What's the matter with big boxes?
In recent months, the Lawrence City Commission has turned down rezoning for two "big-box" developments: One, slated for 31st and Iowa streets, was to be anchored by a Home Depot; another, planned for Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, was to be anchored by an unidentified home improvement store.
Though reasons for the denials are disputed, both served again to highlight what some see as shortcomings in the city-county guide for development, known as Horizon 2020.
The document doesn't include the term "big box."
Along with concerns that Horizon 2020's original population projections were off so much that other assumptions could be skewed, and after a string of other development controversies, the process of planning has become closely watched in Douglas County.
The big-box controversy is just one of the latest examples.
The term "big box" refers to large-scale retail stores such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, Circuit City or Home Depot. They typically occupy tens of thousands of square feet and derive profits from high sales volumes. They may operate as stand-alone stores, but commonly are located in "power centers" that include other retail outlets.
Just a definition
But while Lawrence already has many big-box stores, the document used to guide development doesn't identify them as such. It refers instead to "superstores."
According to Horizon 2020:
"A relatively recent form of regional commercial center is the result of the marketing success of 'superstores.' Superstores, which include discount department stores, specialty retailers and warehouse clubs, typically encompass 90,000 to 200,000 square feet in a single-floor layout."
The definition is in the portion of the guide that explains "regional commercial centers."
According to the guide, such centers include a variety of tenants, attract shoppers from outside the community, occupy as many as 60 acres and may include as much as 850,000 square feet of retail space.
In both recent denials, the city commission acted in accordance with the recommendation of the city's professional planning staff, which said the proposed developments were larger than allowed under Horizon 2020. Both denials overrode the recommendation of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission.
Opponents and proponents of the projects agree there's nothing particularly wrong with big-box developments.
"It's not the big box itself," Bryan Dyer, a city planner, said. "It's the overall size of the development proposals, the acreages and the square footages."
The proposals included smaller "pad sites" around the main store that would have included smaller businesses and restaurants. Those additions, Dyer said, were what pushed the size of the developments above the allowed size.
"If it had simply been the big box, it probably would've had a better chance of getting a positive staff report for the rezoning request," Dyer said.
And they might have received less public opposition.
"This had nothing to do with big boxes," said Larry Kipp, a vocal opponent of the rezoning that would have been required for the developments. "For me, this was a blatant example of trying to get around Horizon 2020. It's just that big boxes got mixed up in it."
Dan Watkins, the Lawrence attorney who represented the developers on the Home Depot project, disagrees that the proposal was not in accordance with Horizon 2020. In a letter to city commissioners before their vote, he said the project was similar in size to other developments along South Iowa that had been allowed under the plan.
Both big-box projects, however, are back on the drawing board, being tinkered with to respond to the concerns that were expressed the first time around.
Friday, developers represented by Watkins submitted plans for a scaled-down version of the development at 31st and Iowa streets. It was unclear this weekend whether the changes would be enough to earn the plan a second look.
Watkins was hopeful.
"I think there is room in the South Iowa regional commercial center for additional development or redevelopment," he said.
Horizon 2020's role
Horizon 2020 tries to guide commercial growth in Lawrence, in part, by protecting what's already there.
"The Plan strives to strengthen and reinforce the role and function of existing commercial areas within Lawrence and Douglas County and promote quality new commercial development in selected locations," it says.
Downtown is singled out for special emphasis, but isn't the only commercial area that's given special status.
"Lawrence has always been protective of its downtown," Dyer said. "The other commercial areas -- 23rd Street, the older parts of Sixth Street -- are also in the equation. I always say 23rd Street isn't a thing of beauty, but a vacant 23rd Street would be an eyesore."
City commissioners have taken note of such provisions. Downtown Lawrence Inc. opposed both big-box projects, and Commissioner Jim Henry voted against the development at Sixth and Wakarusa after expressing concerns about its effects on downtown.
Others are concerned that too much emphasis placed on protecting downtown could stifle commercial growth.
"I've always agreed with the concept that downtown Lawrence is our primary retail center," Phil Struble, president of Landplan Engineering, said at a recent panel discussion on Horizon 2020. "But it's not our only one."
At the same discussion, Marilyn Bittenbender of Grubb & Ellis/The Winbury Group, said the big boxes don't draw visitors to Lawrence away from downtown.
"They'll come for downtown, they'll come for entertainment and dining, but they won't come for Wal-Mart," she said.
And, she said, Lawrence businesses may be hurt by current policies.
"We're so restrictive about making commercial development available," Bittenbender said, "that it's driving (building and land) prices up into the national area."
National retailers, Bittenbender said, just keep increasing the size of their outlets.
"The dynamics of retail are changing," she said. "Everything in retail development is bigger."
Jim Harpool, president of Dial Realty of Kansas City, led the effort for development at Sixth and Wakarusa streets. When planning commissioners urged him to cut the size of the development, he resisted, saying it would harder to make the project profitable.
That seems to leave the city between a rock -- retailers who say they need big developments -- and a hard place -- policies that restrict those sizes.
-- Staff writer Joel Mathis can be reached at 832-7126.