Speculation grows that city is interested in locating homeless project along Haskell Avenue; county-owned site near shelter not in the running

photo by: Douglas County GIS

The property at 800 Lynn St.

There are indications that the city is interested in a site near 18th and Haskell to locate a unique “pallet home” project that would provide small shelters for about 75 individuals who are homeless.

While city officials won’t confirm whether it is targeting the Haskell Avenue property, they did confirm one piece of property the city is not considering for the homeless project: a large piece of county-owned land that is directly behind the Lawrence Community Shelter, which provides services to the homeless but also has seen its capacity stretched thin of late.

There is uncertainty surrounding both pieces of information. The city would not comment on whether it is interested in the privately owned lot along Haskell Avenue, which has an address of 800 Lynn St. but is located along Haskell about one block north of 19th Street.

Multiple people who follow neighborhood and homelessness issues in the community, though, have told me the city has a strong interest in the Haskell property, which is near many single-family homes and is caddy-corner from the Edgewood Homes public housing complex.

As for the decision to not pursue the county property near the homeless shelter, the uncertainty there centers on why the city has not considered the property. In addition to being next to a shelter that provides a variety of services to the homeless, it also is on a bus line and generally would not encroach upon an existing residential neighborhood.

The site has been mentioned as a location for additional homeless services by various members of the public over the last several months. However, there had been a belief that Douglas County, as the landowner, wasn’t interested in the idea.

But an official with Douglas County on Monday confirmed that the City of Lawrence had never asked the county to consider whether the county-owned property could be used for the homeless project.

“Not in any official request that I’m aware of,” said Jill Jolicoeur, the assistant county administrator who leads many of the county’s homeless initiatives.

Later in the day, the city confirmed as much. Jeff Crick, director of planning and development services for the city, said the county-owned site had not been studied in any detail by the city. When questioned why not, a city spokeswoman said those would be questions best addressed by City Manager Craig Owens, who I have reached out to.

photo by: Douglas County GIS

A county-owned site directly behind the Lawrence Community shelter is not being considered for the city’s newest homeless services project. The county-owned site is marked with a blue star.

It also is unclear when the city may make a decision on where to locate its newest homeless services project. The city previously has announced its intentions to spend up to $4.5 million to contract with Pallet, a Washington-based company that uses pre-fabricated parts to assemble small sleeping cabins that can be built very quickly, according to the company’s website.

The city has said it hopes to have the “shelter village” operational by June, but the city has not publicly identified a site for the project. City commissioners are scheduled to meet in a closed-door executive session on Tuesday to discuss possible property acquisition.

However, it appears unlikely that the city would be taking any action to purchase property at Tuesday’s meeting. Maureen Brady, brand manager for the city, told me that once the city had reached a preliminary deal on any property, it would list the property’s address on an agenda days in advance of a meeting. State law does not require much advance notice for property purchases, but Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn said it is his preference that the city give such notice to ensure that residents near the site are aware of the pending purchase and could come to City Hall to express their opinions.

“I think that would be most appropriate to give people time to process anything that comes about,” Littlejohn said.

Fred Sack, president of the Brook Creek Neighborhood Association, said he hadn’t yet heard the city was considering placing the homeless project in his neighborhood. He said he assumed that there would be multiple questions and concerns from neighbors, if the project moves forward. He said he hoped the city would follow its normal process for development of property, which includes multiple public comment periods.

“We will be prepared to give our opinion, if it comes down to that, and I can assure you that it will be a good one,” Sack said.

City officials are still unsure of some details of how the project would move through City Hall. Crick said it has not been determined what zoning category the shelter village project would require. He said it also is uncertain whether the project would require a special use permit. All those details will go a long way in determining whether the project will have hearings at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the City Commission, or whether large parts of the project could be approved administratively.

The Journal-World began looking into whether the city was pursuing the 18th and Haskell site after receiving a tip from a reader. Jenn Wolsey, a former city employee who was involved in establishing homeless services in the community, confirmed that the 18th and Haskell site was on the city’s list of locations for the shelter village project. But she said, given that she no longer works for the city, she was uncertain how seriously the site was still being considered. A separate source, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said the site is still receiving consideration from the city.

That said, whether the site ends up getting purchased by the city remains unclear. City officials may hear from some members of the public who will urge the commission to give more consideration to building the project on the county-owned land near the Community Shelter.

A leader of a community group who has been critical of how the city has provided services to the homeless, especially regarding the number and condition of homeless encampments in the city, said she was surprised to learn how little the county property had been considered.

“Wherever this project ends up, it needs to be buffered from neighborhoods,” said Sarah Hill-Nelson, who is part of a downtown group of stakeholders who has been urging the city to change how it serves the homeless. “That site is buffered and it is on a bus line. I think you always would consider a site like that.”

Alternatively, Hill-Nelson said she also wanted a better understanding of why the city wouldn’t locate the project on one of the smaller lots in the Lawrence VenturePark area, which is a city-owned industrial area on the east edge of town that has multiple vacant lots.

But she said many of her group’s members are interested in the city and the county working together to try to create a good project on the county-owned land near the shelter.

“If it were a county site but city run, that would show pretty good teamwork,” she said.


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