Developer of Warehouse Arts District signs deal to redevelop large Allen Press site in downtown Lawrence

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

The former Allen Press property near 11th and Massachusetts streets includes a large amount of frontage along Massachusetts Street. The property, pictured on Sept. 21, 2021, has become the subject of redevelopment talk.

Get ready for another round of debate about what the south end of Massachusetts Street ought to look like. Prominent Lawrence developer Tony Krsnich — the founder of the Warehouse Arts District — has signed a deal that gives him the development rights to the former Allen Press property near 11th and Massachusetts streets.

Expect a big discussion because the property is big. The old Allen Press printing plant has frontage on both Massachusetts and New Hampshire streets. Plus, the deal includes a vacant parking lot on the east side of New Hampshire Street as well.

“This might be one of the largest projects in the history of downtown,” Krsnich said. “You are talking about a big site, and tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

The former Allen Press property in downtown Lawrence includes frontage along New Hampshire. The building at the southwest corner of 11th and New Hampshire streets is shown on Sept. 21, 2021.

So, what does Krsnich plan to build there? He’s not certain yet, in part because he knows how contentious developing that property has been over the years. There have been several developers who have set out to redevelop the site, only to meet opposition from City Hall, neighbors, historic preservationists or all of the above.

Krsnich thinks it is likely the property will include some mix of apartments — both market rate and units that are rent restricted through a state affordable housing program — retail, parking, maybe some offices and perhaps even a boutique hotel. But he doesn’t have any tenants lined up for the project, and hasn’t filed any plans with City Hall. He won’t right away, either, because he said he expects ideas about what should happen at the site will start floating around town.

He learned in the development of the Warehouse Arts District that it is important to listen to those ideas.

“If you remember, several years ago, the Cider Gallery wasn’t going to be the Cider Gallery,” Krsnich told me. “It was going to be market-rate housing, and then George Paley (longtime landlord and art lover) told me it needed to be an art gallery. If he didn’t come forward, it never would have happened.”

So, Krsnich wants to keep options open for a while on the property. He has structured his deal to buy the property in a unique way. He has 36 months to close on the property, which is far longer than most commercial real estate contracts allow, he said. That will give time for a plan to be developed and presented to city officials, who have a history of rejecting ideas for the property.

Most recently, in 2019, city commissioners unanimously denied a development request for the Hub on Campus development, a 550-bedroom apartment project and parking garage proposed by a Chicago real estate company.

Watching that project, plus completing several major developments in the Warehouse Arts District — those include the redevelopment of the Poehler Lofts, plus the construction of two more apartment buildings — has given him a good idea of what to avoid, he said.

“We know the city likes affordable housing,” Krsnich said. “We know the city is not going to want a skyscraper. We have heard the neighbors loud and clear that they don’t want 300 to 400 apartment units without any parking. We have heard all of that and will design our project around that.”

Krsnich said he would like to have some plans submitted to the city by the end of the year for at least a portion of the property. He thinks the easternmost portion of the site — the vacant parking lot on the east side of New Hampshire — may be the place to start development. He said a project similar to his Penn Lofts building in the Warehouse Arts District might be a good fit. That building contains a mix of rent-controlled and market rate apartment units on its upper floors, with live-work units on the ground floors. Those units allow people to live in the back half of the unit but have a small retail space or office in the front-facing part of the unit.

Krsnich may not have firm plans for the rest of the property by the end of the year, but is hopeful of having a concept figured out for the overall development by the time he submits plans for the eastern edge. Krsnich mentioned a mix of apartment units, retail space, and office space, but also came back to the idea of a “boutique hotel” multiple times. He said he’s heard several people mention the need for another hotel in the downtown area.

“I can’t tell you whether the project ultimately will have a 50- to 90-bed hotel, but I do feel like I know where a lot of the skeletons lie with a project like this,” he said. “Like, don’t try to build a six- or seven-story building, and I know the neighbors will want parking.”

One decision Krsnich will have to make is whether to get aggressive in trying to tear down the existing buildings on the site before he has firm plans for what to build. Historic planners for the city generally have not favored issuing demolition permits without a replacement plan, but Krsnich said he really thinks the old buildings need to come down. Despite efforts by the Allen family to keep them maintained, the buildings have decayed, people have gotten into them, and there are some unsafe situations, he said.

“I’m hoping to figure out some details and take those buildings down sooner rather than later,” Krsnich said. “They’re filled with mold and environmental issues, and we would like to get that taken care of.”

Demolition also would immediately improve the southern gateway to downtown, Krsnich said. 

“You have beautiful South Park nearby, you have our beautiful courthouse, and then boom, the first thing you see after that is kind of blight,” he said.

City officials will have several decisions to make about any development on the site, including whether they want to offer financial incentives for the project. Krsnich said he almost certainly would seek incentives for any project on the property. He said he likely would seek state assistance through its tax credit program for affordable housing, which he has used extensively in the Warehouse Arts District. But that district also has received significant tax and infrastructure assistance from the city of Lawrence. He said incentives on the former Allen Press property would be critical to making it the type of project the city is likely going to demand.

“Being cognizant of the dire need for affordable housing will be important,” he said. “Being cognizant of the historic fabric of the neighborhood will be critical. And being cognizant of size and density will be important. But everything I’ve mentioned there will be expensive, expensive, expensive.”

But Krsnich said his recent history of getting projects through City Hall — the Penn Street Lofts project is under construction and expected to open in the next 40 days — gives him confidence that he’ll be able to navigate the complexities of completing what could be a defining project for the downtown.

“We are going into this with a lot of experience,” he said. “I think we bring some experience that other people don’t have.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A vacant parking lot on the east side of New Hampshire Street is included as part of the former Allen Press property, which is now the subject of redevelopment talk. The lot, pictured on Sept. 21, 2021 is adjacent to a historic church building that has been converted into offices.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A large parking lot at the southeast corner of 11th and Massachusetts Street is part of the former Allen Press property that is the subject of redevelopment talk. The property, pictured on Sept. 21, 2021, is next to the historic Douglas County Courthouse, shown in the background.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.