for the sandwiches, the company’s website indicates there are lot of options to choose from. There are Hawaiian and Cuban style ham sandwiches, barbecue pork sandwiches, cheesesteaks, corned beef, reuben, chicken parmesan, muffulettas, gyros, five different styles of Italian sub sandwiches, and some more unique offerings such as an Elvis Wich, which includes peanut butter, bacon, honey and bananas, and a Monte Cristo, which is ham, turkey, grape jelly and a sprinkling of powdered sugar.
The company also offers a speciality sandwich called the Wicked, which features five different meats. The restaurant gained some national notoriety in 2010 when a customer dislocated his jaw when trying to bite into a double-meat version of the Wicked sandwich. (I believe the Sharpie came in particularly handy then. I think he wrote 9-1-1 on his forehead, but I might have that confused with another incident.)
The restaurant also offers breakfast sandwiches and serves malts and milkshakes. The restaurant will be the company’s first in Lawrence. It has opened restaurants in Emporia and Manhattan, and has one in the Wesport district of Kansas City, Mo.
A sign has gone up announcing the restaurant is coming to Tower Plaza, but I don’t have a timeline on when to expect an opening.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It is time to keep an eye on the south Iowa Street property that houses Advanced Homecare/Breathe Oxygen & Medical Supply. A company led by the owner of the Briggs Auto Group recently has purchased the Breathe property at 2851 Iowa St. and 2101 W. 28th Terrace, according to land records at the Douglas County Courthouse.
Those two properties are right in the heart of the Lawrence Auto Plaza, where Briggs currently operates a number of dealerships. I called Briggs’ headquarters in Manhattan. A spokeswoman there confirmed the purchase but said details on what the company plans to do with the property aren’t yet ready to be released. But she said Russell Briggs, owner of the auto group, did say “something is in the air,” and he plans to share more information in the coming weeks.
The Breathe Oxygen & Medical Supply store remains open at the location. A company official with Breathe didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
It will be interesting to watch what Briggs has in mind for the property, which has high visibility from south Iowa Street. In recent years, Briggs has spent millions of dollars renovating and updating its existing dealership locations in Lawrence.
• Speaking of spending millions of dollars, that probably will be the case when the Kentucky basketball team comes to town to take on the Jayhawks on Jan. 30 at Allen Fieldhouse. (I figure we’ll spend $1 million alone just buying enough film to make sure we capture all the antics of Kentucky super fan Ashley Judd.)
Well, one Lawrence resident is wanting to make sure some of that money for the big game goes towards helping solve the community’s affordable housing problem. Steve Ozark, an owner of a Lawrence-based talent company and a longtime advocate for the homeless and affordable housing, is donating his two tickets to the KU-Kentucky basketball game for the local nonprofit Tenants to Homeowners to sell. Ozark said 100 percent of the money raised through the sale of the tickets will be given to the city of Lawrence’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which just recently received a new board of directors appointed by the city.
The board is in the early stages of coming up with an idea for a pilot project that could demonstrate how the community can offer more affordable housing options.
“I figured the biggest rematch at Allen Fieldhouse in modern history would be an opportunity to draw attention to the shortage of affordable housing in Lawrence and the need for a dedicated revenue source for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund,” Ozark said via email.
The city’s trust fund has dwindled to about $100,000, in part because the City Commission hasn’t determined a dedicated revenue stream for the fund.
As for the basketball tickets, the pair of tickets will go on eBay tonight at 9 p.m., and bidding will last through 9 p.m. Jan. 24. You can find out the specifics about the tickets and get to the appropriate location to bid by searching "KU/KY Basketball Tickets" on eBay's homepage.
There’s no telling how much the tickets may bring. The KU vs Kentucky game is definitely a hot ticket. Tickets on the reselling site StubHub start at about $500 and quickly go up from there. There are several tickets for sale at $3,000 and above. There are even 12 tickets for sale in the center G section of Allen Fieldhouse — right near the floor — that are priced at $27,000 apiece.
Lawrence lands on more national lists; a bike repair station at City Hall; details on city’s latest affordable housing project
I am woefully behind on telling you how much other people like us. In short: Quite a lot. That’s my way of saying that Lawrence and some Lawrence businesses have landed on more national lists.
We’ll start in the world of restaurants. The travel website The Culture Trip has put together a list of the “10 Best Restaurants in Kansas.” Downtown Lawrence is home to four of the 10. This is a sign of one of two things: 1. Downtown Lawrence truly is the culinary capital of Kansas. 2. A Culture Trip editor had one too many Ad Astra Ales at Free State and never made it to any other city. (Raise your hand if that has happened to you.)
Regardless, Free State Brewery is on the list. The article also touts The Burger Stand, 715 Restaurant and Merchants Pub and Plate. Restaurants in Manhattan, Council Grove, Wichita, and Kansas City all made the list as well. The one that sounded the most interesting, though, was in Assaria, a town of about 400 people in Saline County. The Renaissance Cafe operates in the former Assaria High School. According to the article, tables are arranged on the old gym floor, and stocked bookshelves are a fixture of the restaurant. Hopefully, it still has a place to hang up heavily adorned letter jackets because this sounds like a place I need to visit.
In terms of Lawrence’s other ranking, the website CollegeRanker has Lawrence ranked as No. 2 on its 50 Best College Towns to Live in Forever. I suspect this also has something to do with Free State beer, although the article doesn’t own up to it. Instead, it lists Lawrence’s thriving music scene, and mentioned a 2007 ranking that listed The Replay Lounge as one of the top 25 bars in America. When you are talking about forever, it is very important to have a good bar nearby.
Manhattan also made the list at No. 26. I’m not really sure what criteria was used to rank these towns, but Lawrence finished one spot ahead of Ft. Collins, Colo., and one spot behind our arch rival . . . St. Augustine, Fla., home to Flagler College.
In other news and notes around town:
• If I were creating a list of the best places to get a flat tire on your bike in Lawrence (I know, there’s already an online list for that, but play along), Lawrence City Hall would be near the top of it. Why? Because the city has recently installed a bicycle repair station outside the east entrance.
In case you think I’m jesting, here's a picture.
The repair station has several hand tools secured via cables. Tightening a loose nut or making chain repairs, brake adjustments and that sort of thing can be done at the bike station. It also has an air pump, and despite it being located at City Hall, it does not dispense hot air. (Calm down, people. It’s all right. I’m sure politicians make good-natured jokes about journalists from time to time.)
The bike repair station is actually something to keep an eye on. There has been a lot of talk about making Lawrence more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. This bike station is meant as a pilot project. City staff members will monitor use and feedback from the bicycle community. If bikers find it useful, there may be others installed along frequent bike routes and trails.
• Another big topic in the city is affordable housing and attracting retirees. Commissioners at their meeting Tuesday night provided a boost to both efforts. As we reported, the city provided about $100,000 in incentives via fee rebates and some in-kind infrastructure work for Tenants to Homeowners’ Cedarwood Senior Cottages project at 2525 Cedarwood Ave. in south Lawrence.
Now that the project has the key city approval, Rebecca Buford, executive director of the not-for-profit Tenants to Homeowners, said she hopes the 14-unit townhome project will be ready for tenants this time next year. Dirt work already has begun on the site, which is behind the United Way building.
Buford also gave me some details about rent rates. Nine units will serve low-income seniors, and they’ll rent from $527 to $687 per month, depending on whether it is a one-bedroom or two-bedroom unit. Five units will be reserved for low-to-moderate income seniors, and they’ll rent for about $795 per month.
Buford estimates that the units — which have garages, front and back porches, fiber optic wiring, a community center and shared gardens — will rent for about $200 to $300 less than standard market rates in Lawrence.
Seniors will have to meet income guidelines to qualify. Buford said her organization is putting together an information packet for prospective tenants, but already she has a list of more than 50 people who are interested. If you want to be added to the list, call the Tenants to Homeowners office at 842-5494.
Buford said she hopes the Cedarwood Project will serve as template for Tenants to Homeowners to build other such senior, affordable housing in other neighborhoods.
“The demand for this type of housing is very strong,” Buford said.
Topeka-based financial services company moving headquarters to west Lawrence; city moving ahead with ice rink; new affordable housing coalition forms
I've gotten word that a Topeka-based financial services company is moving its corporate offices and about 35 well-paying jobs to Lawrence.
Personalized Brokerage Services is moving into about 8,000 square feet of space at the Wakarusa Corporate Centre near 18th and Wakarusa Drive in west Lawrence. Renovation of the space is nearly complete, and the company is expected to move in next week, said Randy Goldsmith, the commercial real estate agent with CB Richard Ellis who brokered the deal on behalf of the Corporate Centre's ownership group.
Personalized Brokerage Services — or PBS as it frequently brands itself — is part of Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, which in turn is part of Allianz SE, which operates the PIMCO fund and other large financial institutions.
PBS is a company that provides a host of business services to independent financial services companies. According to online job listings for PBS, the company offers advertising, public relations, media planning, interactive design, lead generation, strategic planning and several other services to independent brokers and others in the financial services industry.
It looks like the company has been in business for about 25 years. I've got a call into the company to try to find out more information about the pending move.
Goldsmith said the company began looking at moving to Lawrence because it had several employees who lived in Lawrence and Kansas City. In Topeka, the company was based in an office park near Wanamaker Road and Interstate 70.
"It will be a good company for Lawrence," Goldsmith said. "There is no doubt about that."
The deal also is another sign of renewed momentum for the Wakarusa Corporate Center. If you remember more than a decade ago, the Wakarusa Corporate Centre was planned to be about a 300,000 square-foot office development with four buildings on a campus-like setting. Only the first building was ever constructed, and office demand in Lawrence ended up being weaker than expected. But in recent years, the building has been successful in attracting some larger companies, particularly some companies looking to move from Topeka to Lawrence.
The Corporate Centre's other large tenant is Great American Insurance, a crop insurance company that moved about 60 employees from Topeka to Lawrence in 2007. That deal was brokered by Lawrence businessman Greg DiVilibiss, who was a leader of the former ownership group that developed the center and still owns much of the vacant ground around the office building.
Goldsmith said the building is now 88 percent leased, and he's in discussions on some other deals to fill the remaining space.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As I mentioned, PBS is part of the insurance behemoth Allianz, and it is looking more likely that I'm going to need to update my insurance policies. Why? Two words: Ice skates.
The idea of a seasonal, outdoor ice skating rink in downtown Lawrence is moving closer to reality. Officials with Lawrence Parks and Recreation have told me they have won approval from the board of the Lawrence Public Library to proceed with plans for a seasonal rink that would operate in the plaza area between the expanded library and the new city-owned parking garage.
Now, parks and recreation leaders just need to get city commissioners to approve what is expected to be up to $130,000 in expenditures to purchase the necessary equipment for the rink. We first reported on the idea in December, and noted that it had some good support from City Manager David Corliss, who is interested in finding ways to draw more people to downtown during the winter shopping season.
But we subsequently reported that library leaders had some concerns. Recently, though, architects have completed conceptual plans for the plaza area between the library and the parking garage, and were able to show how the ice rink could fit into the space and still leave lots of rooms for other uses in the area.
Ernie Shaw, the city's director of parks and recreation, said current plans are for the ice rink to be in place from about Thanksgiving to New Year's. The city hopes to find a corporate sponsor for the rink, and also would charge an admission fee to skaters. The department is planning to hold down operating costs by using artificial ice, which cuts down on the energy bills needed for refrigeration of a traditional rink.
Shaw said Gladstone, Mo. operates a community rink with artificial ice, and reviews of the surface have been good there and elsewhere that it is used.
The Lawrence rink, which is proposed to be 60 feet by 80 feet, would be on one of three large terraces planned for the plaza area. The rink would be on the terrace closest to Vermont Street, and would be in front of a large bank of windows in the library.
"If they wanted, parents could sit in the library and look out over the ice rink while their kids skated," Shaw said.
As for the plaza area, Shaw said he thinks there is a lot of potential for unique events.The plaza area could easily accommodate more than 200 people, Shaw said. The system of three terraces will create a kind of a natural amphitheater to host performances. Shaw said architects are designing the area with plenty of electrical connections to accommodate the needs of bands and other performers. The adjacent parking garage also was built with public restrooms designed to serve events taking place at the plaza.
"The area is not going to accommodate concerts of 10,000 people or anything like that, but it is going to be a nice area for a variety of events," Shaw said.
Shaw said the Lawrence Public Library always will have first opportunity to book events for the plaza area, but he said the parks and recreation department will maintain the area and will operate a booking system for the plaza.
Shaw said he hopes to have information to present to city commissioners about the ice rink within the next one to two months. He said the department's goal is to have the rink in place for the 2014 holiday season.
• If you are interested in the issue of affordable housing in Lawrence, there's an event this evening (Wednesday, May 14) that may interest you. A new group called the Lawrence Affordable Housing Coalition is meeting at 7 p.m. in the conference room of the Sandbar Subs/Peoples bank building at Eighth and New Hampshire streets.
The group is being led by Robert Baker of Lawrence's Tenants to Homeowners, and Leslie Soden, a former Lawrence City Commission candidate and East Lawrence neighborhood leader.
The idea of a lack of affordable housing in Lawrence was an issue you heard a lot about in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, the issue hasn't gotten as much discussion, but Soden told me it deserves more attention.
The coalition took note of a recent Journal-World article that reported federal figures found Lawrence to be the most expensive city in the state to live, because of its high housing prices and relatively low incomes. The coalition also has been doing its own research. It estimates Lawrence renters in an average two-bedroom apartment would need to have jobs that pay at least $16.54 per hour in order to avoid spending more than 30 percent of their monthly incomes on housing.
Some cities — see a recent plan by New York City – have been using new government regulations to encourage more affordable housing. Soden said she doesn't have any specific solutions she is pushing for as part of the coalition's work. Instead, she said the first few meetings of the group will be designed to set some goals and figure out a more specific mission for the new organization.
More LJWorld City Coverage
Signs indicate Freebirds Burrito has closed downtown Lawrence location; new plan emerges for affordable housing near 23rd and O’Connell
The free bird has perhaps decided to fly away. There's a new sign hanging from the window of the Freebirds World Burrito in downtown Lawrence that indicates the restaurant has closed.
The sign came to my attention yesterday, and I've been trying to get in touch with the restaurant's spokeswoman ever since, but with no luck. The sign apologizes for the inconvenience and reads, "Freebirds has closed indefinitely in Lawrence. Please come visit our other locations in Kansas City."
Make of that what you will. That's the thing about indefinitely. It is just not definite enough for my tastes. But assuming that the restaurant's run in Lawrence is over, it is a bit of an unexpected departure. The restaurant — which served a variety of burritos, tacos, adult beverages and the like — opened its doors in late January of 2013.
Freebirds went into a big space — the former Maurices clothing store — that had sat vacant for a long time after the clothing retailer moved to South Iowa Street. It sure looked like Freebirds spent some good money to renovate about two-thirds of the space. The other third was put up for lease, but a tenant hasn't yet been found. If Freebirds is done, then downtown Lawrence once again has one of its larger Massachusetts Street storefronts sitting vacant.
It will be interesting to watch. The space sat vacant for about three years after Maurices left downtown Lawrence in 2009. The economy was much different back then, so who knows what the prospects for the building may be now. Although I haven't heard any rumblings, I suppose it is possible Freebirds is leaving because someone has expressed interest in the entire Maurices space.
I'll keep my ears open for news on the space. In the meantime, it is probably best that we all remember the words of a famous poet — who we have forgotten the name of — who wrote: Set the bird free. If it is true love, it shall return. Or something like that.
For those of you who loved Freebirds, I'm not sure where that leaves you. I guess, watch the sky for a bird with an overstuffed burrito hanging from its beak.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The idea of Lawrence becoming home to senior citizens and retirees continues to be a strong one. An Olathe senior housing company has confirmed it is trying to put together a deal for a 90-unit senior living community near 25th Terrace and O'Connell Road in southeast Lawrence.
The proposed developer is Wheatland Investments, which has about 500 apartment units across the region, according to a letter from its managers, David and Suzanne Rhodes.
The project isn't a done deal, however. In addition to needing the necessary city approvals, it also is competing for affordable housing tax credits from the state. Without those tax credits, I would guess the project may have to go back to the drawing board. The credits would make the apartments rent controlled, and would mean that tenants would have to meet some income guidelines.
The credits also can be used to provide housing for low income individuals, but, according to the letter, Wheatland is interested in making the project exclusively for senior citizens 55-years and older. The concept plan calls for 15 buildings, each housing six garden/ranch style apartments. The project would be spread out over nine acres near the intersection.
Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting tonight will receive a request from the developers to issue Industrial Revenue Bonds, which would qualify the approximately $8 million project for a property tax abatement. But commissioners aren't being asked to approve the request tonight. Instead, they're being asked to send the request to city staff members for review and analysis.
The site is just south of of the proposed site for another affordable housing project. As we previously have reported, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has been working on a partnership with a group led by Lawrence businessman Bill Newsome to develop an approximately $15 million affordable housing project for working families.
But Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, told me this morning that project has suffered a setback. Interest rates have risen, and that has created complications for the financing of the project.
"We're in a situation of reevaluating how we make that work," Oury said.
She said the group didn't have a timeline for determining when or if that project would move forward.
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If Lawrence really wants to become a destination for retirees, Rebecca Buford, executive director of Lawrence's Tenants to Homeowners, believes there is an issue community leaders might want to think about: an affordable place for retirees to live.
"If we really want seniors to come live here, we should think about this," Buford said. "We don't want them locking up all their money in housing. We want them to have money available to spend in Lawrence."
Buford and her not-for-profit agency have filed plans to build a 14-unit, rent-controlled, senior living housing development on property just behind the United Way building in south Lawrence.
Tenants to Homeowners has filed a request to rezone about 2 acres of vacant property at 2518 Ridge Court to RM-12 multi-family zoning. The property currently is zoned for RS-7 single family development.
Buford said concept plans call for the property to be developed with a mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom townhouses that will be limited to seniors 55 and older.
Buford said a group of retirees or soon-to-be retirees approached Tenants to Homeowners about the project, saying that Lawrence needed more retirement housing that "felt like a neighborhood instead of a high-rise apartment complex."
Buford said current plans call for Tenants to Homeowners to rent the properties to seniors rather than sell the townhouses. Buford said feedback from several retirees indicated they would rather rent than own.
"Seniors don't want to lock all their equity up into their homes," Buford said. "They usually need access to their equity for health care and other expenses."
The units will rent for below-market rates, and seniors must meet certain income guidelines to qualify for a unit. Buford said the project will be geared at those seniors who make 80 percent or less of the area's median income. For a family size of two, that means an annual income of $45,350 or less.
The property currently is owned by Douglas County. It was part of the old Valley View Nursing Home that the county operated decades ago. Buford said plans call for the county to donate the property to Tenants to Homeowners, which will help the project offer below-market rates. Buford said she also is working to secure grants and other financing for the approximately $2 million project.
If the City Hall land use approvals come through in a timely fashion, Buford hopes to break ground next spring and be ready to open by late 2014.
Buford acknowledges the project may face opposition from a few neighbors, which is often the case when vacant ground in an established neighborhood is proposed to be developed. This one comes with the added hurdle that Tenants to Homeowners is asking for a zoning category that often is used to build apartments. But Buford said Tenants to Homeowners is committed to the idea of townhouse development rather than a traditional apartment complex. And she said the development will place restrictions on the land to ensure that it always remains limited to senior housing.
But this may be one project that hits City Hall with a lot of momentum. It is combining two trends that have been getting a lot of talk locally: affordable housing and attracting retirees. There was an entire joint city-county task force on attracting retirees to the city.
And this is the third affordable housing project to surface in recent months, joining the public-private proposal by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority at 23rd and O'Connell, and plans for a new four-story development near the Poehler Lofts building in East Lawrence. By the way, Buford confirmed to me that Tenants to Homeowners has agreed to be a partner in that project, which will feature 43 units in a newly-constructed building at the southeast corner of Ninth and Delaware streets.