Plans for rent-controlled housing near 23rd and O’Connell on the ropes; city concerned about historically low water levels at Clinton Lake
There is a fair amount of uncertainty hanging around Lawrence these days. When will spring finally arrive in earnest? Will Joel Embid stay or go? Was it a mistake to take out a sizable home equity loan with the assumption that I was going to win Warren Buffett's billion dollar bracket?
The answers to those questions are not clear, but it is becoming clearer that financial uncertainty is becoming a problem for a proposed low-income housing project near 23rd and O'Connell.
As we previously have reported, the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has a strong interest in partnering with a local development group to build rent-controlled housing near the northwest corner of 23rd and O'Connell Road.
But Housing Authority board members met on Monday, and it appears the group is no closer to figuring out a way to fully finance the project, which would be geared toward providing housing for low-to-moderate income working families.
"I don't really see us getting anything done in 2014," Shannon Oury, the executive director of the Housing Authority, told me. "Maybe we would figure out financing in 2014, but we probably wouldn't start building until 2015."
As we previously reported, an unexpected rise in interest rates has left the housing authority with a financing gap. Oury said the Housing Authority and its partner — a development group led by Lawrence businessman Bill Newsome — have redesigned the project. It now has 72 units, down from 128. That has cut the size of the project to about $8.8 million, down from about $15 million previously. But Oury said the project still has a gap of about $1.5 million that needs to be financed.
Figuring out how to fill that gap is where the project stands. And, as Oury notes, experts aren't predicting interest rates to go down any time soon.
"It is going to be tough," Oury said of finding a solution. "Nobody really expected the rates for tax credit projects to move, but they did, and that has created quite a bit of uncertainty."
But Oury said the group will continue to look for solutions, and that the project is not yet dead.
So, it is just like my billon-dollar bracket. BYU is still a Final Four contender, right?
In other news and notes from around town:
• Well, I've recently been informed that my strategy of picking BYU because it sounds somewhat similar to BYOB, was not a good one. I also was informed that I may soon be living in a green van next to Clinton Lake.
At the moment, though, it will be a Clinton Lake that is a bit starved for water. City commissioners at their meeting tonight will be asked to take an action related to Clinton Lake's low water levels.
Commissioners are being asked to send a letter to leaders with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asking them to alter their normal plans for releasing water from Clinton Lake this spring and summer. The Corps' policy is that from April through September, the Corps will release water into the Wakarusa River at a minimum rate of 21 cubic feet per second. That minimum release is done "for the benefit of downstream fish, wildlife and aesthetics."
But city commissioners are asking the Corps to adopt a temporary policy that would allow for a minimum release of 7 cubic feet per second. The Kansas Water Office also has made that request of the Corps.
The reason the city and the Water Office is seeking a change is because Clinton Lake levels are at a historic low. Clinton Lake is about 4.5 feet below its normal elevation, which may not sound like a lot, but it actually is the lowest level the lake has been since it was filled in 1981.
The city has a strong interest in maintaining healthy supplies of water at Clinton because the city receives about 60 percent of its supply of treated water from Clinton. (That number also includes the water the city treats for Baldwin City and a host of rural water districts.) The city is not pushing any alarm buttons about running out of water. The city has legal rights to keep pulling water out of Clinton Lake until it reaches about 23.5 feet below its normal pool, according to a city memo. The city also has significant water rights, and a water plant, on the Kansas River. So, Lawrence is in a better situation water-wise than many communities.
But pulling water from a depleted lake can create treatment problems, and there are a ton of recreational users of the lake who don't want to see water levels fall any more than they have to. My understanding is that at current levels, boat ramps, docks and other features for boaters haven't been affected greatly by the low water supply. But that will change if the lake doesn't start rising soon. The heat of summer will increase evaporation.
I'm sure, though, that decreasing the flow of water out of Clinton could have some significant impact on the ecosystems along the Wakarusa River. We'll have to see how the Corps balances those interests. No word yet on when the Corps may make a decision about future water releases.
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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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Here's a chance to play with the crayons in your desk drawer. Take out your Brick Red (or, heck, even your Razzmatazz or Razzle Dazzle Rose) and circle all the Lawrence neighborhoods that will have easy access to Johnson County, Topeka and the South Iowa Street shopping district once the South Lawrence Trafficway is completed.
There will be several areas circled, but none should be circled more brightly than the Prairie Park neighborhood in southeast Lawrence. We're already getting a glimpse of the changes a completed SLT may bring to the area.
If you remember, we reported in August that a pair of Lawrence businessmen had filed preliminary plans for a new multifamily complex near 28th Street and O'Connell Road in the Prairie Park neighborhood.
Well, those plans have advanced and are now up for a round of approval at Lawrence City Hall tonight. City commissioners are set to approve an annexation of about 11 acres of ground just north and east of the roundabout at 28th and O'Connell. Commissioners also are set to approve a request to rezone the property to RM-15 multifamily zoning.
Jeff Hatfield and Heath Seitz are the developers of the new project, and Hatfield recently gave me some details. Plans call for the project to be built in two phases. Phase one would start work soon on building 38 to 40 one-bedroom apartments on the site. Phase 2 would come later and would accommodate about 60 to 65 additional apartments on the site. Whether they would be one-, two- or three-bedroom units hasn't yet been determined.
Not surprisingly, the completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway in the next couple of years is one of the factors Hatfield is citing in moving forward with the project. The eastern interchange for the South Lawrence Trafficway will be just a minute or two east of the 23rd and O'Connell intersection. Once the trafficway is built, Prairie Park suddenly becomes a convenient home for commuters not only to Johnson County, but also to Topeka. As part of the South Lawrence Trafficway project, the city also is extending 31st Street from Haskell Avenue to O'Connell Road. That means Prairie Park residents will have an easy new route into the South Iowa Street retail district as well.
But Prairie Park also has another factor going for it. It is the closest neighborhood to the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant, which is being converted into Lawrence VenturePark, the city's next big business park. Developers are betting that new companies will locate in that park, and workers at the companies will jump at the chance to live in a neighborhood that is just a stone's throw from the office.
Hatfield, who is a real estate appraiser and a veteran in the local housing and apartment markets, envisions a gradual 10-year transformation of the area out there.
"I think what really will control the growth out there is the number of new businesses that locate in the business park," Hatfield said. "If we get some employers out there, then the rooftops will follow, and then I'm really hopeful a grocery store will say this is where we need to be."
Property at the southeast corner of 23rd and O'Connell already is zoned for retail uses, including a grocery store, but a company hasn't yet stepped forward.
As for the apartment development, Hatfield and Seitz have drawn up a plan that uses single-story four-plex units that are designed to look more like houses than an apartment complex. Hatfield said the design is trying to create an "Aspen craftsman" type of look that features lots of stone, exposed wooden beams and rough-sawn lumber. As currently designed, about half the units will come with garages. You can see one of the proposed renderings below.
Hatfield said he expects the development's target market to be either young couples who don't yet need a larger unit, or single professionals who either are working in the area or want a convenient home to commute to either Kansas City or Topeka.
As we have previously reported, look for other activity in the area as well. The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has partnered with a private development group led by Lawrence businessman Bill Newsome to develop about 125 rent-controlled apartment units near the southwest corner of 23rd and O'Connell Road.
So, you may want to keep those crayons out. There may be more to circle in this area in the future. Now, where did I put my Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown and my Mango Tango? I've got serious work to do.
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There are only two explanations for the large swaths of bare dirt at the former Farmland site at 23rd and O'Connell: The area is either preparing for future development, or I've been hired to do the area's landscaping. (This August has been an exception. I actually have a healthy, lush stand of green . . . weeds.)
The former Farmland Industries site, of course, is being prepared to become a new industrial park. We've reported on that several times. But prepare to see more action on the south side of the 23rd and O'Connell intersection as well.
The leader of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority has confirmed to me that it is moving forward with a new 128-unit affordable housing development on portions of the southwest corner of 23rd and O'Connell. Also, a private development group has filed plans at City Hall to rezone about 10 acres for a multifamily rental development near O'Connell Road and East 28th Street.
We've previously reported that the Housing Authority has been studying the feasibility of an affordable housing, rent-controlled project on the corner. But now the project has moved to a new level. Housing Authority Director Shannon Oury said her board has agreed to devote up to $1 million in reserve funds to help the project get started.
The authority is still partnering with a private development group led by Lawrence developer Bill Newsome. Newsome's company owns the land on the corner and has been working with the state to secure tax credits to help finance the project. Once the units are built, however, the Housing Authority will be responsible for renting the units and using proceeds from the rent to pay off the project. The project is expected to have a total price tag of about $15 million.
Oury said her organization is excited about the project, in part, because it will be a bit different than traditional affordable housing projects.
"We're really gearing this project toward the working class," Oury said.
Families and individuals with incomes that are 40 percent to 60 percent of the median in Douglas County will be eligible to rent at the project. According to a HUD Web site, the median family income in Douglas County is about $70,000, which means a family making 40 percent of that would check in around $28,000 while a family at 60 percent would be at about $42,000.
Oury said the timing seems to be right for the project because the housing market is starting to gain steam again, which often means higher prices and more difficulty for working families to find affordable housing.
"We want to make sure we keep affordable housing developing as all the other housing develops too," Oury said. "We don't want to create a situation that we've seen in other vibrant communities where they price moderate- to low-income people out of the market."
The project still has to win the necessary planning approvals from Lawrence City Hall. That process will provide more details about what the project will look like, although this post from January includes a rendering of a proposed design. Oury said she hopes to have units ready to rent by the first quarter of 2015.
Farther south on O'Connell Road, plans are in the works for an apartment complex. A group led by Lawrence builder Heath Seitz and real estate appraiser Jeff Hatfield have filed for annexation and rezoning of about 10 acres at 1338 E. 1600 Road. That is the vacant land that is just east of the roundabout at 28th and O'Connell.
I'm still waiting to get details from the development group about what type of apartment complex it's planning. The zoning request seeks RM-15 multifamily zoning. The request also notes that the city's Southeast Area Plan calls for the property to be developed with medium density residential uses.
"There is strong demand for affordable housing, especially as our community increases its efforts to market Lawrence as a retirement destination," the developers say in their application.
The RM-15 zoning will allow for a variety of development, everything from row houses to the more traditional two and three-story apartment buildings. The developers will be required to file more details about their plans for the property as the project moves through the approval process. And if I hear more from them, I'll pass it along.
But clearly, the O'Connell Road area is one to watch. Part of it is that developers are betting on the former Farmland Industries site becoming an area for new jobs. People like to live near their work. Another part is that there has been a lot of investment in recent years to get improved sewer service to the area, and developers want to put that investment to work. The infrastructure upgrade will continue in a big way. The city's new sewage treatment plant will be just a ways south of O'Connell Road. The plant will be on the south side of the Wakarusa River, basically at the point where O'Connell Road dead ends at the river.
But another factor that likely is playing into all of this is that the area along O'Connell Road is going to be a pretty handy place to live from a transportation standpoint. Remember that as part of the South Lawrence Trafficway project, 31st Street is going to be extended from Haskell Avenue to O'Connell Road. That means the neighborhoods along O'Connell are going to have a major new thoroughfare that takes residents right onto South Iowa Street and the major shopping district. (If you see my wife scouting for property in the area, now you'll know why.)
In addition, the area will have very easy access onto the South Lawrence Trafficway itself. One of the few major interchanges for the trafficway will be less than two miles to the east, about where Noria Road currently intersects with K-10 Highway. The SLT will make the neighborhood an easy place for people who need to commute either to Kansas City or Topeka.
The next thing to watch is whether the increased residential development in the area will spur more commercial development at the southeast corner of 23rd and O'Connell. A development group led by Newsome owns that property as well. It already is zoned for retail development, but at the moment, only a Tractor Supply store has located in the development.
I know Newsome's No. 1 choice of a tenant would be a grocery store for the corner, but grocers usually like to see a certain amount of rooftop development before they commit to an area. How many rooftops it will take will be the big question for the future.
In the meantime, though, I may go out and support the Tractor Supply store this weekend. It is time to get back to landscaping, and Tractor Supply sells grass seed. It also sells chemicals to kill grass. Decisions, decisions.
City to flip the switch Wednesday on new traffic signal at 23rd and O’Connell; Sixth and Iowa intersection improvements delayed
Some of you break my heart. I had a reader ask me recently: “What are they doing out at the old Farmland property?”
We’ve only been reporting for the last half-decade or so that the city is working to convert the former 400-plus acre fertilizer plant into a new business and industrial park.
Well, beginning tomorrow, you’ll get a little extra chance to see the process up close. As part of the construction project, the city has installed a new traffic signal at 23rd and O’Connell, and it will begin functioning on Wednesday morning.
The good news is if you like piles of dirt and the machines that make them, there’s plenty to look at. Two different construction companies are on site building both the street system and the water and sewer lines for the property. If you haven’t driven by recently, the property has had many of its trees removed and looks much like my lawn in July — massive stretches of bare dirt. You can begin to see the outlines of a new road that will stretch from the 23rd and O’Connell intersection to the East Hills Business Park, which is just east of the Farmland property.
That new road is the reason for the new $600,000 traffic signal and turn lane. Once the new road is completed later this year, the 23rd and O’Connell intersection is expected to become the main entrance for the East Hills Business Park. If you listen closely, you should hear the cheers from employees of the business park who no longer will have to cross K-10 at a dangerous, unsignalized hill to get to and from work each day.
The 23rd and O’Connell intersection also will be the main entrance to the Farmland property. There is no word yet on when we may see the first tenant for that property, but I think the project is drawing strong interest from companies. In fact, I think it is a good bet that 2013 is going to be a more exciting year on the economic development front than 2012 was.
While we’re on the subject of intersections and road projects, there is one area that may have you confused. (Actually, I’ve seen some of you drive. There are plenty of intersections that confuse you.)
But I’m talking specifically about Sixth and Iowa streets. We’ve been reporting that motorists should brace themselves for a major road project that involves building additional turn lanes at the odd-shaped T-intersection.
Well, brace yourself for a little longer. The city engineer has confirmed to me that the Sixth and Iowa project won’t start on time.
City Engineer David Cronin told me that more engineering work has to be done to convince state officials that the large concrete-box bridges underneath the intersection — McDonald Drive runs underneath the intersection — can support the additional pavement planned for Sixth and Iowa.
But Cronin said he is still confident that the project is going to be deemed feasible. In fact, he is projecting that construction work can begin in late summer and be completed by the end of the year. Originally, the city had hoped to begin the intersection work during the early summer season so that most of the work would be completed while the bulk of KU students were away.
The project will involve several aspects, but the main improvement is a left-turn lane on Sixth Street for westbound motorists. Cronin said state officials asked for additional geo-technical work to assess the capabilities of the box bridges, which were built in the 1950s. Cronin said the bridges are the responsibility of the state, but his analysis shows the bridges still have about another 20 years of life left in them.
“I’m still confident the project is going to proceed this year,” Cronin said. “We just want to double check everything.”
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.”