Lawsuit filed against city over businessman’s plan to reopen Charlie’s Eastside bar and grill; state senator, others say parking is a problem

photo by: Courtesy: Brad Ziegler/Hernly Associates

This rendering shows an addition planned for the backside of the former Charlie's Eastside bar and grill building at Ninth and Pennsylvania streets.

In the long history of Charlie’s Eastside bar and grill, it is conceivable some of the gadflies stoked conversation on the legal wrangling that happened a few blocks away at the Douglas County Courthouse.

Now, such wrangling may decide whether the old business is allowed to expand and reopen under new owners and a new style.

Plans to turn the old stone building that used to house Charlie’s Eastside at 900 Pennsylvania St. into a small restaurant and bar have now landed the city of Lawrence in a lawsuit.

A group of Lawrence residents who own a rental house across the street from the old building have filed a lawsuit objecting to a variance the city has granted that would allow the new restaurant/bar to have far less onsite parking than city code requires.

The lawsuit, filed last month in Douglas County District Court, threatens to derail plans by local businessman Brad Ziegler to rehabilitate and roughly double the size of the old building, which dates to the late 1800s or early 1900s.

photo by: Courtesy: Brad Ziegler/Hernly Associates

A rear addition would roughly double the size of the former Charlie’s Eastside bar and grill, shown in this rendering.

This latest hurdle is notable not only because it is a legal one, but also because it involves one of the top politicians in the city. The ownership group that is suing the city includes State Sen. Marci Francisco.

“I think the project’s applicants have very good intentions, but if this zoning variance is granted there would never be a requirement for more than four parking spaces,” Francisco said at a Lawrence Board of Zoning Appeals meeting in January.

Four parking spaces is far too few, she argued at that zoning meeting. Francisco said it would be problematic if customers of the business take on-street parking that neighboring residents use.

The type of restaurant that Ziegler wants to put on the site should have 21 parking spaces, according to city code.

The zoning board, however, approved the variance allowing just four spaces on a 4-3 vote. Francisco’s group sued the city shortly thereafter, and the case is working its way through the court system.

Lawrence attorney Patrick Watkins, who represents Ziegler, said there was a good reason the zoning board granted the variance: The project has secured off-street parking across the street from the old building at a private lot that is in the nearby Warehouse Arts District.

“We don’t think we will add to the parking issue in the neighborhood at all,” Watkins told me.

But as Francisco and the city’s planning staff have noted, there are issues to consider with the parking lot lease. One is that the lease can be cancelled with short notice by either party. Another issue provides a peek into the bureaucracy of City Hall: The parking lot — despite having the look, the feel and the vehicles of a parking lot — is not technically a parking lot.

City code does allow for one property owner to meet their parking requirements by using another lot that is nearby, if certain conditions are met. One of those conditions is that the parking lot has gone through the city’s site plan process. This lot hasn’t. If it did, it likely would be required to have curb and gutters, lighting and more landscaping at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, Watkins estimated.

Thus, while the new Charlie’s Eastside — that’s what Ziegler plans to name the restaurant — could legally direct customers to park in the lot, the city says the property still must receive a parking variance in order to open legally under the city’s development code.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A parking lot that developers for the new Charlie’s Eastside hopes to use is pictured on March 28, 2023.

If those types of issues make your head hurt, be sure to stay out of the local courthouse, lest you stumble into this court case. The case likely will be determined on legal issues around zoning and parking, but Watkins is concerned the stakes of the case could be much higher.

“This really calls into question whether the building can be saved,” Watkins told me. “It is not protected by any historic protections.”

In other words, the building — despite being old and having an architectural style that harkens to the age it was built — is not on any register of historic places, and it is not close enough to any historically recognized property to stop an owner from demolishing the structure.

To be clear, Ziegler hasn’t threatened demolition if he loses the lawsuit. He says he doesn’t know what would happen to the building.

“That is a great question,” Ziegler said when I asked what would happen to the building if he is unable to move forward with the restaurant project. “I wish I had the answer. My plan is to save that building. The building is what I love. I don’t love the lot.”

In January, Francisco told the zoning board she could envision the old structure being rehabilitated and turned into a residence.

However, the lot is zoned industrial. City commissioners late last year agreed to rezone the property from general industrial — a designation it had for decades — to light industrial. The light industrial category allows for restaurants while the general industrial zoning did not. Watkins said it should count for something that city commissioners approved the rezoning request knowing that the site was going to be used for a restaurant, and knowing that the small property couldn’t provide enough parking on its own to accommodate a restaurant.

Whether that will matter, though, is an open question. The city’s planning staff recommended against the property’s request for a parking variance. The staff said the request didn’t meet all the legal requirements for a variance, including that the property hadn’t shown an unnecessary hardship. The lawsuit makes the same argument, saying the zoning board’s approval was “illegal and unauthorized by the laws of Kansas.”

It is unclear how long it will take for the lawsuit to be resolved. Watkins said the project is in “wait-and-see mode” while the city responds to the lawsuit. I reached out to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit through their representative, Lawrence attorney Ronald Schneider, who said he did not want to comment extensively on the case while it is in litigation, but said the lawsuit is “straightforward” in challenging the legality, lawfulness and reasonableness of the BZA decision.

As for the restaurant itself, Ziegler said he hasn’t yet finalized what the concept would be at the restaurant, but said because of the small space it would be a “small, focused menu.” Right now, though, he said he’s more focused on trying to get everyone to understand what he’s hoping for with the overall project.

“I’m really just trying to make a nice, comfortable neighborhood restaurant that everybody in the neighborhood would love to frequent and would be proud to be part of,” Ziegler said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The former Charlie’s Eastside bar and grill building is pictured on March 28, 2023.


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