City of Lawrence proposing $29 million headquarters to consolidate field operations
photo by: Nick Krug
City leaders say they are supportive of a plan to build a $29 million field operations headquarters that could take the place of up to a dozen existing city facilities.
The project is one of the big-ticket items on City Manager Craig Owens’ $239 million, five-year capital improvement plan, which was presented to the City Commission earlier this month. However, the concept dates back to 2017 under former City Manager Tom Markus, who recommended consolidation of various city facilities into a “public works campus” as a way to improve service and save money by sharing operational and equipment costs.
Several commissioners recently told the Journal-World that they support the concept for the project, though they are awaiting more details. Commissioner Stuart Boley said there is still more to learn, but that if two city managers have seen the need for the project, he is also inclined to support it. Though the project was originally proposed by Markus, Boley said the project’s goal of making the city’s operations more efficient ties into one of Owens’ main priorities — lowering the city’s cost of ownership for its various assets.
“That’s an important thing for us to be considering, because we spend a lot of money on maintaining our common assets, and to do it effectively and efficiently is something that we need to seriously consider,” Boley said.
As currently proposed, Owens’ recommended CIP includes $28.95 million for the field operations facility, $14.4 million of which is budgeted for 2021. A document spelling out more details on the project lists several challenges with the current field facilities, including decentralized locations that require excessive drive time and duplication of certain facilities and functions. Other challenges noted are employee safety, lack of security, insufficient technology systems and insufficient storage for equipment, materials and inventory.
Markus’ consolidation effort included the merger of the city’s public works and utilities services departments in 2018, but the resulting Municipal Services and Operations Department continues to work out of various buildings and facilities. If the commission ultimately decides to move forward with the field operations headquarters, the new center could bring together the MSO department and some other city functions in one location. The city currently has 20 maintenance-oriented facilities, according to city staff reports previously provided to the commission.
City officials say the project could potentially house as many as a dozen city functions, but particulars are still being reviewed. The commission approved an approximately $577,000 engineering services agreement in October with Dake Wells Architecture for preliminary design services for the project. City Engineering Program Manager Andrew Ensz said in an email to the Journal-World that the project’s design team and city staff are reviewing all of the possible functions and divisions the facility could serve. Ensz said the divisions currently under review include solid waste, streets, traffic, stormwater, water, wastewater, inspections, the central maintenance garage, facilities, forestry, horticulture and household hazardous waste.
Mayor Jennifer Ananda also said she was supportive of moving forward with the project. While she acknowledged the uncertain financial situation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she saw long-term benefits, including increased efficiency from reducing travel among facilities. She said she hoped it would be one of many projects that would eventually save the city money and allow it to pass those savings on to residents.
“We are making simpler a very complex system, and that for me is the key piece of this,” Ananda said.
Some commissioners also said the project would address significant problems with some of the city’s current facilities, in particular the multipurpose public works yard at the intersection of 11th Street and Haskell Avenue.
Ensz said many of the existing facilities are inadequate for current and future city services, with problems including insufficient space and deferred maintenance issues that create safety concerns for workers. In particular, Ensz said that the facilities at 11th and Haskell — which include solid waste operations, the vehicle maintenance garage and the landscape and forestry shop — are in areas that are subject to flooding, which restricts any improvements that can be made on the site.
Commissioner Courtney Shipley said she thinks the current facilities at 11th and Haskell are inadequate and provide poor working conditions for city employees. Shipley said making sure employees have a safe space to work is paramount for her. Though she is generally supportive of the project and would like to move forward with planning, Shipley said she’s also waiting to see more details.
“In particular with solid waste, making sure that they have a safe space is extremely important,” Shipley said. “Learning what I did about the conditions they work in really put them at the top of my list.”
Boley said the functionality of the city’s current facilities is also a concern for him. He said he saw the project as tying into the city’s effort to address deferred maintenance of streets, utilities and other infrastructure, and he was supportive of moving forward in the planning process.
“I’m convinced of the need and I think this is a good plan, but we still have more to learn about the plan,” Boley said.
New uses for city property
The city has said the project will likely require about 75 acres, and one of the potential locations to build the center is the city-owned Farmland remediation site on the eastern edge of Lawrence. Moving up to a dozen functions could also free up other city properties for new uses.
The city took ownership of the former Farmland fertilizer plant in 2010 with the plan of using part of the 467-acre site for a new business park, VenturePark. The city paid nothing for the property but accepted responsibility for cleaning up environmental issues left behind by the bankrupt plant. Remediation work at the site has been underway for years, and another $1.5 million for remediation is included in the recommended capital improvement plan for next year.
Apart from the property at 11th and Haskell, it is not yet determined which existing city buildings and properties would no longer be used if the new field operations center were built. Ensz said that the design team is also reviewing potential uses of existing facilities. He said the facilities located in the floodway or floodplain at 11th and Haskell would likely become green space, and it’s possible a few of the existing facilities in other locations would be repurposed or sold.
Both Shipley and Ananda said that there could be exciting prospects for how the green space at 11th and Haskell could be used. Ananda said that any vacated properties could be opportunities for the city to address some of its other goals, such as affordable housing or environmental sustainability.
“There are other spaces that have land, have buildings, and are prime opportunities to meet some of those really big goals,” Ananda said.
Ensz said that city staff and the design team will be holding a public meeting to seek input from residents prior to presenting the preliminary design for the project to the City Commission. He said the public meeting will likely be sometime in August or September, and the commission presentation would occur sometime after that.
The next step in the city’s budget process will take place on Tuesday, when the commission will be asked to consider authorizing publication of the 2021 budget summary that establishes the city’s maximum expenditure authority. The public hearing for the budget is scheduled for Aug. 11.