Work to begin soon on 23rd and O’Connell traffic signal; developers and housing authority still working on plans for rent-controlled apartment complex for area
All you growth hawks who have had your eyes trained for so long on northwest Lawrence may want to look briefly to the east for a bit.
One of the more visible signs that growth is expected to come to an area soon will pop up at the intersection of 23rd and O’Connell: a traffic signal.
City officials have awarded a nearly $572,000 bid to King’s Construction Co. to begin work on improving the intersection, including adding a traffic signal. In addition to the signal, the work also will include concrete medians on 23rd Street and a left-turn lane for eastbound traffic on 23rd Street.
Work is expected to begin on Wednesday. Traffic on 23rd Street will be reduced to one lane in each direction periodically. The bulk of the work is expected to be completed by the end of March. But the traffic signal won’t be installed until June because there apparently is quite a backlog of traffic signal orders nationally. (I had heard somewhere that repairs related to Hurricane Sandy had caused a spike in traffic signal demand.)
Some of you may be confused about a left-turn lane for eastbound motorists on 23rd Street. Currently, if eastbound motorists turn left off of 23rd Street, you don’t get to much. That’s where the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant is located. But that 400-plus acre piece of property has big plans for the future. The city is working to convert it into a new business and industrial park. A new lighted intersection will be needed to get traffic in and out of the business park, and that intersection will be 23rd and O’Connell.
But make no mistake, the property on the south side of 23rd Street will benefit from the improved intersection as well. Eventually, that area may become the city’s next commercial area. The southeast corner of the intersection is zoned for significant retail development. Tractor Supply Co. opened a store out there, but the retail growth to follow has been a bit like a parade of tractors — kind of slow to develop.
Instead, expect to see some more housing in the area, which probably will lead to more commercial development. On Monday, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will hear a request to rezone 10.5 acres on the south side of the intersection for residential development. (It already is zoned for single-family residential but it is being rezoned to another type of single family residential. From the RS-7 zoning category to the RS-5, if you are scoring at home.)
There’s also some replatting going on in the area. I could go all technical on you here and drop some cool planning terms on your head (all planning terms are cool, right) but what it comes down to is the development group that owns the land is fine tuning some plans to actually get ready to build some houses out there.
“We’re mostly excited about the city’s new investment out there,” Bill Newsome, who heads the Fairfield Farms development group, told me recently.
He said plans call for 38 new entry-level homes to be built at the property, basically on the portion of ground that is south of 25th Terrace and just a bit east of O’Connell. If you remember, Lawrence’s Cornerstone Southern Baptist Church bought the eight acres of ground right along O’Connell.
Newsome said his group has begun talking to builders, and there is optimism about starting a new housing development in the area because there’s hope the Farmland redevelopment will create new jobs nearby. In other words, maybe some folks want to live close to where they work.
“There is a lot of synergy coming together with the new business park,” Newsome said.
Even if the new jobs don’t materialize right away, the area could be ripe for new housing development because of the pending completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway. The eastern interchange of the SLT will be just down K-10. Suddenly, the entire Prairie Park neighborhood not only has good access to the Kansas City metro area, but it also will have a pretty easy drive into the Topeka area as well. Plus, don't forget about the metropolis of Ottawa to the south. The trafficway will make it pretty easy for neighborhood residents to connect to U.S. Highway 59 as well.
There is one more project to keep your eyes on at the intersection. As we reported in October, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority is considering teaming up with Newsome’s group to build more than 100 rent-controlled apartments near the intersection.
I checked in with Shannon Oury, director of the Housing Authority, in the last couple of days and she told me her board is still giving serious consideration to the idea of a 128-unit apartment complex.
No final decision has been made yet. Oury said her board and staff are still trying to figure out some of financing and taxing issues that would be part of the public-private partnership.
The project, somewhat like the Poehler project in East Lawrence, would use federal tax credits to help build the complex. The use of those tax credits and the involvement of the Housing Authority would ensure that the apartment units remain rent-controlled for the long term. A study commissioned by the Housing Authority estimated a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment would rent for $560 a month; a two-bedroom, two-bath for $715 a month; and a three-bedroom, two-bath unit for $835 a month.
Oury said the project would be targeted to working families that have incomes that would qualify for the rent-controlled program. The study indicated those incomes ranges would fall between about $33,000 and $50,000, depending on the size of the family.
Oury said even with the new rent-controlled development in East Lawrence, there is still a need for more of the projects. She noted that Westgate Apartments, 4641 W. Sixth St., recently left the rent-controlled housing program. Its requirements under the tax credit it used to be constructed recently ended, which meant its 72 units left the affordable housing program, Oury said.
Oury said she expects her board to make some decisions on whether to move forward with the project this spring. But thus far, there is optimism about its prospects.
“I would say we feel very positive about it,” Oury said. “So far, we have not seen anything that makes us feel skeptical.”
Another year, another set of apartment plans. Although it seemed like we spent a lot of time talking about new apartment projects last year, the number of new apartments added in the city ended up being a middling number of 184. In 2011, the city added 355 units, and there have been apartment booms in the city where we’ve left the 400-level in the rear-view mirror as well.
So, we’ll see what 2013 brings. So far, it has brought one new set of apartment plans to Lawrence City Hall. Lawrence architect Paul Werner has filed new plans for a phase II expansion of Frontier Apartments at 542 Frontier Road.
In case you aren’t familiar with that complex, it is where the former Boardwalk Apartments used to be — a block or so north of Sixth Street and a bit east of Kasold Drive.
Plans filed at City Hall call for 18 one-bedroom apartments and 18 two-bedroom apartments to be added at the site, which already has 96 apartments units that were built in phase one of the project.
Werner didn’t provide a timeline for when construction may begin, but the project already has the necessary zoning in place. New plans had to be filed at City Hall because designers tweaked the placement and number of buildings previously approved, which usually indicates developers are getting serious about starting a project. The second phase actually is smaller than what was once envisioned. Back in 2009, the project envisioned the second phase could be another 96 units worth of apartments.
The apartment project has added some unique elements to the Lawrence apartment market. The apartments are housed in three-story tall buildings that are served with elevators, and the project was designed with high-efficiency appliances, added insulation and other elements meant to meet LEED green building certification standards.
But what you may remember most about the apartment project is that it truly is a place where the grass is always greener. When phase one of the apartment project was built, about 20,000 square feet of artificial grass was installed as part of the complex’s landscaping plan.
The artificial grass didn’t meet city code, and the development group — which is led by Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel — and the city ended up having quite a discussion about whether the fake grass should be allowed to stay. Ultimately, city commissioners agreed to “grandfather-in” the use of the grass at the complex.
I checked with planners on this phase II development, and so far the plans don’t show the use of artificial grass for that portion of the project. City planners, the documents show, have made it clear that any use of artificial grass at the property will require special approval from the City Commission.
The documents also show that at least one utility company has expressed a concern with the use of artificial grass at the project. Knology, the cable television and Internet company in town, noted that it costs about $100 per square foot to repair the artificial turf if it has to be disturbed to make underground cable repairs.
I’ll keep an ear out for when construction may begin on the new apartments.