Planning commission denies rezoning request for apartment complex in Brook Creek neighborhood

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Post updated at 10:56 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25:

Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission members voted Wednesday to deny a developer’s rezoning request that would have brought a 360-unit apartment complex one step closer to construction on the far eastern edge of town.

The Eastbrook Apartments project, from Manhattan, Kansas-based developers The Prime Company, would include 360 total units, split into two phases — 192 units in phase 1, and 168 in phase 2. All units in the first phase would be income-restricted, according to project documentation. (Read more about the project at this link.)

Before the vote, Planner Mary Miller said city staff members were recommending the commission approve the rezoning request, which would have changed the land’s zoning from single-family homes to RM32. That’s the greatest density allowed under the city’s current land development code, and it would allow up to 32 dwelling units per acre.

“Given the location at this property, at the edge of the residential neighborhood and adjacent to the more industrial use to the east, it would be an appropriate location for multidwelling zoning,” Miller said. “And with the proposed vegetated buffer along the west and the south, it should be compatible with adjacent zoning and land uses, as long as care is taken during the site planning process to ensure that the site design and the features of the site are compatible with the nearby residential uses.”

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times A vast swath of trees near the Book Creek neighborhood, where a developer wants to build a 360-unit apartment complex. East 15th Street is visible in the bottom right of this photo, which looks south toward the single-family homes that would border the complex.

Josh Adrian, vice president of development and people for The Prime Company, told commissioners the company was happy when Gov. Laura Kelly passed a new tax incentive to open the door for affordable housing projects to be done in Kansas.

Josh Adrian

“When we went to look to start to see where we could do projects at, and we saw that Lawrence had a self-imposed sales tax to help with affordable housing, we were excited to be able to partner with a community that’s looking for affordable housing to the point that they would even tax themselves to be able to do that,” Adrian said.

After the presentation from staff and the developer, commissioners heard from nearly three dozen people, most who identified themselves as neighbors of the project; altogether, 29 people spoke against the project, and four spoke in favor, each stressing the need for more affordable housing in Lawrence.

Neighbors raised numerous concerns regarding the character of the neighborhood; traffic issues and the inability of nearby streets to handle such a potential influx of traffic; privacy, as they believed the three-story buildings would have views directly into their backyards, and more. Others mentioned that there was no longer a neighborhood school, as Kennedy Elementary was closed to grades K-5 after the 2020-21 year, and that there are no grocery stores within a 2-mile radius.

Some had environmental concerns about the project. A person who identified as a forester for the city said there were numerous 250-year-old trees in the area, and that approval of the rezoning would “assure their annihilation.”

After about an hour and a half of public comment, commissioners had several questions about the feasibility of modifications to 15th Street. Jeff Crick, director of planning and development services, said developers typically don’t go through the process of determining specific design details as part of rezoning requests, but rather wait until they get rezoning requests approved.

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Commissioners also had questions about the slope of the land and protection of the sensitive environment. Adrian said it was costly to have a civil engineer work on the site to see whether it’s economically feasible to make a site work for the number of planned units, so determinations about those factors would not happen until after the rezoning was approved.

Commissioner Charlie Thomas said he did not think the area was the right place for the project, and that he would vote against it with no hesitation, regardless of what happened with East 15th Street.

“It doesn’t meet my need, my vision of where we should have this kind of housing when we don’t have schools, when we don’t have shopping, when it is out on the furthest part of town, in the rural area as well,” Thomas said. “Then you throw in 15th Street, which is a nightmare out there.”

Commission Chair Gary Rexroad said he didn’t think the lack of schools or grocery stores in the area was a big issue because the new residents would just be in the same situation as the current residents. He did have other concerns and unanswered questions, though, primarily regarding the streets, “and it just kills me, because we do need the housing, we do need this to happen. But I worry about that risk just because of the unanswered questions.”

However, after more discussion, Rexroad said he wanted to trust that the issues such as managing the streets, water and other concerns would be resolved through the development process, and he was leaning toward approving the request.

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“How will it happen otherwise? How will the development that provides for the needs of hundreds of families, and low income, happen otherwise? Where will it happen, if not here?” Rexroad said. “Every single instance of an opportunity to make a difference like that is going to come with this very kind of challenge, unless it is truly off on an island by itself, not around anyone else — which is not consistent with the value of supporting integration of all different types of people and backgrounds and incomes and ethnicities.”

Commissioner David Carttar said the property is “inaccessible by transit and barely accessible walking,” though it would be intended to serve people who ostensibly need housing but may have the least reliable access to transportation. He said there are areas of the city that are begging for infill development, such as 23rd Street, as one member of the public had mentioned. He said he thought the project was well-intentioned, but he could not support it.

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

Commissioner Pedro Borroto asked if there was anyplace else in the city that had the dense RM 32 zoning right next to areas that are zoned for single-family homes. Miller said yes, but many of those don’t develop to the RM 32 density.

Commissioner Jane Eldredge said she did not believe the project complied with Plan 2040, the city’s comprehensive plan. She also said she believes commissioners may need to look at how to get more affordable single-family homes in town.

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“For me, it boils down to this project has so many unknowns that have potential impacts on the neighbors, and I think this project does not comply with Plan 2040,” Eldredge said. “I think we’ve got to remember that if we zone it RM 32, we have no control over what happens after that.”

Commissioner Mike Kelso said others had summed up his concerns, and “It’s too many unknowns — it just doesn’t fit right here.”

Commission Vice Chair Prasanth Duvvur said that there are always going to be reasons why affordable housing projects won’t work. He said the project did have a lot of flaws and questions, but the city wants diversity in neighborhoods.

“In principle, I am going to support it because I think we need more affordable housing. This may not be the right project for it, but this is what we have in front of us, so I’m in support of it,” Duvvur said.

Ultimately, commissioners voted 7-2 to deny the rezoning request, with Borroto, Carttar, Eldredge, Kelso, Thomas, Chelsi Hayden and Steve Munch voting against it and Duvvur and Rexroad voting in favor of it. Commissioner Sharon Ashworth was not present.

The project is also seeking funding from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Affordable Housing Advisory Board members earlier this month heard requests regarding nine projects, and they will meet Nov. 13 to make decisions on which projects they will recommend, and how much funding each should receive. The rezoning request denial could impact the housing trust application, though it was not immediately clear Wednesday what that would mean for the project as a whole.

In other business, commissioners approved a rezoning request to allow the building at 801 Iowa St. — currently a Super 8 hotel — to be converted into a long-term drug and alcohol treatment facility. See that agenda item at this link.

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Planning commission denies rezoning request for apartment complex in Brook Creek neighborhood

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Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission members voted 7-2 Wednesday to deny a developer’s rezoning request that would have brought a 360-unit apartment complex one step closer to construction on the far eastern edge of town.

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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