The idea of condo living in West Lawrence already has made a good comeback, and now developers are poised to test whether it can make an even bigger one.
Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall for a new 22-unit, upscale condo development to be built on the vacant lot east of the Bella Serra condos near Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive.
Jason Todd, of Hedges Realty Executives and a spokesman for the development group, said the new project would be called Bella Mattina and may share some amenities with the adjacent Bella Sera. (In case you fell asleep in Italian class dreaming of linguini, Lamborghinis, and Sophia Loren, Bella Sera is Italian for "beautiful day," and Bella Mattina is Italian for "beautiful morning." According to my Italian teacher, Mr. Googleguini, that is.)
At this point, perhaps you are thinking you don't understand Italian. You thought Bella Sera was largely empty. Well, that was under old management. As we've previously reported, and as the weekly land transfers regularly show, buying activity has been strong at the condo development since new ownership took over in the spring of 2012. At that time, 24 of the 37 condo units in the building were vacant. Now, all 37 have been sold, Todd said.
"If we would have had 10 or 12 more units this summer, we could have sold them," Todd said.
But Todd said the development group will be careful not to oversaturate the market. That means the group won't build one large building, but rather will build four smaller buildings that will allow the development to be constructed in phases. The initial construction, however, could begin later this year, if the project wins the necessary approvals.
Todd said prices for the new units likely will range from about $225,000 to $500,000. Sizes will range from about 1,000 square feet to about 3,200 square feet. The project will feature some innovative design as well. Todd said a handful of the condos will be three-story units, with a garage on the ground floor and living and bedroom space on the second and third floors. Those units will have private elevators. He said it's a design that has started to take hold in several urban areas and is being used on this project to help increase the number of condo units with premium views.
The project isn't a done deal. Todd said he's continuing to work with existing condo owners at Bella Sera to ensure the new development fits in well, and the project must win approval from both the Planning Commission and City Commission before it can move ahead.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we reported earlier this month, a 90-unit senior rental community near 23rd Street and O'Connell Road also is on the drawing board. But this project comes with a twist. The Olathe development group proposing it wants a 100 percent property tax abatement. Technically the project could qualify for one under state law because the project is proposed as an affordable housing project subject to rent levels set by the state. But city staff members aren't so sure they want to open the door to offering tax abatement to housing projects. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday evening will be asked to give some guidance.
In a new memo, staff members suggest that providing Industrial Revenue Bonds for the project may be appropriate, which would allow the project to be exempt from paying sales tax on building materials. But the memo expresses concern about granting a property tax abatement because that may give the development an unfair advantage over other complexes.
On Tuesday, commissioners will be asked whether they want to begin formally processing and reviewing the property tax abatement request or nix that idea now.
As part of the request, the development group, Olathe-based Bethel Estates, has estimated rents will range from about $460 a month to $575 a month for one-bedroom apartments and about $700 a month for two-bedroom units.
• This news item about wind farms caught my eye because the idea of wind energy is one Douglas County may need to start thinking more about. As we previously have reported, a wind farm developer has some preliminary interest in property in southwest Douglas County. I think some people have kind of scoffed at the idea of a wind farm in Douglas County. For years we've been told this part of the state does really have much wind energy potential.
But technology is an interesting thing. We're drilling for oil and natural gas in places we wouldn't have thought of 10 years ago, thanks to technological advances. Perhaps the same will happen with wind energy. Or perhaps it already has. The article that caught my eye in The St. Joseph News-Press reports on how a 200 megawatt wind farm development outside of St. Joseph, Mo., near Oregon, Mo., is expected to begin construction this year. The project has about 25,000 acres under lease, and is providing payments to about 100 landowners. The project is expected to be about a $400 million project, according to the report in the News-Press. Maybe the wind is completely different in northwest Missouri, but in the grand scheme of things, Douglas County is in the same region.
Douglas County planners are coming up with regulations that would apply to wind farm development in Douglas County. I think it will be an interesting project — and an interesting set of reactions — to watch.
More LJWorld City Coverage
If Lawrence really wants to become a destination for retirees, Rebecca Buford, executive director of Lawrence's Tenants to Homeowners, believes there is an issue community leaders might want to think about: an affordable place for retirees to live.
"If we really want seniors to come live here, we should think about this," Buford said. "We don't want them locking up all their money in housing. We want them to have money available to spend in Lawrence."
Buford and her not-for-profit agency have filed plans to build a 14-unit, rent-controlled, senior living housing development on property just behind the United Way building in south Lawrence.
Tenants to Homeowners has filed a request to rezone about 2 acres of vacant property at 2518 Ridge Court to RM-12 multi-family zoning. The property currently is zoned for RS-7 single family development.
Buford said concept plans call for the property to be developed with a mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom townhouses that will be limited to seniors 55 and older.
Buford said a group of retirees or soon-to-be retirees approached Tenants to Homeowners about the project, saying that Lawrence needed more retirement housing that "felt like a neighborhood instead of a high-rise apartment complex."
Buford said current plans call for Tenants to Homeowners to rent the properties to seniors rather than sell the townhouses. Buford said feedback from several retirees indicated they would rather rent than own.
"Seniors don't want to lock all their equity up into their homes," Buford said. "They usually need access to their equity for health care and other expenses."
The units will rent for below-market rates, and seniors must meet certain income guidelines to qualify for a unit. Buford said the project will be geared at those seniors who make 80 percent or less of the area's median income. For a family size of two, that means an annual income of $45,350 or less.
The property currently is owned by Douglas County. It was part of the old Valley View Nursing Home that the county operated decades ago. Buford said plans call for the county to donate the property to Tenants to Homeowners, which will help the project offer below-market rates. Buford said she also is working to secure grants and other financing for the approximately $2 million project.
If the City Hall land use approvals come through in a timely fashion, Buford hopes to break ground next spring and be ready to open by late 2014.
Buford acknowledges the project may face opposition from a few neighbors, which is often the case when vacant ground in an established neighborhood is proposed to be developed. This one comes with the added hurdle that Tenants to Homeowners is asking for a zoning category that often is used to build apartments. But Buford said Tenants to Homeowners is committed to the idea of townhouse development rather than a traditional apartment complex. And she said the development will place restrictions on the land to ensure that it always remains limited to senior housing.
But this may be one project that hits City Hall with a lot of momentum. It is combining two trends that have been getting a lot of talk locally: affordable housing and attracting retirees. There was an entire joint city-county task force on attracting retirees to the city.
And this is the third affordable housing project to surface in recent months, joining the public-private proposal by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority at 23rd and O'Connell, and plans for a new four-story development near the Poehler Lofts building in East Lawrence. By the way, Buford confirmed to me that Tenants to Homeowners has agreed to be a partner in that project, which will feature 43 units in a newly-constructed building at the southeast corner of Ninth and Delaware streets.