A different type of development planned for what once was going to be the city’s research park

Lawrence businessman Roger Johnson hopes to build an office condo development in west Lawrence. The development would allow businesses to buy an individual space in a larger building rather than paying rent. The project is geared toward service businesses or others that may need some garage or storage space, in addition to offices.

Plans have been filed for a $1.5 million office development on the west Lawrence property that long has been designated to become Lawrence’s first true research park. But this development likely won’t produce a lot of research.

Lawrence businessman Roger Johnson has filed plans at City Hall to construct three office/warehouse buildings on vacant ground at 1717 Research Park Drive, which is just a block west of Wakarusa Drive and about two blocks south of Bob Billings Parkway.

The buildings will be designed for businesses that need shop spaces or have significant indoor storage needs. That could mean a manufacturer might use the space to store some overflow product, or service businesses, like a heating and air conditioning company, could use the space for their offices and a place to park their trucks at night. (Maybe that type of company will produce some research. I would pay an air conditioning company to help me understand how my wife has locked me out of our programmable thermostat.)

Regardless, the development probably won’t produce the high-tech research or corporate headquarters businesses that the late Bob Billings envisioned when he developed the area decades ago.

Johnson, the former top executive with the local excavating firm R.D. Johnson, bought a good amount of the vacant property that Billings’ company still owned in the research park. Johnson told me it has been a struggle to find any suitable developments that the city will allow on the property, in large part because it still has a special zoning designation. If you are following along at home, the zoning category is known as IBP zoning, which was created to stop industrial parks from becoming too industrial. Instead it would create more of an upscale business park that would accommodate high-tech jobs and other white-collar work.

For awhile, in the 1990s, the area looked like it was heading in that direction. The environmental company Hall-Kimbrell and the drug development firm Oread Labs both were located near the Bob Billings and Wakarusa intersection. Both of those companies have since closed. While there are some research-oriented businesses in the area — mainly some lab and office space owned by the University of Kansas’ Center for Research Inc. — the area isn’t what you would call a research park.

The latest developments have strayed even further from that goal. If you remember, Lawrence-based Professional Moving & Storage filed plans earlier this year to construct a building that will house nearly 400 ministorage units at 1300 Research Park Drive.

Johnson’s development won’t be quite like that, but it will be similar in that he’s betting the location will be convenient for service-related businesses that have storage needs and want a base in west Lawrence.

The plans at City Hall estimate about $1.5 million in construction to build three buildings that will house a total of 11 office/garage spaces. Each space will have its own overhead garage door, plus room for storage and office space. Due to the special zoning, the project will have some restrictions, according to the plan. No outdoor storage will be allowed, and only businesses that provide their services off site will be eligible for the space. In other words, it can be a base of operations but not a place where customers come on a regular basis.

Johnson plans to offer the units as office condos, meaning businesses would buy their individual space in the building. Johnson said he’s excited about the project but admits it wasn’t the first idea he had for the property.

“This is the first real project we have found that the city has let us put in the IBP zoning,” Johnson said.

He said he previously worked on creating a senior housing project to go on the property, but it ultimately was determined it wouldn’t work with the IBP zoning. Johnson, who said he owns a “bunch more” IBP zoning, said he would like the city to look at having some of it rezoned. Thus far, he hasn’t heard enough to make him think that effort would win the necessary approvals.

“We seem to be struggling to get any businesses,” Johnson said. “If we can take some of that IBP ground and convert it to some housing, we can make it productive property. We can add tax dollars to the city.”

Rezonings, though, can be difficult. Neighbors often oppose them because the point of zoning is to provide some predictability about what may locate next to you. But it will be interesting to watch whether the city becomes more open to them in the future. It seems the city is on a path to adopting updates to the community’s comprehensive plan that will make it more difficult to annex new areas into the city limits. Instead, the city wants more focus on filling in the areas of the city that haven’t already developed.

Will the city be more open to rezoning property that clearly isn’t gaining any traction with the marketplace? Or will the city think that creates too much unpredictability for neighbors? If it is the latter, then there could be cause for concern on the growth front. If you can’t bring new land into the city, and if you can’t change what isn’t working, that leaves very little room left to grow.


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