Project underway to create new hub for smaller offices in downtown Lawrence

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World Photo

1031 Vermont Street is shown on Sept. 3, 2020. The building is being converted into a hub for small office space.

Chicken-or-egg questions have never been that difficult for me. The answer seems obvious: Both, fried, please. But downtown does have a slightly more difficult which-comes-first type of question. Does downtown need more residential development in order to get more office development, or does it need more office development to get more residential development?

“Will they live down here if they don’t have places to work? Will they work down here if they don’t have places to live?” local attorney Patrick Watkins asked.

Watkins, who does a lot of work for the development community, isn’t sure of the answer, but he is confident that downtown will need both new residential and office development to remain healthy as restaurant and retail businesses may continue to be under pressure for a while.

That’s one of the reasons he and a partner have undertaken a new office development along Vermont Street.

Watkins and Tom Larkin — who previously worked with Tony Krsnich in the Warehouse Arts District — are renovating an existing 6,000-square-foot building at 1031 Vermont St. to serve as a new office hub for several small to midsize businesses. The space used to house the law offices of Brandy Sutton and more recently the Miller Midyett real estate agency.

The project is being designed to accommodate up to 15 small, single-office businesses. Or, depending on demand, it may accommodate half that many midsize businesses. Watkins is betting that there is still going to be demand for office space even as work habits change as a result of the pandemic. Some of that space, though, may be smaller. People may be looking for the equivalent of a home office that is just not at home.

“Zoom calls are something we probably are going to have to deal with for a long time, but having a space that you can go to, get away and do work is still important,” he said.

And having more office space probably is going to be more important to downtown. Restaurants, retail and apartment/condo development all get more attention than office development in downtown. But Watkins said offices are a critical component because office workers can support all three of the other types of uses. There are plenty of people who talk about wanting downtown to be a live-work type of neighborhood, but that likely will involve more offices.

“I think residential density and offices go hand in hand,” Watkins said. “Providing workspace like this gets us one step closer to bringing more people downtown.”

Watkins also hopes that it might give a handful of people one less reason to commute outside of Lawrence for work.

“We do think there are a number of people who are executives who haven’t been able to make it back to the corporate office in Kansas City or Topeka (because of the pandemic), but would like something like this,” Watkins said.

Part of the building, he said, will be devoted to offices about 130 square feet in size, which the group hopes to bring to the market for about $750 a month for rent, utilities, broadband service and shared common space.

Other parts of the building will be set up for larger offices that could accommodate up to five people.

Renovation work is underway on the building. Watkins said the design will feature 17 skylights, exposed wood rafters and several COVID-conscious design elements, such as easy-to-clean concrete floors, self-opening doors, individual restrooms and touchless water bottle filling stations.

The project also involves exterior improvements, including a new front facade. Watkins said he hopes the project will be completed in late September or early October.

This project certainly isn’t the only office development that has gotten underway in downtown. The upstairs space above Mass Street Soda and Sylas and Maddy’s ice cream shop at 11th and Massachusetts is now home to a tech company, alarm.com. I’m hoping to catch up with officials there for an update.

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