City considering selling ex-Van Buren school, other property for $1 to be used for affordable housing purposes

Topeka city manager Brent Trout has called a special meeting Thursday of the city’s governing body, which will consider selling properties owned by the city for $1 to a local development group to be used for affordable housing purposes.

 

Those include the asbestos-contaminated former Van Buren School, a 107-year-old structure the city declared unfit for human habitation and ordered demolished in 2013, then acquired last year through donation.

The city announced Tuesday on its website that the governing body, consisting of the nine council members and Mayor Larry Wolgast, will consider the proposal when it meets at 6 p.m. Thursday in its chambers at 214 S.E. 8th.

The measure would authorize the sale for $1 to Ross Freeman’s Topeka-based Pioneer Group of the Van Buren School property at 1601 S.W. Van Buren and nearby lots at 1606 S.W. Van Buren, 1601 S. Kansas Ave., and the northwest corner of S. 16th and Kansas Ave., which was formerly 1515-1529 S. Kansas Ave.

The real estate involved is valued at about $63,700, according to a document in Thursday’s meeting’s agenda packet.

“The City’s liability related to the Van Buren School building if it were to be demolished is estimated between $250,000-$400,000 based on the environmental reviews done and the level of asbestos contamination in the building,” the document said.

The former Van Buren School — which Capital-Journal archives indicate was constructed in 1910 — was owned by Joshua Mattox, of Holton, when city administrative hearing officer Lloyd Swartz in August 2013 cleared the way to demolish it by declaring it unfit for human use or habitation.

But governing body members learned at a meeting in June 2014 that the estimated cost of razing the building — initially thought to be $48,900 — had risen to $219,000 as a result of the discovery of asbestos contamination.

The property was donated to the city in July 2016, said Molly Hadfield, the city’s media relations coordinator.

The owner chose to donate the property due to the high estimates of the cost to demolish it, while the city chose to accept the donation “based on the potential to redevelop the site based on the historic nature of the building, with the hope that the building could be repurposed and saved,” Hadfield said.

This decision was also based in part to avoid assessing a several hundred thousand dollar demolition charge against the property, which city officials understood would stifle any redevelopment in the area for the foreseeable future, she said.

A document in Thursday’s meeting’s agenda packet addressed why the city hasn’t been more forthcoming in revealing information about the project, which is located in the area represented by the Monroe Neighborhood Association.

“Staff has been in steady contact with the Monroe NIA President Todd Huston, beginning in late October regarding the potential for a project in the neighborhood,” the document said. “Although details of the project could not yet be disclosed at the request of the developer and related to their efforts to acquire surrounding properties for the project, information was shared that there was a potential affordable housing project being worked on between neighborhood relations and two of our local development partners.”

City staff members and representatives of Pioneer Group and the Topeka Housing Authority, which is also involved, had planned to attend and share details at the Monroe NIA’s November and December meetings, the document said.

“Unfortunately, the project was not yet at a stage to disclose details in time for either meeting,” it said. “Mr. Huston was contacted December 21, 2017, and information was shared including the identity of our partners and more specific details on the project. Mr. Huston requested that plans be made to attend their January meeting to share project details so that residents could be notified that may be interested in attending the January meeting to learn about the project.”

The agenda packet document indicated Pioneer Group and the THA were invited to join after Wolgast in 2016 formed an affordable housing task force to work on issues surrounding affordable housing in Topeka.

“Both groups develop affordable housing in Topeka and are considered valuable partners to the City’s Neighborhood Relations Department,” the document said.

It indicated that last summer, Pioneer, THA and the city’s neighborhood relations department began discussing the potential for a “scattered site affordable housing project and the possibility of a public/private partnership to facilitate the development of the project.”

An arrangement was worked out through which Pioneer Group, operating as Pioneer Midtown Homes LLC, will serve as the developer while the THA will serve as the property manager once the project is complete and the city will facilitate the development by contributing real estate, the document said.

“The proposed public/private partnership will result in approximately 81 new affordable housing units in the community and a project/improvement estimated at approximately $10 million dollars,” the document said. “The project will include the Van Buren area properties listed below and potentially another location in Central Topeka that the developer is working to acquire.”

Thursday’s special meeting will be the governing body’s 12th special meeting this year, according to the “council meeting minutes” page on the city’s website.

That page lists the governing body as not having held more than one special meeting in any of the other years it covers, which date back to 2000. No other special meetings listed as taking place over that period have been held later in the year than Nov. 6.

City media relations director Molly Hadfield said the meeting addressing the purchase needs to take place before the end of the year because in order for the developer to maximize the tax credits needed to do the project, the land transfer must occur before Jan. 1.

“If it was done later it would jeopardize project financing,” Hadfield said.

She attributed the change in the tax credit rules to the new tax code recently approved by Congress.

City officials realized the meeting was being scheduled to take place on only two days’ notice during the holidays, at a time when some people are out of town, “but it could not be helped because the tax law change was not known until last week and we did not finish the paperwork for placing this item on the agenda until late Thursday,” Hadfield said.

City offices were closed because of the Christmas holiday on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Reporter Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or @timhrenchir on Twitter.

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