After narrow rejection by City Commission, west Lawrence townhome project has tweaked design in hopes of winning approval
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
After getting denied by city commissioners in September, a plan for a townhome development near the estate-style homes of Fall Creek Farms in west Lawrence has re-emerged.
A new set of plans for Fall Creek Villas has been filed at City Hall, and the local developer this time thinks he has the formula for winning city approval.
In a sense, the new formula involves accepting that there are many twists and turns when it comes to trying to build new homes in Lawrence. In this case, we are talking literal twists and turns.
Developer Mike McGrew said the previous plans for the project, which is just west of Kasold Drive and east of Fall Creek Road, called for a creek that runs through the property to be straightened. Commissioners last fall rejected the development plans on a 3-2 vote, in large part because they were concerned about unintended consequences of straightening the creek.
So now the curves will stay. McGrew, who is chairman of Lawrence’s McGrew Real Estate, said the townhomes have been moved slightly so that the creek can maintain its current curvy nature.
“Everybody’s concern was the creek, and we are not touching the creek now,” McGrew said.
If approved, the project will add 28 new homes to the Lawrence market, once they are built in about a year’s time. The homes will be duplex, townhouse-style structures. McGrew said they would have a more sophisticated design than a typical entry-level townhouse project, given that they will be near some of the largest and most expensive homes in Lawrence.
“The Fall Creek area is really beautiful, and there are a whole lot of nice properties out there,” McGrew said. “We are not going to build these to that price range, but we do expect our homes to have really nice exteriors.”
Local builder Jerry Willis will be the contractor constructing the project, and McGrew said Willis already has had conversations with the developers of Fall Creek Farms to ensure the designs of the townhomes fit well with the existing estate-style properties.
If you are having a hard time picturing the location of this project, that’s understandable. It is on a parcel of ground that isn’t exactly the type that has attracted a lot of development interest in the past. The northern edge of the lot starts near the southwest corner of Kasold Drive and Tomahawk Drive and then stretches south and west toward existing homes that are on West Timber Court, Arizona Place and parts of Riverview Road.
About a half-dozen estate-style lots that are part of the Fall Creek Farms development abut the west edge of the site. Here’s a screenshot from the Douglas County GIS mapping system. The wooded area that runs diagonally through the center of the screen is the proposed development site.
photo by: Douglas County GIS
The site is about 8 acres, but by the time you account for the creek, the wooded nature of the property, the required setbacks and open space, there is less than 4 acres of developable land. That’s why the project can accommodate only 14 townhouse lots. In years past, many developers would take a pass on trying to tackle a project on that type of property, especially since the developers will have to build a new road to serve the townhomes.
But the equation is changing in Lawrence about what land is a target for development, McGrew said.
“It is kind of what the city says it wants,” McGrew said. “It is infill development.”
Infill development, which is the type that happens near existing neighborhoods rather than on the outskirts of the city limits, has been a major theme of the City Commission for years. The more traditional suburban development creates concerns of urban sprawl, city officials have said.
The development comes with its own challenges, which can add to the costs of projects, which ultimately adds to the cost of the houses sold. The redesign of the project has added costs to this project.
McGrew said there is a learning curve to undertaking infill development.
“I think I’ve learned that you just have to be patient and persistent and do the very best you can with the best consultants you can get,” McGrew said.
But even then infill projects face a risk that many traditional suburban developments don’t: concerns from neighbors. By definition, an infill project usually has lots of well-established neighbors, where a development on the edge of town likely would have fewer neighbors who might show up at City Hall to oppose the project.
“This is an infill project, and nobody likes change in their backyard,” McGrew said. “And I understand that.”
How much city commissioners hear from neighbors with this latest plan — the original produced a lot of neighborhood comment — remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen how city commissioners will react to it.
While this project is relatively small, it is the type that other developers may be watching closely to monitor how commissioners react. If commissioners are willing to allow the property, which is already zoned for homes, to be developed over some neighborhood concern, then other developers may bring forward their own infill projects.
If approved, McGrew said he hopes construction on the street and other infrastructure could begin near the end of this year, with home construction starting in the spring.
Work is progressing faster on another residential development in the area. A group led by McGrew did win approval for a 50-home neighborhood that would be built 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.
McGrew has said the plans call for a mix of three- and four-bedroom single-family homes on the property, which will be quite a bit smaller than what exists at Fall Creek Farms.
The news on this project — which is dubbed Monterey Gardens at Fall Creek Farms — is that construction is scheduled to begin in September. The roads and other infrastructure will come first, with home construction to follow.