Planning commissioners reject apartment project for East 15th Street, raise questions about where new housing should be allowed

photo by: City of Lawrence

This graphic from Lawrence City Hall shows how a proposed apartment complex would sit on vacant land along E. 15th Street.

A plan to build a large affordable housing apartment complex along East 15th Street was soundly rejected by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on Wednesday, after nearly two hours of public comments from neighbors against the project.

Lawrence city commissioners will have the final say on the rezoning application for the proposed 500-unit apartment complex on a vacant, hilly, heavily wooded 17-acre tract of land at 2111 E. 15th St. But the Planning Commission’s recommendation for denial makes it procedurally more difficult for the City Commission to approve the rezoning, and politically much less likely.

Planning commissioners rejected the development for a list of common reasons that befall projects: traffic concerns, drainage concerns, compatibility concerns with existing neighborhoods, all of which were heavily highlighted by neighbors.

There were other reasons for denial, though, that developers and leaders pushing for more infill development and increased affordable housing options in Lawrence may want to note.

One of them: The new development wouldn’t have the right spirit.

“It seems to me this is a possible neighborhood without much of a soul,” Planning Commissioner David Carttar said as he voted against the project.

Carttar noted that the proposed development was in an area that wasn’t very walkable to key community features such as schools and retail, and currently the area isn’t well served by public transportation.

“To plop this very dense collection of people in an area without access to commercial and recreational resources, I think is almost irresponsible,” Carttar said.

The concept plan for the development calls for 528 apartments with a total of 1,056 bedrooms to be built in two phases. The Manhattan-based development group proposing the project has said it intends to apply for housing tax credits that would require the apartments to be rented to people who meet certain income guidelines and are in need of affordable housing.

Planning Commissioner Charlie Thomas, who also voted against the project, said the community certainly needs affordable housing, and has said it wants infill development — i.e., development that doesn’t require the city limits to be expanded. The proposed property has been in the city limits for decades. But Thomas said the location nonetheless was a bad one for affordable housing and infill development.

“Distance from schools, distance from shopping, the things that we want for infill, this in no way meets that requirement,” Thomas said.

That idea wasn’t universally embraced by planning commissioners, and whether it is the philosophy moving forward could have a significant impact on Lawrence’s plans to address its affordable housing problems via infill development.

Does infill development have to be next to certain amenities? If so, the number of potential infill development lots will shrink in Lawrence.

Planning Commission Chair Gary Rexroad, who with Commissioner Prasanth Duvvur voted to support the project, pushed back on that thinking. For one, Rexroad said there are hundreds of homes that surround the site that face the same challenges of not being particularly close to schools, retail or other amenities.

He wondered aloud whether rejecting development in the area was the way to solve that problem.

“If that development would have been here when school closings were considered, would those schools have been closed?” Rexroad said, referencing recent closings of Lawrence public schools on the east side of the community, which has been growing less than the west side of town.

Alternatively, he said, allowing the development might produce the type of population and demand for retail or even schools to come to the area.

“Maybe this is the time that it could be improved and we could get to the point where it would support a neighborhood school,” Rexroad said.

Duvvur said the proposed project had many flaws, but he supported the rezoning because the community needs more affordable housing. He said the community needs to get comfortable with the idea that there are “always going to be negatives why this won’t work,” but there has to be confidence those problems can be overcome if the community hopes to build large amounts of affordable housing in the future.

That idea, however, did not come close to carrying the day. Most commissioners simply said there were too many problems or questions surrounding how the project would fit on the site and fit in with the existing neighborhood.

But there was also some pushback on the ideas surrounding what the community needs in terms of affordable housing. Commissioner Jane Eldredge said not all affordable housing is the same. Affordable apartments versus affordable single-family homes are quite different.

“What we really need is affordable housing for people who want to buy houses,” Eldredge said, highlighting what some members of the audience had said during public comment. She said there are reports of high vacancy levels in some apartment complexes, while finding affordably priced single-family homes on the market is very difficult.

“I think we may want to be looking at how we get more affordable single-family homes for people rather than apartments,” she said.

The sizable crowd that remained at the meeting applauded.

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