Plans filed for new neighborhood next to Fall Creek Farms in west Lawrence; developers worried about keeping up with Panasonic demand

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

This photo shows a portion of a 12-acre meadow that would become home to a 50-home neighborhood under plans filed at Lawrence City Hall. In the background are rooftops in the Fall Creek Farms neighborhood.

Smaller seems to be better in Lawrence these days, especially when it comes to housing.

New plans have been filed for a 50-home neighborhood next door to some of the largest estate homes in Lawrence. The new homes, however, will be smaller and on smaller lots.

A group led by Mike McGrew, chair of Lawrence’s McGrew Real Estate, has filed plans to build 50 homes on about 12 acres of vacant land at the southeast corner of Peterson Road and Monterey Way. That is just west of Fall Creek Farms, the estate-style development that features some of the largest homes in Lawrence.

The property has been part of the master plan for Fall Creek Farms for years. But the developers of Fall Creek — members of the Lawrence-based Gene Fritzel Construction family — have struck a deal with McGrew to develop the property with smaller homes.

McGrew said he expects a mix of three- and a four-bedroom single-family homes on the property. McGrew said he hopes the properties will be “starter-homes,” but that is a term that is quickly losing meaning in Lawrence.

“What do you call starter housing in Lawrence now?” McGrew asked.

McGrew is working with Lawrence builder Jerry Willis on this new project. Willis and McGrew also worked together on the new Naismith Creek neighborhood, which is near 31st and Louisiana streets. McGrew noted that when that project began a few years ago, the three- and four-bedroom homes there were selling for about $200,000. By the end of the project a few months ago, they were selling for $300,000 or more. That leaves McGrew uncertain how much homes in the new west Lawrence development will sell for.

“I would guess that by the time we get started with construction on this project, we may be talking about starter homes in Lawrence at the $400,000 level,” McGrew said. “Time will tell if that is where we end up.”

McGrew said he expects the homes in the new neighborhood — dubbed Monterey Gardens at Fall Creek Farms — to be similar in size and floor plans to those built in the Naismith Creek neighborhood. However, McGrew said the interior and exterior finishes on the homes may feature higher-end materials.

Whether Lawrence soon gets to a point where $400,000 constitutes a new starter home may depend on how the development community and City Hall react to the news that Panasonic is building a $4 billion battery manufacturing plant in nearby De Soto. In addition to the 4,000 jobs expected at the battery plant, another 4,000 jobs are expected at suppliers who will locate in the area, and the project is expected to employ about 16,000 construction workers during the multiyear build-out of the facility and related infrastructure.

“It will be transformational,” McGrew, one of the longest serving real estate executives in the city, said of the project. “I hope it will be so in a positive way. But if we have have a shortage of housing supply now, what is it going to look like when that rolls into our region?”

McGrew said he hopes to have all the necessary city approvals for the project so that infrastructure such as streets, utility lines and other such items can be built next year, with a goal of housing construction to begin late next year.

If you are keeping track, this is the second project that McGrew and Willis have proposed for the area near Fall Creek Farms. As we reported in July, the pair filed plans for 15 townhomes — meaning 30 living units — to be built on a wooded 8-acre lot that is next door to Fall Creek Farms. That project is on the eastern edge of Fall Creek Farms — near Kasold Drive and Tomahawk Drive — while this new project is on the western edge of Fall Creek Farms.

McGrew said the townhome project continues to work its way through the city’s approval process.

In another part of west Lawrence, a different developer also is changing his plans for a new neighborhood to meet the city’s desire for more dense neighborhoods with smaller lots.

Lawrence businessman Roger Johnson told me plans for a new neighborhood at the southeast corner of George Williams Way and Sixth Street — which we reported on in January — have been scrapped after he received feedback from City Hall.

The original plans for the development — dubbed Beth’s Ranch — called for about 80 single-family homes on the property, which used to house a horse ranch before the city grew that far west.

Johnson, though, said he was told by city leaders that the project wasn’t dense enough. In other words it wanted to see more housing on that approximately 20-acre piece of ground that stretches along Sixth Street from George Williams Way to Stoneridge Drive.

Johnson said he’s now hired a new engineering firm to create a new design for the neighborhood. One of the biggest changes will be that instead of a neighborhood consisting entirely of single-family homes, the new plans will include a mix of single-family homes and townhomes, which include two living units under one roof.

The new project likely will have 100 to 120 living units, instead of the 80 to 90 envisioned under the previous plan.

Johnson said he continues to hear a lot of statements from city leadership that question whether traditional single-family development “pays for itself,” in terms of the new taxes and benefits it creates for the community.

“I’ve been told if I don’t start bringing projects with more density, I will never get anything approved,” Johnson said.

Indeed, I hear others in the development world say the same thing. If that is the direction the city sticks with, that likely will mean a lot more neighborhoods in Lawrence where single-family homes and duplexes are interspersed, and developments where the yard space of each home is quite a bit less than the suburban-style development that has been frequent in west Lawrence for decades. Of course, smaller yards are common in some of the older neighborhoods of town.

There is not any reason to believe that Lawrence is going to abandon its quest for more density. As we’ve reported, the city has started a process to create a new land development code, and one of its themes is expected to be regulations that promote denser development.

It will be interesting to watch how the city manages the process of creating a new development code while also responding to expected heavy demand for housing related to the Panasonic development. It is not hard to envision elected leaders balking at some development proposals that come forward under the old development code because they think the new development code will want something much different.

When I asked McGrew what he thought of the prospect of trying to meet the demand for housing while city leaders also create a new development code, he said “we have to play the hand we are dealt.”

But he also said it will be critical for Lawrence to play that hand well, or else pay a steep price for a long time to come.

“I would tell everyone that we need to urgently attend to the supply side issues in the housing market in Lawrence, Kansas, or else we are going to end up living in a very expensive place,” McGrew said.


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