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West Lawrence fun center plans on hold again as neighbors speak out; the big question looming for city’s rental licensing program

Mini-golf, mini-bowling, many concerns, it appears. As we've reported multiple times, plans have been filed for a "family fun center" on vacant ground near the southeast corner of Clinton Parkway and Inverness Drive in west Lawrence.

When we last reported on the project in February, it was scheduled to receive a key vote at the Lawrence-Doulgas County Planning Commission that evening. It didn't. Instead, it got deferred until March's meeting, which took place Monday. But again, no vote for the fun center. The issue was deferred before the meeting ever began.

I've got a message into the architect for the project to find out if the development group still plans to pursue the project. I haven't received any word back on that. (I also don't have a clear understanding of who the development group is behind the project.)

What is clear is that an organized opposition effort to the fun center is underway. Raintree Montessori School is among the leaders of that effort. In its newsletter to parents this month, Raintree takes a strong stand against the project

"We feel relocation to another property more suited for recreation would be the only acceptable compromise," it writes in the newsletter.

The fun center is proposed to have a variety of activities. They include:

— A two-story club house that would have private party rooms, arcade and snack areas on the ground floor. The second floor would include a bar that serves 3.2 beer and has a NASCAR driving experience arcade and miniature bowling.

— Outside, an 18-hole miniature golf course, six batting cages, a patio area and a children's "tot-lot" play area also are planned.

— A future second phase of the development proposes a 33,000 square-foot, outdoor go-kart track. The carts are proposed to be electric and produce little noise, according to information submitted by the developers.

A prevailing theme in the opposition to the fun center is that those type of uses aren't appropriate for an area that has so many schools nearby. Bishop Seabury, Raintree, Sunflower elementary, and Southwest middle school are all within walking distance of the site.

Raintree leaders mentioned that proximity as being a problem, and so too did an earlier letter from the Wimbledon Terrace Townhomes Association. It expressed concern about "hundreds of little children who might be intimidated by the large numbers of teenagers and young adults who would frequent the project."

I'm not sure how such intimidation exactly would play out, but it is worth noting that the city's planning staff is recommending approval of the project, in part, because it is a walkable destination for a variety of people. Creating walkable destinations has been a real catch phrase at City Hall in recent years. (No one has ever accused City Hall of having extraordinary catch phrases.)

There are other reasons, though, that neighbors have objected. In addition to the fun center, the development in recent weeks has added a request for two lots that could house drive-thru businesses, such as a fast-food establishment. The architect, Lawrence-based Paul Werner, has told me that he doesn't envision a traditional fast-food restaurant at the location. Instead, he thinks some type of coffee shop with a drive-thru would be more likely. But it sounds like several neighbors haven't liked the addition of drive-thrus.

"The roundabout on Inverness can barely handle the traffic now, but adding this type of use to the neighborhood will increase traffic exponentially," Raintree writes in its letter. "The availability of alcohol late at night in a high traffic area has the potential for causing serious problems, and the noise and lights from the center will disturb the sleep of countless residents nearby, not to mention the increased incidents of vandalism."

Raintree is sponsoring a petition drive against the project.

I suspect we'll find out in the coming days whether this project has any legs left to it. If it doesn't, it will be interesting to see what comes next for this area. It is a highly visible piece of vacant property on a major city street. It basically is surrounded by apartments. Neighbors already have strongly voiced their opposition to future apartment development.

In other news and notes from around town:

• There were times during the nearly four hours of discussion at City Hall last night about the rental registration program that I thought we perhaps were going to settle the issue with a game of mini-bowling or a putt-putt contest. (Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking on my part.)

But, instead, it was a night of back and forth between opponents and supporters of the program. As we reported, the program was approved on a 3-2 vote.

I left the meeting, though, with one big question about the program: Will it survive the next election?

One of the changes to the program last night was its start date. A divided commission pushed the start date back by six months to give the city more time to prepare for the program, although staff wasn't asking for more time to prepare for the program.

The new start date means the first inspections of multifamily rental units won't begin until July 2015. That means no inspections will have taken place prior to the next City Commission elections, which are in April 2015. (Unless state law changes on municipal elections.)

Politically, I'm not sure what the ramifications of that change will be. Originally, the program would have had four months of inspections under its belt before voters went to the polls in April. I think some city officials were hopeful those four months of inspections would have shown that the program will not be nearly as burdensome as many landlords believe. Now, there won't be any such chance to prove that before the elections.

Of course, you could also argue that if the city did inspections and they went poorly in those first four months, that may have been bad politically. I asked Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, who pushed for the delayed start date, whether he was concerned that a new commission could take office and end the program before it every really got started. (Registrations, but not inspections, will begin in January.) He said he wasn't. His belief is the timing won't affect the politics of this. He may be right.

But it is worth noting that two of the three commissioners who supported the rental inspection program have terms that are expiring in 2015: Commissioners Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm. Mayor Mike Dever, who voted against the program, is the other commissioner who has a term expiring in 2015.

I don't know what will happen, but I think it will be very interesting to watch whether a slate of candidates committed to repealing the rental inspection program emerges by early 2015. As some of you may remember, Manhattan had a program for two years, but then a new slate of commissioners came into office and repealed it.

The plan commissioners approved on Tuesday was meant to be a compromise aimed at making landlords more comfortable with the program. It is questionable whether it accomplished that. Landlords came out in large numbers to oppose the plan, and some of them appeared to be well-funded. I counted at least four attorneys who rose to speak against the proposals.

That leaves me with just one more question: Are we absolutely sure mini-bowling can't solve this?

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    Retail sales for holiday period in Lawrence up 5 percent; an update on rental licensing proposal

    The number of the day is $125 million. No, it only seems like the price of a dozen roses for those of us just now remembering that today is Valentine's Day.

    Instead, a new state report indicates $125 million is the amount of taxable sales that occurred in Lawrence during the heart of the Christmas shopping season. That means Lawrence retailers had a pretty fair Christmas season

    The latest sales tax report measures sales for the period of mid-November to mid-December. The $125 million in sales is up about 5 percent from the same period a year ago.

    The $125 million does capture some spending that is not what you would call traditional holiday retail spending. For instance it includes the sales tax you pay on your utility bills. (Although, that's kind of holiday related. Christmas is the one day of the year my wife lets the kids and me turn the thermostat up to 65 degrees.) But the majority of the $125 million are retail sales — everything from purchases at the grocery store to the jewelry store.

    While a 5 percent increase for the season is solid, it is not spectacular. Over the previous three holiday seasons, the average increase has been 6.4 percent. If retailers feel like this year didn't quite have the same zing as past seasons, that may be what they're feeling. In fact, over the last six seasons, sales during the holiday period have grown by more than 6 percent every year but one. That one year, however, was a doozy. At the end of 2009, holiday shoppers clamped onto their wallets like my kids clamp onto their Valentine's Day candy stashes. Taxable sales for the season fell 13.2 percent. So, that makes 5 percent look a little better.

    Here's a look at how Lawrence's totals stacked up with some other large retail markets across the state:

    • Dodge City: down 8.5 percent

    • Emporia: up 4.8 percent

    • Garden City: down 5.5 percent

    • Hays: down 27.7 percent

    • Hutchinson: down 4.6 percent

    • Junction City: down 0.4 percent

    • Kansas City: up 2 percent

    • Leawood: up 5.2 percent

    • Lenexa: up 4.4 percent

    • Manhattan: up 0.9 percent

    • Olathe: up 0.1 percent

    • Ottawa: up 1.3 percent

    • Overland Park: up 1.3 percent

    • City of Shawnee: up 4 percent

    • Topeka: down 0.6 percent

    • Sedgwick County: up 1.5 percent

    These numbers are just for a one-month period, so you should use caution in interpreting them. But it appears shoppers in many locations slowed down this holiday season. Lawrence retailers may have reason to feel lucky as 2014 gets underway.

    Which is more than I can say about myself, if my banker doesn't lend me money for some roses by the end of the day.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Look for March to be a key month to determine the fate of the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. The program, which would expand the city's limited inspection program to all rental units in the city, has been on hold since Commissioner Jeremy Farmer in late January said he wasn't ready to vote on the program.

    Farmer said he wanted more data about how the city's current rental inspection program, which covers only rental units in single-family neighborhoods, has performed. The data from the city should be available soon, and Farmer said he then anticipates hosting a public forum to discuss the program in early March.

    At that forum, Farmer hopes to have a compromise plan to talk about. He confirmed this week that he's been talking with both supporters and opponents of a rental licensing and inspection program. Details of a possible compromise are a bit sparse at the moment, but Farmer previously has said he had some interest in removing some violations that aren't related to life and safety from the inspection list. For example, rotting siding or an overgrown yard may not produce a violation that would prohibit a landlord from getting a rental license for a property. But inspectors would still note those violations of the city's code and could take appropriate enforcement action. The main difference is that the city couldn't deny a landlord a license over such violations. That's important because in the future landlords will have to have a license for every unit they intend to rent.

    Again, Farmer hasn't released the details of the compromise yet, so we'll see if that is the path it is still on. Farmer, though, did make it clear that he is intent on passing a licensing and inspection program.

    "This public meeting that we'll have will not be to talk about whether rental registration is a good idea or not," Farmer said. "We're way past that point."

    "I don't think we are too far away from a really, really good compromise, though," Farmer said.

    Farmer said he hopes to be ready to vote on the issue "in the next month."

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    Lawrence no longer second-worst performing small city, new report concludes; rental registration supporter accuses landlord of ‘dirty politics’

    It is not exactly the type of thing you put on a banner, but Lawrence is no longer the second-worst performing small city in America. We're now a middle-of-the-pack community.

    If you remember, we previously reported on a report by the Milken Institute that found Lawrence ranked 178 out of 179 small metro areas in terms of its economic performance in its 2012 report.

    Well, the Milken Institute now has put together its 2013 report, and Lawrence checks in at No. 105 out of 179 small metro areas. The report measures communities based on a number of economic statistics compiled mainly by the federal government.

    Lawrence continues to suffer in the categories that measure job growth and wages. Lawrence ranked 87th in job growth for the period of 2007 to 2012. But from July 2012 to July 2013, Lawrence ranked 69th in job growth, so perhaps that is a sign the local economy is picking up.

    The numbers are less encouraging on the wage front. Lawrence ranked 115th in wage growth for the period between 2006 and 2011. The report also measured wage growth for the 2010 to 2011 period. Lawrence came in 160th in the category.

    But there are some notable improvements in Lawrence's numbers. In the 2012 report, Lawrence didn't crack the top 100 in any of the categories. This year, Lawrence ranks high in two categories that will please economic development leaders. Lawrence was ranked No. 2 in the category of high-tech GDP growth for the 2010 to 2011 period. Lawrence also ranked No. 34 in high-tech GDP growth for the period of 2007 to 2012. There wasn't any one big new company that has caused that spike, but it is worth noting that most of the jobs that have been created out at the incubator facility on KU's West Campus probably fall into that high-tech GDP category.

    It also is worth noting what community took the top spot in this year's report. (It certainly isn't anything to put on a banner.) Columbia, Mo., was ranked as the No. 1 small performing metro in the country, up from No. 10 in the 2012 report.

    Other regional cities of note included:

    — Iowa City: No. 15

    — Waco, Texas: No. 22

    — Joplin, Mo.: No. 61

    — Ames, Iowa: No. 71

    — Topeka: No. 121 (up from 144 last year)

    The report also ranks the top performing large metro areas. Austin, Texas, ranked No. 1. The Kansas City metro area ranked No. 68, up from No. 104 last year. Wichita ranked No. 183, down from No. 146 a year ago. The report ranked 200 large metro areas.

    People can make whatever they want of the rankings. The Milken name — remember Michael Milken and junk bonds in the 1980s — sometimes raises eyebrows, but this Milken report is generally well-respected. Regardless, Lawrence's near-bottom ranking last year had a lot of locals talking, so I wanted to pass along this year's numbers.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • I'll tell you what else has people talking these days: the late surge in opposition to the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. As we reported last week, the city received about 40 letters of opposition, mainly from tenants, who were concerned about the program possibly violating their privacy.

    Now, it appears landlords have been doing their fair share of letter writing as well, sending out letters to their tenants that paint a scary — and city officials say inaccurate — picture of what city inspectors will do once in a tenant's home.

    An official at the large northwest Lawrence apartment complex Hutton Farms confirmed leaders there sent out an email to all its residents last week. It included the following paragraph:

    "If approved, a city inspector, trained by a former police officer, will enter your apartment and document and photograph their findings. This documentation will include not only code issues but your personal information and photographs of your personal items."

    City officials have taken exception to that language. When I shared the letter with city officials, Scott McCullough, the city's director of planning and neighborhood resources, crafted a response to make it clear that any photographs that would be taken as part of a rental unit inspection, won't include photos of personal items. Instead,the photos are close-up shots of code violations — anything from mold on a wall to an improperly wired outlet. Plus, city officials said the tenant or the property owner is always welcome to accompany inspectors, and monitor what photos are being taken.

    The letter really has created hard feelings with some supporters of the proposed rental inspection program.

    "I would characterize it as a scare tactic that is most unfortunate," said Candice Davis, an Oread neighborhood leader who has been a longtime supporter of a rental inspection program in the city. "I think they are playing dirty politics. It was an extreme distortion of the truth."

    She noted the city has run an inspection program for rental properties that are in single-family zoned neighborhoods for about 11 years. The issue of inspectors taking improper photographs of personal items has not seemed to create many concerns as part of that program.

    I've got a message into an executive with Hutton Farms' management group for further comment on the letter.

    What isn't known is how widely the letter may have been distributed to tenants around town. The Hutton Farms employee — she declined to give her full name — said Hutton Farms' sister complex, Tuckaway Apartments, sent out a similar letter. Plus, the employee said there were some indications the letter had been distributed at other apartment complexes around town.

    Davis said she's confident fear mongering by landlords has been the main reason there has been a surge in opposition from tenants. It is worth noting that while many complaints have come from tenants recently, the Kansas chapter of the ACLU also has expressed concerns about some parts of the program.

    Regardless, city commissioners still have a decision to make on the proposed program. Commissioners delayed action on the program last week, while staff members gather more information. The program is set to come before the commission again at its Dec. 17 meeting.

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    Southern fried chicken restaurant coming to West Lawrence; an overview of city’s proposed rental licensing program

    It is time for me to restock the supply of wet wipes in the F-150's glove box. A new fried chicken place — with a drive-thru — is coming to west Lawrence.

    The spot inside the Miller Mart gas station at 3300 W. Sixth St. is ready for its latest culinary adventure: D-Lux Southern Fried Chicken. Over the years, the gas station spot has served as the launching pad for several notable Lawrence restaurants. The Basil Leaf Cafe, Tortas Jalisco and Biemer's BBQ are the better-known of the group.

    Well, a trained chef who has traveled the country is betting that fried chicken will be the next culinary trend to take hold in the spot. Robert Douglas has worked as a chef and culinary executive in several resorts and casinos in the western U.S. But he's originally from Georgia and South Carolina, which are better known as Fried Chicken Country.

    Douglas plans to open D-Lux Southern Fried Chicken next week, and when he does, he'll be touting a unique 48-hour fried chicken process. (I'm familiar with it. It usually takes me 48 hours to eat enough fried chicken to satisfy my appetite.) Actually, I'm told that is not the process he's talking about. Instead, he's talking about a process taught to him by his grandmother where the chicken sits in a brine for at least 24 hours.

    "The big difference between this chicken and other chicken is that we take the time to brine it," Douglas said. "That is how you make sure it gets seasoned all the way to the bone."

    The chicken also uses a wet batter of hydrated peppers, garlic and other spices, Douglas said.

    In addition to the chicken, Douglas said D-Lux will be making its own side dishes, which include mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, braised greens, pickled beets, applesauce, and even homemade pickles, spicy mushrooms and spicy pimento cheese. By the way, there also will be homemade hot sauce. (If you are driving by the F-150 and see me sucking on a wet wipe, you'll know what's up.)

    Although the whole process from start to finish takes 48 hours, Douglas and his business partner, Lawrence's David Bennett, are designing the restaurant to be quick-service oriented. (Just to clarify, there are a couple of Lawrence businessmen by the name of David Bennett. This is the one that also is an executive with Blue Sky Satellite in Lawrence.) Chicken will be made in batches so that it can be served without a long wait. That also will allow for the restaurant to have a drive-thru.

    "You will be able to get a six pack of beer and a whole fried chicken to go," Douglas told me.

    I haven't yet seen a menu for the restaurant, but Douglas said he's planning for an average meal to cost between $6 and $10. Douglas hopes to be open next week, and he plans for hours to be 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday thru Saturday.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • We had an article this weekend about the city's proposed rental regulations and some privacy concerns that are being raised related to the program's inspection process. As I was researching that article, several items came up, and not all of them made them into the article. One was a story about how the city of Manhattan, which had a rental inspection program and then repealed it, sent four student renters to jail for violations related to its rental ordinance. I wasn't able to interview Manhattan officials about that case (it didn't come to my attention until pretty late in the reporting process), but I did find a 2011 news article about it. I thought I would pass it along because some opponents of the Lawrence proposal are citing the case as an example of government overreach when it comes to these types of programs. You can make of it what you will. The article comes from Manhattan's weekly newspaper, which was one of the staunchest opponents to the city's rental registration ordinance.

    • Lawrence's proposed rental registration program has been quite the talk recently because commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider giving final approval to the program. A big part of the discussion likely will be what inspectors are instructed to look for as part of the inspections of rental units. The city has been tweaking the list of proposed violations for more than a month. They have created a list of major and minor violations, but, as it is proposed now, a unit can have an unlimited number of minor violations and still be eligible to receive an incentive from the city, as long as the minor violations are fixed within a reasonable period of time. (City staff is proposing 30 days for most violations.) The incentive is that the property owner won't have to go through a city inspection for six years. Properties that don't receive the incentive are subject to inspection every three years. Click here to see the complete list of minor violations, as proposed by city staff. Here's a sampling:

    — Inoperable bathroom ventilation fan;

    — Clogged drains;

    — Dirty furnace filter

    — Improperly fitting interior or exterior doors;

    — Extension cords used for permanent power source;

    — Grass or weeds in violation of the city's weed ordinance;

    — Lack of deadbolt lock on exterior doors;

    — Missing covers on light switches or electrical outlets;

    — Smoke detectors inoperable;

    — Upholstered furniture on a deck or porch.

    The city staff also is recommending a list of major violations. If a property has one or more major violations, it would not be eligible for the incentive program. Click here to see a complete list of the major violations, as proposed. Here's a sampling:

    — Backed up or collapsed sewer line;

    — Ceiling height requirements not met;

    — Dryer, furnace or hot water heater not properly vented;

    — Egress requirements not met for bedrooms;

    — Large amounts of mold or other fungus;

    — Smoke detectors not present on each floor and in each sleeping room;

    — Badly leaking roofs;

    — Structural deficiencies with the building's roof, foundation, stairs or other components;

    — Lack of a heating system that can keep the property at a 68 degree temperature;

    — Exposed or frayed electrical wiring.

    • For those of you who want more details, here's a pretty good city memo that outlines how the program is proposed to work. It also provides details on how the city's current system of rental inspections work. That system — except for rentals in single-family zoned neighborhoods — requires a tenant to call and ask for an inspection. The city conducted 34 of those inspections in 2012. Nineteen of them were related to a North Lawrence trailer park that had badly deteriorated. The memo provides details on the other 15 inspections, and some of the violations inspectors found. They ranged from a broken staircase bannister to large amounts of mold, inoperable toilets, and leaking roofs.

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    City commission to consider approval of expanded rental licensing program Tuesday

    As my trucker buddies and NASCAR friends say, those fellows down at Lawrence City Hall have the “pedal to the metal” these days.

    Every City Commission is different in how it goes about its business as the April City Commission elections approach. Some go into a mode where they tackle very few significant issues in the final weeks. Others take the approach that they want to get as much done as possible so the next commission can have a clean slate.

    This commission run by Mayor Bob Schumm falls into the latter category. He’s pressing hard to get several issues decided — think the $25 million recreation center, a possible $55 million decision on a new sewer plant and now a major expansion of the city’s rental licensing program.

    Commissioners are being asked to approve a new rental licensing and registration ordinance at their Tuesday evening meeting. I’ll bring you a more detailed report, probably on Monday, but until then mark your calendars and here’s a glimpse at the proposal:

    • As previously reported, the program would require registration and inspection of all rental properties in the city. Currently, the city’s program only covers rental properties that are in single-family zoned neighborhoods. That means large areas of town — like the Oread neighborhood — don’t have rental inspections, even though they house large numbers of renters.

    • Rental units would be inspected once every three years. The city, however, is proposing a system where larger complexes wouldn’t be required to have every unit inspected, but rather a sampling of units could be inspected. For apartment complexes that have 51 units or more, 26 units or 33 percent — whichever is greater — would be inspected once every three years. Apartment complexes with 11 to 50 units would have 11 units or 50 percent — whichever is greater — inspected every three years.

    • The inspections would check for several items related to the city’s health and safety code. Importantly, though, the inspection could also be used to issue a citation related to the city’s occupancy code. No more than four unrelated people are supposed to live in an apartment in the city, or no more than three unrelated people in single-family zoned rentals. The code also covers a range of other issues: BBQ grills on decks; leaky roofs; wobbly hand rails; improper egress; and dirty furnace filters, among other things.

    • Every apartment in the city would pay a $15 annual license fee. Apartments also would pay a $50 inspection fee in the year that they are due for an inspection. The city is offering a partial rebate on that fee: If a complex averages fewer than five minor violations per unit, the facility would pay a $25 inspection fee the next time it is scheduled to be inspected.

    • The city previously has estimated it will cost about $370,000 to expand the rental licensing and inspection program. The proposed fees are designed to allow the program to break even. The city anticipates it will need to hire five new code enforcement officers and two new administrative assistants to staff the program.

    • The rental licensing process requires landlords who live more than 40 miles from the city to appoint a resident agent who can be contacted about problems at the landlord’s Lawrence apartments.

    • If approved, the city would start hiring new staff members in the second and third quarters of this year, and would start the expanded inspection program in the fourth quarter.

    The commission already has expressed some preliminary support for the program. But it will be worth watching because the idea has brought some strong responses from the landlord community. And while this City Commission is working to get this project finalized before the elections, it also is worth remembering that anything can be changed by the new commission to be elected in April. Ask Manhattan about that. Manhattan implemented an expanded rental inspection program, only to see it be discontinued after a new group of commissioners took office.

    Lawrence city commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.

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