Neighborhood group asking city to slow down on downtown grocery store project; update on city’s quest to get Google Fiber-like Internet service
Getting a grocery store in downtown Lawrence may be a bit like me walking down the candy aisle. No, it won’t require hooking a dozen shopping carts together, but I am predicting it is going to take awhile. I say that because the process has barely begun, and the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods is already asking City Hall to slow down.
If you remember, the owners of the Lawrence grocery store Checkers have an interest in building a downtown grocery store that would be part of a seven-story building at 11th and Massachusetts streets. But the Checkers group has asked city commissioners to consider a request that would allow the new grocery store to have exclusive use of 18 public parking spaces along Massachusetts Street, and 16 new spaces that would be along 11th Street. Commissioners are scheduled to hear that request at their meeting tonight and are expected to direct staff members to further study it.
But the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods is asking that the idea not even be studied yet. It calls the request “extremely premature.” The association notes that the idea of a seven-story building across the street from both the historic Douglas County Courthouse and Watkins Museum is going to create some concern. The letter seems to indicate the height issue ought to be addressed before city officials start looking at parking issues.
No doubt the height of the building is going to be a matter that creates debate. But it is worth noting that this request for parking is coming directly from the Checkers group. In talking with Checkers owner Jim Lewis, he indicated that parking was going to be a paramount issue for the grocery store project. Given that, it appears he wants a read on the city’s thinking early on. It may be that if the city is not willing to give a little on parking, Lewis may find the site infeasible, and would have to shift gears. It is hard to know whether that’s the case or not because the project will include other parking in a private garage proposed for the area just east of the alley between Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Certainly, the idea of devoting public parking spaces to a private business — and removing the parking meters — is a big issue. There would be many businesses that would like to have that arrangement. Commissioners will have to decide whether a grocery store — which commissioners hope will make downtown a more attractive place to live — is a unique enough project to take the unusual step of altering the downtown parking system. But do you answer that question in the early part of the process or the later part of the process? I guess that’s the debate we’ll have tonight.
One group I haven’t heard from yet is Downtown Lawrence Inc. I don’t know if that group has taken a position yet on the parking idea, but I have a call into its leader. (UPDATE: I talked with Sally Zogry, executive director of DLI, and she said the group's membership is excited about the prospects of a downtown grocery store. She said the group believes the city staff should study the parking proposal. But she said some members will have concerns about the Massachusetts Street parking proposal . But she said the membership wanted to hear information from city staff about how such a parking arrangement could be enforced and other such issues. She said DLI expects to provide significant input on the proposal as it gets closer to a decision.)
In other news and notes from around town:
• It is time to restart Lawrence’s never-ending Internet debate. City commissioners today will have their second study session in as many weeks on the idea of bringing high-speed broadband service to Lawrence. This week they are meeting with the leaders of Baldwin City-based RG Fiber to discuss its proposal to begin installing gigabit Internet service in parts of Lawrence.
Last week the company met with Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband to discuss its plan for gigabit service, which is the same type of service being offered by Google Fiber in Kansas City. Wicked’s proposal includes a request for a $300,000 loan guarantee from the city. Commissioners didn’t make any decisions on that issue, or really even tip their hand on that issue.
But last week’s study session did bring clarity to a couple of points. The first is that Wicked Broadband still is not interested in making its financial books public as part of the process for the city to determine whether to provide a $300,000 loan guarantee. As we previously reported, the city is being asked to make a decision on whether to provide the loan guarantee without knowing basic information such as the amount of debt Wicked currently carries, the company’s operating profit or loss, or other basic details about its balance sheet. But at last week’s meeting, Josh Montgomery, an owner of Wicked, said he would show his books to individual city commissioners who came by his office and asked to see them. But he said he would not submit the document to City Hall, which would make it a public document He said making his financial statements public would put his company at a competitive disadvantage. Of course, some of Wicked’s competitors are arguing they will be put at a competitive disadvantage if the city gives Wicked a $300,000 loan guarantee. So, I guess it is all just how you slice it.
The other point that was made clear last week involves the $300,000 pilot project that would provide service to parts of downtown and East Lawrence. The number that has most frequently been associated with the project is 300 addresses. That’s how many households or businesses that could be served by the project. But Montgomery made it clear that the 300 households is likely not the number that would actually end up with service at the end of the project. The project would run fiber cable in front of 300 addresses. Of that amount only a certain percentage would sign up for the service. It is tough to say with certainty how many addresses may sign up for the service, but Montgomery mentioned that 30 to 40 percent was a realistic target. All that makes sense, but we hadn’t quite explained it that way, and I’m not sure that commissioners realized that the pilot project may result in only about 100 locations having the high-speed service.
The issue that commissioners spent the most amount of time talking about is a technical one called common carriage. Wicked is proposing that any company that uses any part of the city-owned fiber optic network be required to commit to the idea of common carriage. Common carriage is the idea that more than one company can operate on the same set of fiber optic cables. The way it would work with this pilot project, for example, is that once Wicked installed the fiber system in downtown, other Internet service providers could lease space on Wicked’s cables. They would be charged a wholesale rate that would be consistent for any and all carriers. Wicked, as the owner of the system, would collect those wholesale fees. But Wicked also would be entitled to be a retailer of such services as well.
Montgomery is lobbying hard for the common carriage idea. He said it will spur competition, which will be good for the Internet consumer. City officials, though, are split on the idea. City staff members have raised concerns that other companies looking to make broadband investments may be turned of by the common carriage requirements. Some companies don’t like the idea of sharing their network, and some companies don’t like the idea of buying wholesale service from a company that also will be competing with them in the retail market.
Staff member also have said they are concerned the city will become a de facto regulator of the wholesale system, which they said could be time consuming and contentious. City commissioners seemed split on the idea too, so that will be one to watch.
As for RG Fiber, we’ll get an update on them today. But they have consistently asked city commissioners not to provide Wicked the loan guarantee because they view that as an unfair subsidy to a competitor.
The study session starts at 4 p.m. today at City Hall.
Four companies express interest in bringing superfast broadband service to city; Wicked has plans to launch cable TV service in Lawrence by June
And you thought the fight over the remote control during the NCAA Tournament was going to be fierce. Well, it looks like another type of technology battle is brewing at Lawrence City Hall.
Four technology companies are interested in undertaking a multimillion-dollar project to bring super-fast Internet service to Lawrence, on par with what Google Fiber is doing in Kansas City. But, no, Google Fiber is not one of the companies interested.
If you remember, the city in February issued a request for information from companies interested in partnering with the city on establishing an enhanced broadband network in the community. Four companies responded: Lawrence-based Wicked Fiber, which previously has operated as Lawrence Freenet; Baldwin City-based Free State Broadband; national giant AT&T; and ISG Technology and Twin Valley Telephone, which operates a host of largely rural telephone and Internet systems in north-central Kansas.
You can see the full responses here, but here's a quick summary.
— Wicked Fiber: The company, owned by Lawrence school board member Kris Adair and her husband, Joshua Montgomery, got this process started months ago. Wicked was seeking a $500,000 economic development grant from the city, plus the waiver of multiple city fees, in exchange for undertaking a $1 million pilot project that would bring 1 gigabit broadband service to downtown and much of East Lawrence. City commissioners balked at approving Wicked's request, and instead put the call out for more information.
Wicked's proposal is largely unchanged from those terms, although more details have been provided. Those details include Wicked now is asking the city to also underwrite its $500,000 loan it will need to build the pilot project. The company also is estimating that it will cost about $30 million to build a high-speed broadband network for the entire community. The company is projecting that once the pilot project is successful, it will be able to raise $10 million in equity financing and secure $20 million in long-term debt to build the project.
The company also is highlighting that the network it would build in Lawrence would have the capacity to host other Internet service providers. In other words, Wicked could use the system, but so could somebody like Google Fiber or another provider. Other providers would pay Wicked a publicly listed wholesale price to use the network. Wicked also is suggesting that the city receive 5 percent of all gross revenues generated by the broadband network. Wicked says such a system will promote competition and thus benefit consumers.
— Free State Broadband. The company currently is working on a project to bring advanced broadband service to Baldwin City. As part of that deal, the company has some agreements with the city of Lawrence that will run fiber through Lawrence to serve the Baldwin City customers.
Free State officials said they currently are conducting market studies to determine the feasibility of bringing high-speed Internet, phone and video service to Lawrence. If feasible, the company would want to expand its current licensing agreement with the city to include access to existing fiber optic lines that the city already owns. Free State is estimating that it will cost nearly $70 million to build a high-speed network that could serve the entire community. That's far different than the $30 million estimate from Wicked Fiber. I don't have the technical ability to compare the two estimates, but it seems that will be one of the big issues city officials will have to figure out.
Free State is not asking for a $500,000 economic development grant, but it does want an "easily accessible lot and a 3,000 square foot building" in the city's new Venture Park, which is the business park that is being developed on the site of the former Farmland Industries property.
— AT&T. The company said Lawrence now is among the cities it is studying to add 1 gigabit Internet service to its offerings. If the company decides to move forward, it said it would be responsible for all the financial requirements of the project. The help it would seek from the city would include: a dedicated city staff member who would work as a coordinator for the project; a joint community education program with the city; access to the city's infrastructure, including light poles, traffic signals and city buildings; city assistance to negotiate a deal with Westar Energy to allow AT&T access to some of Westar's infrastructure, such as power poles; a waiver of certain city permits, or an expedited review of city permits.
AT&T would build any Lawrence network in phases, and would select areas for service based on "neighborhoods in which demand is expected to compensate for the cost to deploy" the network.
— ISG/Twin Valley. Twin Valley touts itself as the largest privately owned communications company in Kansas. ISG is a subsidiary of Twin Valley, and is a "data center and IT infrastructure partner." In addition to operating a fiber optic network in north central Kansas, the company is highlighting a partnership with Columbia, Mo., where ISG provides broadband and data center services by using a fiber optic network that is owned by the city of Columbia.
The city of Lawrence owns a significant amount of fiber optic cable in the community, and all the respondents have indicated an interest in accessing that fiber optic network.
ISG/Twin Valley was not specific in what assistance it may require from the city. The company's proposal stated it wanted to "collaborate and further discuss" the city's goals.
As I mentioned, Google Fiber did not submit a proposal to the city. City officials have told me they made sure Google Fiber was aware that the city was seeking information from technology companies. There was one other notable company that didn't submit a proposal: WOW, which is currently the largest cable and Internet provider in the city.
I don't yet have a timeline for when the city will evaluate these proposals and make a decision about how to proceed. But I would think the process will get started relatively soon.
In the meantime, I've got plenty to figure out with securing this remote control. All right, I have the log chain attached to my wrist. I've got the chain attached to the remote. I'm set . . . oh, crud. Is that an acetylene torch she has?
In other news and notes from around town:
• There was an interesting side issue brought up in Wicked Fiber's proposal to the city. Company officials stated in the proposal that Wicked plans to begin offering a robust package of cable television service, beginning in June.
The proposal states "Wicked Broadband has entered into an agreement to provide television services to Lawrence. The company is in the process of launching its first TV product, which is expected to debut in June of 2014." That language leads me to believe that the service isn't dependent upon the company receiving incentives from the city, but I've got a call into Wicked officials to confirm that and other details.
The proposal goes on to say that one service will be a 27-channel service for $19.99 a month. A second service will offer 94 channels for $49.99 a month. The proposal includes a list of channels. They appear to be your standard major channels, although the plan currently does include premium channels such as HBO and Showtime.
Another detail I'm hoping to confirm is whether the service will be available citywide or only in select areas. Currently, Wicked provides service to more than 3,000 residents in the city, it says, with many of them at apartment complexes and greek living houses. I'll let you know if I hear more.
Look below for a list of the proposed channels.
More LJWorld City Coverage
Duplex and apartment development moving forward at the Kasold Curve; speculation about Google and Lawrence
For years, the Kasold Curve — that area where 31st Street turns into Kasold Drive — has just been an area where I close my eyes and hang on extra tight when I'm a passenger in my wife's car. Now, it may be an area that's showing Lawrence's renewed appetite for residential construction.
It looks like a deal has actually materialized to develop about 19 acres of the vacant ground at the curve into a mix of apartments and duplexes. All the way back in 2009 we reported that the Lawrence Wesleyan Church purchased 33 acres of property along the southeast edge of the curve. Plans called for the church to use part of the property to build a new church building and to sell the rest of the property to a private development group.
But, if you recall, the residential real estate market in 2009 was a bit like a K-State Wildcat at a Final Four party: lost and depressed. (Hey, it is gameday, after all.)
Church officials, however, now have told city leaders that they have a deal with a group of Lawrence investors — including real executives John McGrew and Mike McGrew — to purchase about 19 acres to develop about 55 duplexes (or about 110 living units,) plus a small apartment complex. The church will keep about 14 acres to use as part of its development of a new church building to replace its current building at 3705 Clinton Parkway.
The project is looking for a little bit of help from the city. Developers on Tuesday will ask the City Commission to approve a benefit district to finance about $690,000 worth of public streets and water mains for the project. Benefit district financing is common. The city provides financing for public infrastructure, such as a streets and utilities, and the property owners pay the city back through special assessments on their property tax bills. But the city's policy caps the amount to be financed at 75 percent of the expected infrastructure total. In other words, the developers are supposed to pay for 25 percent upfront.
But church officials are asking commissioners to wave that 25 percent down payment in this case. The developers aren't asking the city to pay for any of the infrastructure, but rather just want the city to finance about 90 percent of the costs instead of the normal 75 percent. Developers have said the extra up-front costs make the project infeasible. Commissioners will consider the request at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.
As for the development itself, look for it to change the traffic flow at the curve a bit. The plans approved by the city call for a new 50-foot long left-turn lane to be installed at the curve. The lane will accommodate traffic looking to turn into the new development. I haven't yet seen details on the apartment portion of the project. But it doesn't appear to be a large new apartment complex of several hundred units. The amount of ground set aside for apartment development is less than 2 acres. The bulk of the property is set aside for duplex development.
In other news and notes around town:
• As we have reported, the City Commission on Tuesday also will consider issuing a request for proposals from companies that are interested in improving the community's broadband service. This comes at the same time the city is trying to figure out whether to give a $500,000 grant and other incentives to Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband to do a pilot project to bring super-fast Internet service to downtown and East Lawrence. The super-fast speed would be the same 1 gigabit service that Google Fiber is providing in the Kansas City metro area.
During this whole discussion, I've certainly heard several people say they just wish the city would make more of an effort to convince Google Fiber to add Lawrence to its Kansas City project. And come to think of it, there probably is a legitimate question out there: Has the city of Lawrence ever formally sent a letter to Google Fiber asking them to consider Lawrence as part of the project? I know there was talk of it, but I don't remember if a formal request ever came about. I'll check on it and provide an update.
But Joshua Montgomery, one of the owners and operators of Wicked Broadband, is now touting that his company's pilot project may be the community's best chance to get Google Fiber to come to Lawrence. You can read his whole thinking here, in an op-ed that ran on the technology website arsTechnica. But in short, he's touting that the pilot project he hopes to build will feature what is called a common carriage network. What that means in this case is that the fiber optic cables in the ground would be large enough to allow up to four Internet service providers to operate on the network. The way it would work is that Wicked would occupy one of the four spaces, but if any other company wanted to use the network, it could lease space on the network to do so. That includes Google. That's not how Google is operating in Kansas City. It is building its own network there, but Montgomery is opining that Google's strategy may be flawed because it will take Google far too long to build networks in as many places as it would like to serve. He thinks Google may be open to another approach.
"Google needs to franchise its technology and marketing to municipalities," Montgomery wrote. "By franchising its operation to municipalities, Google can use its three most important assets to grow its network: branding, engineering and marketing. Municipalities can use their strongest abilities — managing infrastructure construction and providing long-term finance — to make the projects successful."
It is a new wrinkle in this discussion, so I wanted to pass it along. Whether Google has any interest in providing high-speed service in Lawrence is a bit of an unknown currently. Google has signed deals as far west as Olathe, but its plans in Kansas City have been a bit spotty, as this article notes.
But this whole broadband subject has been an interesting subject to watch. There are people who say that having high-speed broadband service in a community will be as important as it was to have a railroad or an interstate come through your town decades ago. But, of course, we're talking about the future, so it is difficult to prove or disprove that assertion here in the present. I have no answers, but I'm betting that it will continue to be interesting to watch.
Perhaps the community is learning what I've learned on many a white-knuckled trips from the passenger's seat of my wife's Ford Taurus: Speed isn't all it's cracked up to be.
An effort by a local company to bring super-fast Internet service to Lawrence hasn't yet taken off. Kris Adair, president of Lawrence's Wicked Broadband, told me the company's plans to bring 1 gigabit Internet service to a Lawrence neighborhood are uncertain at this point.
"We aren't seeing as much interest as we had expected," Adair said. "We're not giving up on it. We still think it is an amazing project, but we have to have the community buy-in to know that it will be financially feasible."
Wicked Broadband, which is an outgrowth of the former service Lawrence Freenet, announced in April that it was launching a pilot project to bring 1 gigabit service to at least one Lawrence neighborhood this year. The 1 gigabit service is the same kind being installed as part of the Google Fiber project in Kansas City. Just like Google in Kansas City, the neighborhood would be chosen based on how many residents in a particular neighborhood pre-registered for service. Wicked leaders said they planned to announce a winner on June 15.
But Wicked officials pushed that date back to Aug. 15 when it was clear that not enough people had pre-registered in any neighborhood. The Aug. 15 deadline also came and went without an announcement. Adair told me just before the deadline that the company now hopes to make a decision in September. That decision, however, may be that there is not a neighborhood in Lawrence that is viable for the service currently.
"We're definitely not as close as we would like," Adair said. "We probably need another 40 or 50 households in most neighborhoods to say they are interested."
On its Web site, the company has a listing of pre-registration totals for each neighborhood. It appears that only one neighborhood in the city, the Centennial neighborhood near Lawrence High, has more than 25 households pre-registered. But Wicked estimates that the neighborhood still needs 48 more households or businesses to sign up before it seriously can be considered a candidate for the pilot project.
The neighborhood closest to being feasible is the area around Hillcrest Elementary, just northeast of 15th and Iowa streets. It needs another 24 households to be in the running. (Wicked uses the city's voting precincts to define neighborhood boundaries. Even though the Hillcrest neighborhood doesn't have as many people signed up as Centennial, the percentage of households that have signed up is higher.)
The 1 gigabit Internet service is attracting a lot of attention in Kansas City. The service is being used by people interested in seamless video streaming, video game aficionados and, perhaps most importantly from and economic development standpoint, Internet start-up companies looking to create new applications for the Web.
It wouldn't be fair to say that Lawrence is uninterested in super-fast Internet service. Rather, it may be that the interest is just too spread out. According to Wicked's totals, almost every neighborhood in the city has had households or businesses pre-register for the service. Most areas, though, have had 10 or fewer households. Adair said information out of Kansas City is that once a neighborhood is selected, another 20 percent of households will go ahead and sign up for the service. But Wicked needs a certain density of customers to make the service viable, and thus far no neighborhood has reached that level.
"It is a significant investment, and we really want to make sure the community is interested," Adair said of Wicked's hesitancy to pick a neighborhood.
Households and businesses that have pre-registered have been required to put down a $10 deposit. Adair said those deposits will be refunded if the neighborhood is not chosen.
Also in limbo is the company's request for a $500,000 grant from the city to help bring the high-speed Internet service to Lawrence. Adair said the company hasn't withdrawn the grant request, but that it would not take money from the city unless the project starts to show more interest from the community.
Adair, who also is a Lawrence school board member, said she is not sure what to make of the less-than-expected interest in the service.
"We have been doing a social media blitz but it is not reaching them, or maybe they just aren't as interested as we think they are," Adair said.
We'll see what September brings for the project. As for what it will bring to the passenger's seat of the Taurus, I predict it will produce more white knuckles and an occasional black out.