City may need to rebuild community building at The Village; homeless project has standing water near electrical boxes used by residents

photo by: Shawn Valverde

Construction at The Village, 256 N. Michigan St., wrapped up Friday, Dec. 1, 2023.

Lawrence City Hall officials are acknowledging their $2.2 million Village site for the homeless may need a new construction project after its community building took on water, creating potential safety problems.

The project’s community building, where meals are served and other daily gatherings happen, has become a potentially dangerous mix of standing water and electricity. Photos obtained by the Journal-World show that the community building has a gravel floor that holds standing water, yet the building is being used to house electrical appliances that residents use in the wet conditions. The building lacks a traditional roof, but rather is covered with a tent.

The environment has created enough concern that someone wrote a makeshift note on a wall warning people to look down at the floor for water before reaching up the wall to touch an electrical outlet box that is dangling from the ceiling.

photo by: Submitted

A handwritten message on the stud of a wall at the community building in The Village project for the homeless is shown. The message seemingly is providing a warning about the wet floor below the dangling electrical box overhead.

A spokeswoman for the City of Lawrence, which served as the developer and funder for The Village project at 256 N. Michigan St., responded to concerns about the building this week after the Journal-World shared approximately a half-dozen photos from the site.

Spokeswoman Cori Wallace told the Journal-World via email that the city has been meeting with leaders of the Lawrence Community Shelter about the community building issues.

“We’re working together, both the City and LCS to improve resilience, durability, and functionality of the space, and are actively planning for a phase two for that building,” Wallace said. “We know that when the space is upgraded, it will ensure a more stable and functional space for food service and community gatherings.”

photo by: Submitted

Standing water is shown on the gravel floor of the community building in The Village project.

The current situation, though, does create some worries for the leader of the Lawrence Community Shelter, which is the group hired by the city to operate The Village.

“That has been a concern of mine from day one,” James Chiselom, director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, told the Journal-World in an interview.

Chiselom, who was not involved in the design or construction phases of The Village, said there have been no incidents where anybody has been electrically shocked or otherwise hurt in the community building due to the presence of the standing water and the electrical boxes. But the issue is concerning, nonetheless.

“Nobody has been injured, but that is a concern to everybody about the standing water,” Chiselom said. “We are actively engaged in efforts to figure out what to do next.”

photo by: Submitted photo

A food station with electrical appliances is shown at The Village project.

photo by: Submitted photo

A food station with electrical appliances are shown at The Village project.

Under its contract with the city, LCS is responsible for operations at The Village, while the city is responsible for maintenance at the site. Chiselom said he does believe the city is taking the issue seriously and is working to make the situation better. He said the city has sent plumbers, electricians and other trade professionals to the site to assess the problem.

The unconventional design and construction of the building seemingly is causing some of the problems with the building taking on water. In addition to the gravel floor, Wallace said the building has a “tent roof” rather than a traditional wood and shingle roof. More specifically, Chiselom said the roof is an actual tent that simply was placed above the structure.

Chiselom said he doesn’t know why the building was constructed in that manner. He was working in another community for a different employer during the time The Village project was under construction. He said he’s inquired about those decisions but is unclear on why it was constructed in that manner.

The building was newly constructed by the city as part of its approximately one-year development process for The Village. The city spent $2.2 million on the overall project, which includes 50 prefabricated cabins that serve as temporary residences for people who are otherwise homeless.

The Journal-World asked the city for details about why the city constructed the building in a manner that seemingly has made it susceptible to water infiltration and other such issues. In her emailed response, Wallace provided information about what the city hopes to do moving forward.

“The community building was designed as a short-term solution with a lot of flexibility,” Wallace said via email. “We’re talking with our operating partners at LCS about longer-term options that are designed for more regular use, and we are exploring a more traditional-style structure.

“It might be a pre-fabricated structure, it might involve pouring a concrete floor and enhancing the existing building. We’re in ongoing discussions where we learn more about the options available, and we’re focused on specific upgrades to materials with durability and functionality as a goal.”

The city, since the project’s conception, has said The Village is expected to be in operation for three to five years.

Lawrence city commissioners granted a key exception to The Village project regarding how the development would be constructed. The city approved a special provision that exempted the project from the city’s general building codes. The codes almost certainly would not allow some of the conditions that currently exist in the community building.

As the Journal-World has reported, builders in the community have criticized the project for not being required to meet basic building codes, and also have criticized the overall price of the project, given its size and durability.

City officials have defended the process behind the project and said the unusual development process should be judged against the idea that the city was in a crisis mode when the The Village was conceived. There were estimates and evidence of several hundred homeless individuals camping throughout the city, both in a city-sanctioned camp and in many unsanctioned camps.

The city spokeswoman this week said the city and LCS are trying to take some immediate steps to improve the current situation.

“We’re actively discussing practical ways we can make that space more resilient against the elements and better for guests,” Wallace said via email. “LCS has prepared for some short-term solutions, such as 2-inch pliable mats that can be easily cleaned and can be removed from the structure to dry, as well as a platform for the refrigerator in the community building.”

Chiselom agreed that the city and LCS are working in a team-like manner to try to improve the situation.

“As an executive director in charge of caring for people, I have some of the same concerns,” Chiselom said, referring to the condition of the community building. “I have voiced my concerns, and they have been addressing them as they come up. We do have plans to address the standing water.”

photo by: Submitted photo

Ponding water is shown around the base of one of the living units at The Village.

There also have been concerns about whether water also will infiltrate the actual living units at the site. One photo provided to the Journal-World appears to show significant amounts of pooling water around the base of one of the living units.

Chiselom said pooling has occurred around at least one unit, but LCS staff hasn’t yet seen signs that water has made its way into the living units.

Wallace said the city will be prepared to provide assistance if living units do suffer from water damage.

“If guests are experiencing that, or staff have seen pooling or excess water, we can and will work with LCS to get materials that will address the pooling.”

The Village began housing residents in March. It has recently been operating at its capacity of 50 residents, Chiselom said, and has a waiting list of 40 to 50 people. It also has had about a half-dozen residents move out of The Village because they have found permanent housing.


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