Developer, property owner sue City of Lawrence over denial of downtown apartment project
photo by: Core Spaces, Antunovich Associates
Updated at 4:56 p.m. Wednesday
The developer behind a proposal to build a five-story apartment and retail building in downtown Lawrence is suing the city, claiming city leaders bowed to pressure from residents when rejecting the project.
The lawsuit claims that decision was unlawful and asks the court to reverse the city’s denial of its project.
In May, the Lawrence City Commission unanimously denied a certificate of appropriateness to Chicago-based developer Core Spaces to build the Hub on Campus Lawrence at the northeast corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets in downtown Lawrence and determined the project did not meet downtown design guidelines.
The developer and property owners, Core Lawrence Massachusetts LLC, Allen Realty Inc. and Allen Press Inc., filed the lawsuit in Douglas County District Court last week. The lawsuit alleges that the commission’s decision was “unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious” and therefore unlawful, and asks the court to reverse the decision. The project was strongly opposed by many Lawrence residents, which the lawsuit notes.
“The City bowed to citizen pressure which was based on generalized, unsubstantiated fears and speculation unrelated to legal requirements,” the lawsuit states.
The project’s two buildings would cover the equivalent of 16 original townsite lots and provide 610 bedrooms targeted to college students. The primary structure covers nine lots and would be a five-story apartment and retail building that would stretch the width of the block between Massachusetts and New Hampshire streets, partially covering the alleyway. The secondary building would be a three-level parking garage and mixed-use structure on the east side of New Hampshire Street.
The City Commission considered the Hub project after the developer appealed previous decisions made by the city’s preservation board, the Historic Resources Commission, regarding the certificate of appropriateness and the downtown design guidelines.
The certificate was required because the project would be adjacent to three historic buildings: the English Lutheran Church, the Douglas County Courthouse and the former bank building that currently houses the Watkins Museum of History. The HRC ruled that the project was not appropriate because of its height, mass and scale, and found instead that it would encroach upon, damage and destroy the environs of the three buildings.
The project is located in the Downtown Conservation Overlay District, and the HRC also voted unanimously that the project does not comply with the city’s downtown design guidelines, particularly the guidelines related to size. Though the developer made changes to the building’s façade to make it appear like more than one building, one HRC member called the project a “Disney version” of what downtown looks like.
The City Commission approved its own findings of fact related to both denials and essentially upheld the HRC’s decisions. Those findings, which comprise 16 pages, include that the main building overwhelms the city landmarks and is incompatible with the height of other one- and two-story structures in the area. The findings also state that the building’s height and width do not follow patterns and proportions within the downtown district.
The lawsuit states that the property at 11th and Massachusetts streets has been unused and vacant for more than 25 years and failed to generate anything more than “nominal tax revenue” for the city. It also notes that the developer revised the design multiple times over a period of months in response to feedback from city staff and the HRC.
The lawsuit goes on to argue that the city’s denials were unlawful because the city acted unreasonably, arbitrarily and capriciously. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the design guidelines are insufficient to establish requirements and are “illegally vague,” violating due process under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment and state law.
“The Guidelines themselves are vague and insufficiently plain to put a person on notice of what is required, and they do not provide objective standards, or explicit standards, as to what is required of an applicant, thereby allowing arbitrary application of the Code,” the lawsuit states.
Regarding the certificate of appropriateness, the lawsuit also argues the denial was not supported by substantial evidence. The lawsuit alleges that the project should not have been subject to the certificate requirement because the property is not within a historic district and does not qualify to be in the environs of a historic district. It goes on to state that the project is compatible with the historic buildings and other downtown structures and will not cause any physical damage to any historic property.
This is not the first time the developer has taken legal action against a city for denying its Hub on Campus student housing projects, which have been built or proposed in about 20 cities across the country, according to Core Space’s website.
When the city of Flagstaff denied plans for an approximately 600-bed Hub on Campus apartment complex, citing incompatibility with scale and zoning, the developer sued the city, according to reporting from the Arizona Daily Sun. Developers argued that the zoning code was too ambiguous and ultimately prevailed in the case and built the complex, which opened last year.
The lawsuit asks the court to reverse the City Commission’s decision, direct the city to take steps to approve the request and order repayment of the developer and property owners’ costs and attorney fees. An attorney representing the developer and property owners in the case did not immediately return a phone call from the Journal-World Wednesday afternoon.
The lawsuit was delivered to the city clerk’s office Tuesday, and the city has not yet filed a response. City Attorney Toni Wheeler told the Journal-World via email that the city did not have a comment regarding the lawsuit at this time.