photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
A plan to make KU’s West Campus a business park with several thousand jobs is advancing and now includes proposals for a grocery store, 300 units of high-end housing, restaurants and other pieces of development.
A “national security innovation center” that would work on everything from cybersecurity to military projects also is envisioned at the site, and KU leaders confirmed they recently applied for a federal economic development grant that could help turn the proposed 80,000-square-foot center into a reality sooner rather than later.
Members of the KU Endowment Association on Thursday shared the most details to date of a plan to turn vacant property on KU’s West Campus near 23rd and Iowa streets into a development with a mix of high-tech labs and commercial amenities.
At a meeting with the Kansas Board of Regents, KU Endowment leaders said they are finalizing contracts with a design firm to start designing a multitude of buildings that would exist roughly where the KU Park & Ride lot is located currently.
“This is really all about what can we do to make it more attractive to companies to locate here?” Monte Soukup, a senior vice president with KU Endowment, told the group.
He said KU Endowment could start some construction work on the project in May, if the development continues to progress and wins necessary approvals from the city of Lawrence.
KU Endowment, which owns all the undeveloped land on KU’s West Campus, has come up with four categories of development that it and its consultants believe will help attract job-creating, high-tech companies to the West Campus area, Soukup said. They are:
• A small grocery store development. Soukup said it could be a small version of a traditional grocery chain like a Dillons, or a more specialized grocer like a Trader Joe’s. However, Soukup said KU Endowment and its representatives haven’t yet reached any deals with a grocer to locate on the property.
• A residential housing complex with a parking garage. Soukup said the current thinking anticipates about 300 apartment-style living units.
“It probably would be pretty high-amenity apartments geared toward young professionals to start,” Soukup said.
Endowment leaders said the housing would not be geared toward students and wouldn’t seek to compete with KU’s student housing.
• A day care center that would be run by the KU-affiliated Hilltop Child Development Center. Endowment leaders said the West Campus center would focus on serving infants to 2-year-olds, while Hilltop’s existing center on Ousdahl Road at the edge of the main KU campus would serve older children.
Consultants told Endowment leaders that having a day care as part of a business park could be a major drawing card as companies are becoming more attuned to the child care needs of their employees.
• A mix of restaurants, convenience stores, coffee shops and other food- and beverage-oriented businesses. Those type of businesses help build community, Soukup said, and might build some connections between the various businesses in the center.
The current concept calls for the existing Becker Drive to go through portions of what is now the KU Park and Ride Lot, which would need to be moved to another location. On the south side of the new Becker Drive would be the commercial buildings, including the housing complex, grocer, restaurants and other uses.
On the north side of the drive — somewhat near the KU pharmacy school and the Multidisciplinary Research Building — would be space for university laboratory buildings that would allow for “collaborative research” with companies. Endowment hopes to convince KU to allow the ground floor of those new university buildings to have some mixed-use commercial development. That would help turn the new Becker Drive into a “complete street that really activates the area,” Soukup said. It would help allow for enough amenities and businesses to encourage the area to become a place where people would want to work and live, and also could give residents from other parts of the community a reason to come to the West Campus location.
Endowment and university leaders are betting that there are many companies that would like to be on the West Campus property in order to be close to KU researchers who are coming up with discoveries that could benefit their companies, and also to be close to KU students who could become future employees.
That’s basically the model that KU Innovation Park — the entity formerly known as the Bioscience and Technology Business Center — has been employing for years. The nonprofit entity supported by KU, the city, the county, the chamber of commerce and the state is on its third expansion project. Construction work is underway on a 70,000-square-foot center that is expected to house about 12 companies when it opens next spring.
At Thursday’s meeting, LaVerne Epp, president and chair of KU Innovation Park, told the board that Archers-Daniel-Midland — the huge agricultural processing company — plans to expands its research lab at KU once the new facility is completed. ADM has had a facility on West Campus since 2012.
But leaders also shared a glimpse at what they expect the center to develop into over the next 15 years. That includes the idea of a national security innovation center. KU already has a laboratory — the Kansas Applied Research Lab — on the West Campus that does classified work for the military. The center has an expertise in radar technology, and that is an element KU leaders think they could build upon with a national security center.
KU Innovation Park recently applied for a federal grant from the Economic Development Administration, which could provide seed money to start the national security center project.
KU Innovation Park leaders also think there is more demand for an additional wet lab sciences building for biotechnology companies, as wet lab space in Kansas City has become very limited, they said.
With all the developments, KU Innovation Park is projecting it could house companies and research entities that would produce about 2,500 jobs on the site in the next 15 years.
“It is pretty aggressive for 15 years, but we feel like we are well on our way,” Epp said.
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
Members of the Kansas Board of Regents, who spent most of the day touring KU, said they were impressed with the plans, and they asked KU leaders to collaborate with other Regents institutions on showing state legislators and members of the public how higher education can lead to new businesses and investment in the state.
“What we are hearing is that higher education is a driver, it is an economic engine,” Cheryl Harrison-Lee, chair of the Board of Regents, said. “Collaboration between the city, the county and the chamber and higher ed is unique in this area. We are very pleased to hear about the unique opportunities to build upon what can be a model.”
The project still has multiple approvals needed before it can move forward. Ultimately, the project will need to win city development approval, but Soukup said KU Endowment has been keeping city officials apprised of its early planning. City Manager Craig Owens was at Thursday’s presentation and spoke highly of the concept to the Board of Regents. Soukup said he thinks it is likely KU Endowment will submit a formal development plan to the city after the first of the year.