Tempers flare over College Hill

Julie Knapp

While there was much anticipation over the Topeka City Council meeting last Tuesday night, the city council decided to defer the plans of eminent domain, to acquire two areas in the College Hill district, until this Tuesday in hopes of a deal being reached between the city and the developers on the financing of the project.

The city and the developers from Washburn Lane Parkway Renovations, LLC, were able to reach that agreement Wednesday afternoon, where they decided how much of the costs will come from tax increment financing, the city and the developer.

This Tuesday, they will consider a more detailed resolution of whether to use eminent domain to acquire land owned by Jerry Morgan and Jeanne Swanson, owners of Jerry’s Bike Shop and Oscar’s bar, respectively.

“I’m very upset on the ability of the owners and developers not agreeing on this so the project can move forward. It’s something the city sorely needs,” said Bill Haynes, the councilman for District 5 in Topeka, at last Tuesday’s city council meeting.

The new project would allow for 24,000 square feet of retail space, 169 apartments and 26 townhomes, which accounts for about 250,000 square feet of space. The developers are hoping to start the project this July, so it can be ready for students to move in starting in the fall of 2007.

Morgan and Swanson have been reluctant in signing a deal with the developers, because they believe they are not getting enough money for their property.

Henry McClure, from McClure Real Estate and a partner with Washburn Lane Parkway Renovations, LLC, said they have offered Morgan $305,000 for his shop, a rent-free temporary location and a year of free rent in a new retail space, once the area has been developed. Morgan has told the developers he would like $1.8 million for his property.

Morgan was hoping that the developers would be able to cancel their plans of seven units of apartments, and just do six units, while keeping his shop in place.

“We had our architect look at it [Morgan’s proposal], and it’s a financial burden on our project,” said McClure.

McClure, who has been in the real estate business for 26 years, said signing deals with Morgan and Swanson has been one of his most difficult projects.

“It [the negotiations between Morgan and Washburn Lane Parkway Renovations, LLC] makes it hard for me to be a good guy, but I’ve done my best to try and do it,” said McClure.

McClure said that in all the years he has been in real estate he has never seen so much support for a project.

“I pray that we can make a deal [between Morgan and Swanson], I don’t want condemnation to happen,” said McClure.

However, at last Tuesday’s city council meeting, the support of the project was not evident outside the city council chambers where a rally was held to try and stop eminent domain. Groups like the Neighborhood Watch, Watch Group and the Kansas Libertarians Group organized the rally.

“Today is just a start. You’ll start to see a lot of support in the community against the use of eminent domain,” said Thomas Lessman, a member of the Neighborhood Watch, Watch Group.

According to McClure most of the supporters come from the College Hill area neighborhood organizations – the Central Park Neighborhood Association, the College Hill Neighborhood Association, the Topeka Turnaround Team and the Elmhurst Neighborhood Association.

Despite the great support in the area, many individuals are still opposed to it. Mary Lou Peters, a resident of the College Hill area, said she is against the government seizing the property.

“The main issue here is one of precedent. If they can do it here, who’s to say where they’ll go next,” said Peters.

If the city passes the resolution on Tuesday night, McClure said he is willing to still try and continue negotiations, so that they don’t have to use eminent domain.

“We are open to negotiations. We have made numerous offers, and they [Morgan and Swanson] have made only one offer,” said McClure.

Morgan said Saturday that he plans to sit down with the developers again to try and reach a deal, but that he cannot comment on the specific negotiations that are currently taking place.

“With the city and the developer coming to an agreement, than I think the discussions between the developer and I will get real serious,” said Morgan.