Demolition of old Mass. Street convenience store clearing way for new apartment project; Lawrence Arts Center buys Salvation Army building downtown

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The now vacant lot at 1733 Massachusetts St. is pictured on March 31, 2023.

Here are some news and notes from around town:

• There are many reasons why I’ve fantasized about unleashing a bulldozer on a convenience store. Four-dollar-per-gallon gasoline and payback for that grab-and-go tuna salad sandwich that was a lot more go than grab are among the most common. Well, somebody has bulldozed a Lawrence convenience store, but of course, not for any of those reasons.

The old Shell convenience store across from the Massachusetts Street Dillons was torn down this week. The signs are pointing to the property becoming the home for a small apartment complex.

The convenience store had been closed for several years. I reported all the way back in late 2020 that plans were filed to rezone the property from a commercial designation to an RM-24 multifamily zoning designation. That multifamily rezoning indeed was approved by city commissioners in the spring of 2021. However, until this week, there really haven’t been any signs of activity at the site.

I haven’t yet seen any specific building plans for the property, though local architect Paul Werner confirmed he’s designing a project for a client that will be a two-story building with 12 apartments. They will be a mix of one and two-bedroom units, he said.

Land records indicate the property is owned by a group led by an executive with Lawrence-based Holiday Properties, which owns a variety of smaller apartment complexes and rental units in town.

• Apartment projects in Lawrence have not been hard to come by in recent years. Single-family home projects have been. As I’ve reported several times, during the last decade Lawrence built 2.6 apartments for every single-family home that was constructed. That hasn’t been a great trend for either school enrollments or single-family home prices, which have been climbing.

The issue seems to have gotten the attention of city leaders, as city commissioners in the last month have approved annexation requests both to the north and south of town that should accommodate several hundred new homes in the next few years.

Now, there is a new set of plans — sort of — for a new housing development near the southeast corner of George Williams Way and Sixth Street in west Lawrence.

The project is called Beth’s Ranch, and I wrote about it in January 2022, when local developer Roger Johnson was planning on building about 80 single-family homes on the 20-acre site. Johnson, however, never won the development approvals from City Hall for that project.

My understanding is that the city sent a message that 80 homes were not enough for the property, which stretches all the way from George Williams Way to Stoneridge Drive. Now, a group led by Johnson is back with a new plan that would create 24 new single-family homes and 82 townhomes. In addition, the single-family homes would be constructed on 5,000-square-foot lots, instead of the more standard 7,000-square-foot-lots that dominated during Lawrence’s suburban building era.

It will be interesting to see if that era is coming to an end as Lawrence looks to add more housing to combat rising home prices. We will see if density is going to be a key strategy in that effort. At times, city officials have liked the idea of density, and at other times — like when developers proposed a large multistory apartment building on Massachusetts Street — the idea didn’t carry the day. If smaller lot sizes are a new trend for Lawrence, what that likely means for future residents is closer neighbors and smaller yards, but also perhaps slowing home prices.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The Salvation Army service center at 946 New Hampshire is pictured on Sept. 8, 2022.

• News came in just this morning that the Lawrence Arts Center has purchased the former Salvation Army Building at the corner of 10th and New Hampshire streets.

The building is next door to the Lawrence Arts Center, and arts center officials have been using a vacant lot in between the two buildings for some events, classes and other needs. The sale includes that vacant lot, and the leader of the Arts Center said securing the lot was an important priority.

“Outdoor activities are a vital element of learning for the Arts Center’s early childhood education program,” Margaret Morris, Arts Center CEO, said in a release. “Without this purchase, we would have risked losing our green space, which would have also impacted the community and surrounding neighborhood.”

The release did not provide details about how much the Arts Center — which operates on a mix of private and public funding — paid for the property. When I reached Morris by phone, she also declined to disclose terms of the deal. Some of the purchase price will be using money that first went through the coffers of Lawrence City Hall but automatically gets transferred to the Arts Center through a tax increment financing deal that was part of previous private development that happened in the 900 block of New Hampshire Street. I asked if the Arts Center could disclose how much of that TIF money is being used to purchase the site, and Morris said that number hasn’t yet been finalized. That number may become available in May.

As you may recall, The Salvation Army no longer needs the site after striking a deal to move its operations into an industrial/office building at 1202 E. 23rd St., which The Salvation Army purchased late last year.

As for the Arts Center’s plan for the old Salvation Army building, they have not yet been finalized. The release said it may take three to five years for the center to fully study the feasibility of how to use the building. In the meantime, the center is seeking a tenant for the building.

“We are excited about the opportunity to expand access to the arts in Lawrence and better serve the community in new ways,” Whitney Lang, the Arts Center’s board chair, said in a release. “The first step is to explore all options for 946 New Hampshire while considering how we use existing spaces as well. The goal is to make the most fiscally responsible decision to benefit the community.”

Morris, however, did tell me that one idea that likely will get consideration is using the space to house the Arts Center’s popular arts-based preschool program. The Arts Center is licensed for about 120 kids, but currently uses space in its main building to house the operations. The new space could give the preschool its own stand-alone facility.


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