Mixed-use project would transform Lawrence: Final piece of Fort Ben development includes residential, retail, offices

The final piece of a decade-long redevelopment of Fort Benjamin Harrison would give Lawrence a new downtown with shops, offices and public plazas mixed among as many as 1,000 condos, townhouses and apartments.

The Fort Harrison Reuse Authority hasn’t settled on a name yet for the 88-acre project, but the quasi-governmental group’s board is expected to approve zoning updates this month that pave the way for the project. Public meetings will be held in March and April, and the first requests for proposals from developers could go out in May.

Plans for the community were developed by the Reuse Authority in partnership with Carmel-based Eden Land & Design Inc., the city of Lawrence and Indianapolis-based Browning Investments Inc., which gave up the right to bid to develop the project when it signed on as a consultant in August 2006.

Browning developed a transportation plan that prioritizes road repairs. The firm also developed landscaping, drainage and utility plans, and will evaluate developers that express interest in the project, said Dennis Dye, Browning’s executive vice president.

The site will be broken into “bite-size parcels” to allow plenty of flexibility for individual developers to put their own stamp on the project, he said. The area to be developed is bounded by Post and Lee roads and 59th and 56th streets and is within the city limits of Lawrence.

It’s an area with great potential that is drawing developers’ interest, said Tony Page, president of Page Development. He said his company would consider bidding.

“It’s kind of like its own little city inside Lawrence,” Page said. “I’ve always thought it was a great location.”

A master plan map shows live-work units and small village-style retail stores in clusters, along with civic plazas, a central commercial district and an expansion of Ivy Tech. The working name for the project has been Lawrence Village Center.

“Our job is to create value for the Reuse Authority,” Dye said. “We put the entire site into a position that it’s a long-term asset for the community and a place where people want to live, work and shop.”

Dye said it was too early to estimate a cost for the project, since multiple developers will be involved. But the entire project is expected to top $100 million.

Since Fort Ben closed in 1996, the property has become home to a public golf course, an urban state park, and new residential and commercial developments.

But several hurdles have slowed progress. Infrastructure like roads had to be built through the land, since the Army prevented streets from crossing its base because of security concerns. The centerpiece village project was held up in part because the Army’s PX and Commissary had to be rebuilt in the Reserve Army Complex along 59th Street. The commissary will be razed to make way for the final village phase.

The first round of RFPs for the project will open about 30 acres for development, including eight to 12 acres for residential, said Ehren Bingaman, executive director of the Reuse Authority.

Bingaman said the Reuse Authority has sold about 80 percent of the Fort Ben land targeted for reuse, a pace that exceeds most other bases across the country that closed around the same time.

“We’re closing in on having some tangible progress,” Bingaman said.

The wait has been worth it, said Tom Crouch, redevelopment director for the city of Lawrence, which has about 40,000 residents. Crouch, who has lived in Lawrence since 1969, was the original treasurer of the Reuse Authority.

“The closure of the base and its reuse has been the best thing that’s ever happened to our city,” he said. “It created vitality, new jobs, a new feeling. The military base was a fence that divided our city into two halves. With the breakdown of that fence, we become more and more one community.”

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