Eight affordable housing units proposed for former Penn House property, but neighbors have concerns

photo by: Rendering by Sabatini Architects

Renderings show a project proposed for 1035 Pennsylvania St.

Plans have been filed at City Hall to build eight affordable housing units on the site of the former Penn House building in East Lawrence, but a neighborhood leader says the project might face some pushback.

The preliminary plans call for the demolition of the existing structure and the construction of two buildings, each containing four one-bedroom apartments. The site consists of two lots near the corner of 11th and Pennsylvania streets and is currently zoned for single-family residential uses. The project would require a zoning change to multi-dwelling residential in order to move forward as planned.

The new owners of the property, Lawrence residents Mike and Tami Nevels, plan to partner with the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority on the project, according to rezoning application materials submitted to the city. The eight apartments would be permanently affordable — offered at or below fair market rent — and would be supported by federal Housing and Urban Development funds allocated by the housing authority.

Tami Nevels told the Journal-World that she and her husband intended the new development to provide better housing for chronically homeless people with disabilities. She said it would support a program for that population that the housing authority already provides.

“The program already exists; our plan is just to pick those residents up and put them in a place that gives them everything they would need to succeed,” Nevels said. She said the development would be close to services in the downtown area, and that there would be an office on site for a case worker.

The housing authority would be the operator of the facility, the application said. Plans show that the two four-plex buildings would have an energy-efficient design and the site would contain a common open space, a community garden and a bike shed.

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The rezoning request and the preliminary development plan are scheduled to go before the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission next month, where they will likely face some opposition from residents.

East Lawrence Neighborhood Association President Phil Collison said that ELNA leadership has been working closely with the Nevels and the housing authority, but that some immediate neighbors of the former Penn House site had voiced concerns. He said that he personally supported the project, but that ELNA would defer to neighbors of the project when determining its position. He said ELNA would further discuss the topic at its next meeting on Oct. 14.

On Wednesday, homeowners in the 1000 block of Pennsylvania Street sent a letter to ELNA outlining their position. The letter states that the residents are opposed to changing the zoning of the two lots, and that they feel strongly that the added population density would have negative consequences for residents. The residents added that they would oppose density increases regardless of what kind of development wanted to locate at the site.

“Given the long term consequences and future eventualities that occur after giving up the single family residential (zoning), anything other than opposing the project is unacceptable,” the letter states.

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In the rezoning application, the property owners said they would continue communicating with ELNA and neighbors to address any issues or concerns that may arise. Nevels reiterated that desire when speaking with the Journal-World on Wednesday.

“We will do what we can to address their needs and make sure that everybody’s happy in the process,” Nevels said.

Nevels noted that she and her husband live a few blocks from the site and wanted to do something to address the affordable housing shortage and other issues in Lawrence. She said she hoped the project would encourage other residents or groups to try to help as well.

The developer statement notes the lack of affordable and accessible housing in Lawrence and speaks to the project’s aspirations. The statement says that the property, as Penn House, was originally a social services agency and the project would maintain that social service nature by converting it to affordable housing with supportive programming through the housing authority.

Penn House was formerly operated by the Ballard Center and provided a clothes closet, community food pantry and household goods store. The Ballard Center relocated those services to its building in North Lawrence last year in order to operate more efficiently, the Journal-World previously reported. The Ballard Center then sold the property at 1035 Pennsylvania St.

The Planning Commission will consider the rezoning request and the preliminary development plan at its meeting Oct. 21.


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