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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.

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    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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    Tenants to Homeowners files plans for independent, senior living project in south Lawrence

    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.

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