Through difficulty, College Hill grow

In the past, these apartments very popular. They were only at 60 percent capacity but they are now at 90 percent

Looking to the northeast of Washburn University’s campus, one can see that a lot has changed in the past 30 years. To most Washburn students, however, most of this change has happened in the past six years.

The Lofts at College Hill, construction of which began in the summer of 2006, is now a common sight among both incoming and senior students. According to their leasing office, 182 of the 183 units in the multi-structure apartment complex are now being leased.

“As far as the original complex, we have one unit available right now. We’re at 99 percent capacity,” said property manager Kristen Inoll. “It’s the fullest we’ve ever been.”

However, the transformation from a neighborhood home to small local businesses and vacant lots into the towering complex that exists today has been both tedious and challenging to the investors and owners in the project, and the College Hill community surrounding it.

“When this apartment complex opened, it was the worst housing market in the history of our country,” dsaid Inoll. “When they conceived the concept of the whole development and the retail space, the market was high, people were spending, you could borrow. In the middle of construction, that fell.”

The “lackluster,” as Inoll puts it, opening to the complex translated into a poor rate of growth for several years. In 2010, the Lofts were only at 60 percent capacity, and none of the twenty-five townhomes were filled. During December of that year, CoreFirst Bank and Trust filed a lawsuit against members of Washburn-Lane Parkways Renovations, asking for roughly $22 million in repayment of loans and interest accumulated since the beginning of the $30 million project.

Aside from the initial difficulty filling the complex and pressure from investors to repay loans, First Management encountered another problem: Jerry Morgan, owner of Jerry’s Bike Shop at 1415 SW Lane St., refused to move his business to make way for the new construction. To Morgan, the bicycle shop he began and has operated since 1980 is more important than the settlement College Hill offered him to relocate his business.

“When I started the business back in 1980 I had $500, and my dad gave me $400,” said Morgan. “It got to the point initially that I had to sell my home to pay off the bank and keep [the business] going. You can’t leave when you’ve put 25 years into it.”

In the summer of 2012, College Hill’s owners and Morgan reached something of a tentative agreement. First Management agreed to construct a two-bedroom apartment and new shop on Morgan’s property, built to match the surrounding complex in appearance. The bicycle shop has also had its indoor plumbing restored, which was initially run underneath the building but only connected to the new construction surrounding it.

In 2011, the growing pains The Lofts at College Hill first endured began to subside, coinciding with the opening of several businesses in the 24,000 square feet of retail space built into the complex. On Sept. 9, 2011, The Burger Stand expanded from Lawrence’s famed Massachusetts St. to open a second location at 1601 SW Lane, the first restaurant to open on the property since the closure of Submarina California Subs Dec. 31, 2009. And while Submarina tanked, The Burger Stand has since thrived in College Hill.

“I think it’s a fact that we’ve done something good for the area,” said Elaine Appelhanz, general manager of The Burger Stand’s Topeka location. “We draw a lot of people from all over the city into central Topeka, promoting other businesses as well.”

Aside from housing a place to get a beer and a burger, College Hill has welcomed two other businesses to its complex since 2011. Neebo, located directly across campus at 17th St. and Washburn Ave., offers students an alternative to the Ichabod Shop with textbook rentals and Washburn apparel. Next door to Neebo, local coffee company PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. opened Flying Monkey in December of 2011, which has since changed its name to simply PT’s in the past year. Both businesses have so far enjoyed moderate success, and have proven helpful to the apartment complex in recruiting new tenants as well.

“[Businesses] have brought a lot more traffic around here, and with Neebo, we have a lot more students coming around to rent or buy their books and they see this and think, ‘I want to live here,'” said Chelsea Benoit, a leasing agent for College Hill.

“PT’s, they have a name, they have a brand — a lot of people like what they’ve done as a business beyond being a coffee house. They’ve brought people on the property, but likewise we’ve also brought in tenants to help their business be successful. I just think it will continue to grow from there,” said Inoll.

Before the end of 2012, the College Hill leasing office expects Pedro Concepcion, currently the chef at The Burger Stand, to open a sandwich shop on the property.

By mid-October, the College Hill Pizza Pub is slated to open in the building that formerly housed Otto’s, next door to Oscar’s at 1418 SW Lane. Although not directly tied to The Lofts at College Hill, the Pizza Pub will offer gourmet pizzas along with a wine bar, and is expected to offer a location for students to study near campus.

The future of the $30 million College Hill renovation project remains unclear in its present state. Developers and managers of the complex hope to revitalize the area, going beyond the vibrancy the neighborhood enjoyed in the 1980s. Right now, no one wants to predict the future.

“We’ll just have to watch and see how this develops,” said Morgan.