Plans filed to convert old, vacant East Lawrence tavern building into neighborhood restaurant

photo by: Kim Callahan

The former Charlie’s East Side Grill & Bar, 900 Pennsylvania St., pictured on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

An old tavern building on an East Lawrence corner may get new life as a neighborhood restaurant.

Longtime Lawrence restaurant and bar owner Brad Ziegler has filed plans at City Hall to use the mid-1800s stone building at 900 Pennsylvania St. as a “neighborhood restaurant.”

Those of you who have been in Lawrence long enough might remember Charlie’s Eastside Grill & Bar at Ninth and Pennsylvania streets. The slightly crooked “Coors on Tap” sign that hung outside the building stood in contrast to the fairly straight talk you could hear from the host of blue collar workers who gathered at the East Lawrence spot that used to be in the heart of Lawrence’s industrial district.

That’s no longer the case. Most of the industrial uses in East Lawrence have faded away, with the exception being the Allen Press Printing plant and headquarters that is about a block from the tavern site.

Charlie’s closed in 2014, and that became a problem for the property. The tavern use had existed on the property for decades, despite the land not being properly zoned for a tavern, a restaurant or a bar. A “grandfather clause” in the city’s zoning code allowed it to continue to operate as a bar, even though it didn’t have the right zoning to do so. But once the building sat vacant for more than a year, the property lost its grandfather status.

Several people have had ideas for a bar, a restaurant or even a wine shop in the old stone building, but those plans have quickly faded once they realized the property was going to have to go through a complete rezoning, which is a process that can take months and still end up being rejected by Lawrence City Hall.

Ziegler, though, seems ready to take on the challenge. Ziegler has owned many bars and restaurants in Lawrence at one time or the other, ranging from the Eighth Street Taproom in downtown to Six Mile Chophouse at Sixth and Wakarusa in west Lawrence.

One of Ziegler’s more recent restaurant openings, though, is the Big Mill at Ninth and Mississippi streets. Ziegler converted that old grocery store and laundromat building in a restaurant that serves Detroit style pizza and other offerings.

He said he hopes to do something similar with the old Charlie’s building, although he hasn’t settled on a particular menu style or theme.

“I’m not for sure what direction I would go, but I would want to focus on a Saturday and Sunday morning brunch business as part of it,” Ziegler said. “I think that would go over well there.”

The old tavern building is basically just south of the Warehouse Arts District, which has a mix of residential, office and gallery spaces.

Charlie’s primarily was known as a bar for much of its existence. Ziegler said that is not what he’s looking to do with the property. Instead, like Big Mill, he envisions a restaurant that serves drinks.

“It will be casual, but we definitely are very focused on food at Big Mill, and that is what we would carry over to this project,” Ziegler said.

He said he also would try to make changes to make the property fit in better with the residential neighborhood that it abuts. For example, the large deck on the building primarily faces towards the nearby homes. Ziegler said he would propose moving the outdoor seating area to face north, toward the Warehouse Arts District.

But the biggest improvement for the neighborhood, he argues, would be the change in zoning. The property currently is zoned General Industrial, which is the most intense industrial zoning category in the city. Technically, you could have a factory with a belching smokestack on the property, although in reality you probably wouldn’t due to its size. However, the property realistically could be used for some fairly heavy uses such as a small-scale manufacturing location, vehicle storage or a salvage type of businesses.

Ziegler is seeking a zoning designation of limited industrial for the property, and he’s willing to have the zoning approved in a way that would disallow several industrial uses that normally are allowed as part of the limited industrial zoning category. Those include: mobile homes, animal services, recycling facilities, inoperable vehicle storage, gas and fuel sales, fleet storage and RV and boat storage.

The limited industrial zoning category allows for restaurants, as do several other commercial zoning categories, like a neighborhood commercial zoning. However, a neighborhood commercial zoning category would limit the building to no more than 3,000 square feet in size. The application filed with City Hall indicated the project might exceed that size cap, especially if enclosed outdoor seating areas are counted. The building currently is about 1,200 square feet, spread over two floors.

As for parking, Lawrence attorney Patrick Watkins, who is representing Ziegler in the rezoning matter, said an agreement is in place that would allow the restaurant to use a private parking lot that is caddy-corner from the old tavern site. The lot is part of the Warehouse Arts District.

Watkins said he thinks the proposed limited industrial zoning would give the building the best chance to be reused in the future.

“And it really adds to the character and ambiance of these neighborhoods to try these old buildings,” said Watkins, who has worked on several historic preservation projects.

This old tavern building is older than most. I’ve seen estimates that it was built between 1855 and 1860, which would make it one of the very oldest buildings in town. I’ve heard that it was maybe once a blacksmith shop, but I’m unclear on its history. Unlike most buildings of that age, it doesn’t appear to be on any historic register, which means it has less protection than many other buildings its age.

Ziegler, though, said he’s not going into the project with the idea of tearing down the building at all.

“I love the building,” Ziegler said of what attracted him to the project. “There are not too many in Lawrence that are like that one.”

The rezoning process likely will take several months to complete. It tentatively is scheduled to receive its first hearing before the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission in late September.


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