Cost of affordable housing project likely to be debated again; update on senior living project; Downtown Lawrence Inc. launches new gift card program
This is the season where I’m reminded that we definitely can have differences of opinion about the idea of what’s affordable. (This is also the season where I’m reminded that the First Amendment protects my right to have an opinion, but does nothing to keep me warm while sleeping in the garage.) All this is to say that a difference of opinion may be brewing again on an issue related to an affordable housing project.
I’ve seen a city memo that indicates city commissioners next week once again will consider allowing the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority to purchase a six-unit apartment building at 1725 New Hampshire St., near Dillons, to convert into rent-controlled housing units.
If you remember, the City Commission was asked to approve the purchase this summer, but a majority of commissioners balked because they thought the $485,000 purchase price was too high. The county had the property appraised at about $180,000.
Commissioners asked the Housing Authority to get a private appraisal of the property done. That appraisal has been completed and it comes back with a value of $290,000, based on it being used as a residential property.
The proposed purchase price of the property, however, hasn’t changed from the $485,000 mark, and the Housing Authority still wants to buy the property.
A couple of things to keep in mind here: The Housing Authority is not seeking city tax dollars to buy the property. The authority has reserve funds that it gets either from federal programs or that it accumulates through rental income of its other properties. But, with the way the authority is structured, city commissioners have to sign off on any purchase of real estate made by the authority, even though city tax dollars aren’t involved.
A second point to keep in mind is the location of the property. It shares a property line with the Dillons store on Massachusetts Street. The apartment complex easily could be demolished, and Dillons could use the property for additional parking. Rob Farha, who leads the local group that owns the property, has told me Dillons has a strong interest in purchasing the property. Farha’s preference — it seems — is to keep the property residential, but he’s not willing to take significantly less than what Dillons may pay for the property.
So, commissioners find themselves with an interesting question: Do you allow the Housing Authority to essentially overpay to get more affordable housing units in its program? The Housing Authority has made several points about why it believes the property is worth the money.
— The property is adjacent to Babcock Place, a large apartment complex already owned by the authority. The maintenance staff at Babcock will be able to maintain the property. If the authority were to buy a similar property elsewhere in town, it may have to add a new maintenance staff member to care for it.
— Residents of the six-unit apartment complex may be able to use some of the amenities — like a computer lab — that are available at adjacent Babcock Place.
— Owning the property may allow for the Babcock Place parking lot to be reconfigured and reduce the number of Babcock residents that are currently parking on neighborhood streets.
— The apartment building’s location next to Dillons and other services would be beneficial to low-income residents that would live in the apartment building.
If allowed to purchase the property, the Housing Authority hopes to work out a deal with KVC Health Systems and the Department for Children and Families that would allow youth who are aging out of the foster care program to live in the apartments. The Housing Authority is proposing to charge rents that range from $300 to $600 a month, depending on the income levels of the tenants.
The request comes at an interesting time. The commission is hearing more about the issue of affordable housing. The faith-based group Justice Matters is still actively calling for more to be done on the issue, the city has appointed a task force on affordable housing, and talk of a demonstration project to prove what could be done with city resources is underway.
This project at six units isn’t that large, but it may serve as a bit of a test to determine what commissioners are willing to do to add more rent-controlled units to the community’s affordable housing inventory. The past commission seemed pretty willing to provide incentives or make other accommodations for affordable housing projects. The most prominent projects have been in the Warehouse Arts District, where the past commission provided more than $1.2 million worth of infrastructure improvements to assist the Poehler Lofts and the 9 Del Loft projects, which both are rent-controlled affordable housing projects. The projects also have received some property tax rebates.
Commissioners are tentatively scheduled to discuss the latest request from the Housing Authority at the Dec. 15 City Commission meeting.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Some of you have asked me about the construction work that is underway behind the United Way building. As we previously have reported, that’s also an affordable housing project.
Tenants to Homeowners is constructing 14 living units that will be rent-controlled units available seniors who meet the necessary income guidelines. When I last checked with Tenants to Homeowners a few weeks ago, the project was going well. They hoped to have six of the units ready for occupancy by about March and the other eight ready by June.
Rents will range from $545 to $795 per month, depending on the income of the tenants.
The project — which is called Cedarwood Senior Cottages — is at 25th and Cedarwood. It is being built on a 2.2 acre site that Douglas County previously owned. In addition to the cottages, the approximately $2.3 million project also will include a small community center that will host a new piece of technology that will allow for residents to meet with their physicians via broadband connections. In other words, it will be telemedicine in action.
• If I don’t start getting some holiday gifts bought, even telemedicine won’t be able to save me. Well, there is news of a new gift card program in Downtown Lawrence. Members of Downtown Lawrence Inc. have launched a new program that allows them to replace their old paper gift certificates with plastic gift cards like you find from most major retailers these days.
Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said Downtown Lawrence Inc. traditionally sells more than $100,000 in gift certificates each year. But the association has been looking for a way to make the program more efficient. With the old paper certificate, when shoppers redeemed the certificate, any unused amount was returned to the shopper in dollars and cents. That meant that money may not end up getting spent in Downtown Lawrence. The new card program, much like at any other retailer — keeps the unused balance on the card, meaning that money will have to be spent at participating retailers. The cards can be redeemed at more than 100 downtown businesses, Zogry said.
A fellow can see lots of unusual things in downtown Lawrence: A honk for hemp guy; a gauntlet of street musicians of varying skill levels; and occasionally — thankfully — a man who walks around in nothing but a full-body suit of Spandex. (Please tell me I’m not the only person who has seen that.)
But have you seen the new downtown machine that can light up 400, incandescent 100-watt light bulbs all at once? Chances are you haven’t, unless for some reason you spend time on the roofs of downtown businesses. As we previously reported, downtown landlords David and Susan Millstein had a plan to put solar panels on their Liberty Hall and Sunflower Outdoor buildings in downtown.
Well, that plan has materialized. There are now about 200 solar panels on the roof of Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St., and about 65 on the roof of Sunflower, 804 Massachusetts St. Look if you want, but the panels aren’t visible from the street. If all goes well, the solar panels are scheduled to start producing electricity today.
The folks at Lawrence-based Cromwell Environmental helped with the installation. Chris Rogge, director of solar design for Cromwell, said one way to look at the installation is that the system will generate enough power to light about 400, 100-watt incandescent light bulbs. (But, of course, you would have to be some sort of environmental heretic if you are still using incandescent light bulbs, right?)
Another way to look at it, though, is that the system will produce about $5,000 worth of electricity per year, Rogge said. And that’s based on the price of electricity today. Each year, the value of that electricity is going to increase. (Unless you think the power companies are suddenly going to lower their rates, in which case, you’ve perhaps stuck your finger in the light socket one too many times.)
Kansas now has a law stating that businesses or residents can install solar panel systems, and the electric provider in the region must buy back the electricity it produces. In other words, your monthly utility bill is offset by the amount of electricity the solar panel system produces.
Lawrence has become a bit of a hotspot for solar projects. The Poehler Lofts building near Eighth and Pennsylvania streets has an entire roof full of the panels, and the new Hy-Vee convenience store along Clinton Parkway also has solar panels on its roof.
But this project is a first for downtown Lawrence. I haven’t yet talked to the Millsteins to find out whether their experience with it leads them to believe that other landlords may follow their lead.
I know the Bowersock hydroelectric power plant expansion on the northern edge of downtown has caused some people to think about how Lawrence can better promote itself as a standout in the green energy field. Having Massachusetts Street lined with solar panels may be part of a strategy.
Or we could all just start wearing green, full-body Spandex suits.
UPDATE: I chatted today with David Millstein about the installation of the solar panels. He's estimating that the system will break even in about seven years. He's hoping that the system will reduce his energy bills by 20 percent to 30 percent.
He also hopes that in a few years he'll be able to report some success back to other downtown landlords who then will give the solar systems a try. Millstein said he's been looking at the idea of solar energy since at least the mid-1990s.
"Back then the price was so prohibitive," Millstein said. "It was like a 29-year payback, and the panel only lasted like 20 years."
But as technology has improved and prices have dropped, Millstein said he started looking at the project again because the environmental appeal of solar power has always stuck with him.
"Essentially, if you scratch an old hippie, there is a solar panel under there somewhere," he said.
I wonder if Lawrence businessman Doug Compton is becoming the E.F. Hutton of downtown Lawrence.
Oh, what’s that? You don’t remember popular television commercials from the 1970s? (My understanding is that there are large swaths of Lawrence’s population who lived through the 1970s but for some reason don’t remember them.)
Anyway, E.F. Hutton was a prominent investment firm that ran television commercials with the tag line: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”
Given that Compton, and groups that he leads, are spending tens of millions of dollars to remake the intersection of Ninth and New Hampshire with multi-story buildings, it is feasible to think that when Doug Compton talks about downtown, people are listening.
If so, here’s a statement you may want to take notice of: “It would be great to have a convention center in downtown Lawrence,” Compton said. “I would love to see that.”
Compton last week was answering a question as part of a panel hosted by the Lawrence commercial real estate office of Colliers International. Compton was answering a question about what he would like to see in downtown Lawrence in the future.
He didn’t go into any detail about a downtown convention center, such as how large it should be or where it should be located. There are no Lawrence convention center plans on the front burner at Lawrence City Hall that I’m aware of, but it is easy to see how the idea could get some discussion in the foreseeable future. When Compton’s group completes his Marriott hotel project at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, there will be three, full-service, upscale hotels in downtown: The Eldridge; SpringHill Suites by Marriott; and the new extended stay Marriott that Compton’s project will build. Plus, The Eldridge also operates an extended stay hotel project at Eighth and Vermont streets, and has a vacant lot next to The Eldridge that it has talked about expanding into. All of those projects would be within walking distance of a downtown convention center.
It also is worth noting that Compton is a part of the group that recently took over the long-term lease for the city-owned Abe & Jake’s building. Downtown nightclub owner Mike Logan will run the day-to-operations of that facility, and he has told me that one of the goals is to get more weekday, daytime meeting business into the unique building along the Kansas River. It might be a bit of a stretch to call the building — which can accommodate around 700 people — a convention center, but it certainly will give the group a taste of what it takes to attract large meetings, trade shows and such to the city.
Lawrence architect Mike Treanor — who has been a partner with Compton on several projects — echoed Compton’s sentiments about a convention center.
“A convention center is a terrific idea,” Treanor said.
But he also reminded the crowd that convention centers are they type of project that require some public investment. The city recently has shown willingness to invest in downtown through use of tax increment financing and a special transportation development district that will allow future tax dollars to help pay for infrastructure related to the Ninth and New Hampshire projects.
“To do infrastructure in downtown is so much more expensive than to do it on a greenfield site on the edge of town,” Treanor said. “But Lawrence has a good attitude right now about those type of tools.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Compton and Treanor were really trying to lay the groundwork for some sort of convention center proposal in the near future. I think they were just asked a question and answered it, and maybe there was a little bit of seed planing going on as well. Regardless, it is interesting to think about.
The question of downtown’s future needs also drew an interesting response from Downtown Lawrence Inc. director Cathy Hamilton. She told the crowd that Downtown Lawrence Inc. would love to see a dedicated downtown Lawrence visitors center.
The association currently has a second-story office in downtown, but Hamilton believes a full-fledged visitors center with maps, brochures and friendly people to help point visitors in the right direction could be a real asset to downtown tourism.
“Something on the ground level where people can find a human point of contact,” Hamilton said. “It is our dream at this point, but it is something we’re working on.”
For what it is worth, Compton also used the forum to chime in on the proposed recreation center and sports park near the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. He made it clear that he didn’t think the sports park and the associated development that may occur around it would hurt downtown Lawrence. In fact, he thinks the edge-of-town development ultimately will help downtown.
“I think it will be a big asset to downtown,” Compton said. “It will bring more people to town who wouldn’t be here otherwise.
“Obviously, we’re getting ready to invest $17 million or $18 million in a Marriott, so we are excited about having more people come and stay in hotel rooms. Whenever people come to Lawrence, they always end up in downtown. I don’t think that is going to change.”
Compton — who also runs Lawrence’s First Management Construction Co. — didn’t get into any other details of the project, including what he thinks of a proposal that would allow Lawrence businessman and fellow construction executive Thomas Fritzel to match any construction bids received for the proposed recreation center.
It would be interesting to hear thoughts on that subject, but so far no area construction company has publicly chimed in on the topic.
Just as well, I’ve been busy recently sending off my investment checks to E.F. Hutton. What’s that? Son of . . . No, I hadn’t heard that E.F. Hutton is dead.
As I watch the snow on my sidewalk continue to not melt, the summer staple of a homegrown tomato sure sounds good right about now.
This summer, you may have a new farmers market location to buy one. Well, sort of.
Leaders with the Lawrence Farmers Market are proposing a plan to city commissioners to move their Tuesday and Thursday markets to a new downtown location.
Market board members want to move the weekday markets to a spot that is closer to their Saturday market, which is held in the long-term city parking lot in the 800 block of New Hampshire street.
But during the weekdays, that lot is heavily used by downtown employees, so market organizers are proposing a twist. They want city permission to set up vendor booths in the wide grassy area that is between the long-term lot and Rhode Island Street. If your internal Google map is not functioning currently, the area is the city right-of-way just east of the parking lot. It currently serves as a landscaped buffer area between Rhode Island Street and the sidewalk that runs along the eastern edge of the parking lot.
Market organizers estimate the 3,000-square-foot area could accommodate a dozen or so vendor booths. That will put the booths fairly close to the street, but Rhode Island is one of the lesser traveled streets in downtown. City commissioners are expected to receive the request at a special year-end meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday. (Yes, I know the year ended on Tuesday, but perhaps City Hall is using Congress’ Fiscal Cliff calendar.)
Commissioners are expected to ask staff members to study the feasibility of the proposed location.
Whether it is this location or somewhere else, the market will need a new space for its Tuesday market. It has been held for many years in the city parking lot in the 1000 block of Vermont Street. The lot hasn’t traditionally attracted many vehicles, so there always has been plenty of room for the market.
But that has changed. Treanor Architects has completed its project to convert the former Strong’s Office Supply building into a new headquarters for the architecture firm.
The completely revamped and expanded building — which is just south of the parking lot — is now open and housing about 60 employees. Parking demand in the lot has become significantly higher.
The proposed change, however, also represents a shift in strategy for the farmers market’s Thursday event. Last year the market used Thursdays to hold a West Lawrence market at 1121 Wakarusa Drive.
I haven’t yet chatted with any board members of the market, but the group’s letter to City Hall indicates the organization wants to again focus on downtown.
“The Lawrence Farmers Market has a need to regain a cohesive identity as a single market at a single location,” according to the letter. “Moving the weekday markets to 800 Rhode Island is the simplest, cheapest and most effective way to improve our marketing, reduce administrative costs and serve a broader customer base.”
Market organizers are asking that about 10 of the parking spaces in the city’s long-term lot in the 800 block of New Hampshire be reserved as a loading and unloading area for market vendors.
It will be interesting to see if the city gives the green light to the new plan. Early on, there had been some talk about moving the Farmers Market to the new outdoor plaza area that will be created as part of the $19 million public library expansion.
The plans for the parking garage include public restrooms, which were thought to be a drawing card for the farmers market.
But the farmers market may get its restrooms at its current location. A representative with the development group that plans to build a multi-story apartment building at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets previously has indicated the ground floor of the building will include restrooms designed to serve the adjacent farmers market.
I’m guessing that both the development group — which is led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor — and market organizers are keen on the idea of the market staying near the Ninth and New Hampshire intersection.
The intersection already has one multi-story apartment building and plans are in the work for one more, plus a multi-story, extended stay hotel. That’s a lot of new residents who would be within walking distance of the market.
It also will be interesting to see what the move may do to the Cottin’s Hardware Farmers Market. Last year the hardware store at 1832 Massachusetts St. hosted a popular market in its parking lot from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays.
I guess time will tell on that one. Now, the question is whether time will clear my sidewalk of snow, or will my wife stick a snow shovel in my hands?
Well, Mike Elwell wasn’t bluffing when he said he had somebody besides the city of Lawrence interested in the unique Abe & Jake’s Landing building along the Kansas River.
It looks like one of downtown’s more prominent land owners and a downtown nightclub operator soon will have control of the Abe & Jake’s building.
Lawrence city commissioners are being asked to transfer a long-term lease for the building from Elwell to an entity led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton and Mike Logan, who is the operator of The Granada in downtown Lawrence.
In case you have forgotten, the city of Lawrence actually owns the late-19th-century industrial building, which is sometimes called the Barbed Wire Building because it once housed a barbed wire manufacturing company. But Elwell essentially controls the building because he was granted a long-term, low-cost lease by the city in 1999 to use the building in exchange for him investing about $2 million to refurbish what had become an eyesore.
Elwell has made no secret that he has been looking to get out of the building, which is just east of Lawrence City Hall. As we previously reported, the city was in discussions to take over the building and use it for office space for the city’s Planning and Development Services Department. Those talks fell through, and Elwell told me at the time he had someone else very interested in the building.
Now we’ll see what Compton and Logan plan to do with the building. In a letter to City Hall, the duo indicated that the building would be a complement to the Marriott Extended Stay Hotel, which is a Compton-led project being constructed at Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
“One of our goals is to work together and allow Abe & Jake’s to operate as a venue for weddings, banquets, etc.,” the two wrote in the letter.
That’s essentially how the building is being used now. Elwell previously operated a full-fledged nightclub in the building, but he has since pulled back from that business plan. I chatted this morning with Compton, and he said there are no plans to use the facility as a traditional nightclub. He said under Elwell the building already was being rented out for private functions nearly 50 times a year, and he thinks that number will increase when the marketing forces of the Marriott hotel are added to the mix.
“We feel like it will give us banquet facility space we would not have in the hotel,” Compton said. “It is a beautiful building and has a beautiful setting. It really just continues our interest and commitment in downtown.”
Compton, who owns a multitude of properties downtown, is in the midst of a large building effort. He recently completed the 901 Building, a multi-story apartment and office building at the southwest corner of Ninth and New Hampshire. He told me this morning he hopes construction work will begin in January on the Marriott project on the southeast corner of that intersection. Work is scheduled to begin in May on another multi-story apartment and office building on the northeast corner.
Logan will be the manager of the new Abe & Jake’s operation. Compton and Logan already work together. Compton is the landlord for Logan’s business at The Granada. Logan is one of the more successful concert promoters in downtown Lawrence, so it will be interesting to see if he has plans to use the building — which has extensive views of the Kansas River and tall 50 foot ceilings — as a music venue. I’ve got a call into him and will report back.
As for terms of the deal between Compton’s group and Elwell, they haven’t been released. The terms of the lease with the city, however, are expected to stay the same. Essentially, the lease calls for the tenant of the building to pay $4,800 per year related to use of the city-owned parking garage that is adjacent to the building. The tenant also is responsible for all property taxes, insurance and utilities.
The lease has a series of automatic renewals that could allow Compton and Logan to control the property into 2087, according to the lease. The terms of the city's lease with Elwell essentially gave Elwell the right to sell his interests in the lease to another party.
City commissioners will discuss the proposed transfer at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday night at City Hall.
Milton’s may not be coming back to downtown Lawrence, but a full-fledged breakfast restaurant is slated for its spot at 920 Massachusetts St.
And it will have a strong Milton’s connection.
Manda Jolly, a former general manager for Milton’s, has inked a deal to open The Roost in early 2013.
Jolly said the restaurant and its menu won’t be a replica of Milton’s — which closed last month — but it will be a place to get a traditional breakfast, and some of the menu items will be very recognizable to fans of Milton’s.
“I understand that there were things that people grew to love and need from there,” said Jolly.
(I’m working to get her to write my doctor a note to prove to him that I indeed do need sausage gravy.)
Jolly said The Roost will focus on breakfast, lunch, pastries and something she calls “inspired cocktails.” (That sounds a bit redundant to me. Almost every cocktail I’ve had has inspired me to have another.)
Jolly is opening the restaurant with three other partners — she is not yet releasing those names — but she said one of the partners has opened and managed several bars in Lawrence. She said The Roost will be more committed to having cocktails and spirits be a part of the restaurant than Milton’s was, which had a liquor license on and off during its existence. But at the moment, Jolly said the restaurant won’t have regular evening hours. (Don’t fret, I’ve heard cocktails at lunch can be very inspiring and darn right transformational at breakfast.) Instead, The Roost will be available for rent for evening events, and Jolly said the restaurant also will host a few special evenings per year.
The former Milton’s space will get a major makeover to accommodate The Roost. Jolly said the name for the restaurant comes from her family’s farm just outside of Speed, Kan., which is near Phillipsburg, which is near Stockton, which is near . . . (In Western Kansas, we could play this game all day, but it always ends the same. It is east of Denver.) The family farm’s name is The Roost, and Jolly said the restaurant space is going to take on a little bit more of that type of feel with some old barn wood incorporated into the design and more natural elements such as exposing some stone walls.
When all of it comes together, is still a bit uncertain. Jolly at this point is only committing to “early 2013” as an opening date.
“I don’t want to give up on January yet, but it won’t be early January,” Jolly said.
Jolly started at Milton’s as a hostess on the day the restaurant opened in 1997. Jolly worked there pretty much for the next 11 years, rising to the rank of general manager. When she left the restaurant four years ago, she tried to buy Milton’s then, but the deal never quite happened. The idea, though, never did fully leave her.
“I love mornings,” Jolly said. “I’m used to that. Milton’s served as a major hub of the community for a long time. It always has been the best job I ever had.”