Topeka’s city government will sell four properties it owns, including the former Van Buren School building, for $1 to Ross Freeman’s Topeka-based Pioneer Group to be used for a planned $10 million project aimed at creating 81 new affordable housing units here.
The city’s governing body, consisting of the city council and Mayor Larry Wolgast, voted 7-0 Thursday evening to approve the transaction involving 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 16th and S. Kansas Ave.
“I think this is a great project,” said Councilman Richard Harmon.
Governing body members also learned Pioneer Group closed recently on its purchase of the historic Casson Building at 603 S.W. Topeka Blvd., which will be part of its scattered site affordable housing development.
“We feel that these two buildings have such great potential in terms of exterior appearance,” Freeman said of the Casson Building and the former Van Buren School, both structures his company plans to restore.
The city last July had acquired through donation the asbestos-contaminated former Van Buren School, a 107-year-old building the city had declared unfit for human habitation and ordered demolished in 2013.
Freeman stressed that Pioneer Group will provide all of the funding for the development project without asking for any money from the city or the Topeka Housing Authority.
The arrangement involved calls for Pioneer Group, operating as Pioneer Midtown Homes LLC, to serve as the developer, while the THA will serve as property manager once the project is complete.
The purchase agreement includes a requirement — proposed by Freeman — that ownership of the properties goes back to the city if construction hasn’t begun by Jan. 1, 2019.
Wolgast said he liked that stipulation because it would help the city government avoid any potential situation where “we give them approval and nothing happens for four years.”
Wolgast and council members Harmon, Karen Hiller, Sandra Clear, Sylvia Ortiz,
Brendan Jensen and Jeff Coen voted in favor of the transaction, while council members Michelle De La Isla, Tony Emerson and Elaine Schwartz were absent.
De La Isla was ill, while Emerson and Schwartz were out of town, Wolgast said.
Thursday’s vote came at a special meeting city manager Brent Trout called Tuesday in which the governing body considered only one matter, the proposed sale of the properties.
The city didn’t allow announcements at the meeting from city officials or governing body members, or accept public comments on matters unrelated to the transaction.
Four members of the public — including two from the faith-based group Topeka JUMP, which advocates providing more affordable housing opportunities in the city — addressed the proposed transaction Thursday, with all speaking in favor of it.
More than a dozen members of Topeka JUMP were in the audience. Several wore yellow T-shirts promoting that group.
Pioneer Group’s Rick Kready told governing body members the housing units constructed as part of the development would resemble those created through past Pioneer Group projects near S.E. 21st and Adams and in and around the former Curtis Junior High School building at 300 N.W. Grant.
Freeman and Kready thanked governing body members for attending a special meeting during the last week of the year — when they normally don’t meet — to consider the transaction.
Freeman acknowledged Pioneer Group needed to make the purchase before the end of the year to take advantage of tax credit rules that will change after the beginning of the new year due to the new tax code recently approved by Congress.
Governing body members were told they would be asked later to consider approving zoning changes that would be requested to help move the project forward.
Reporter Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or on Twitter at @timhrenchir.