Posts tagged with Affordable Housing

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.

A new bike repair station is shown near the east entrance of City Hall.

A new bike repair station is shown near the east entrance of City Hall.

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.

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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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