Wal-Mart is looking west.
A spokesman for the nation's largest retailer confirmed Friday the company was seeking city approval to build a 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.
Earlier development plans for the location for an unidentified home improvement retailer wanting to occupy about the same amount of space have been shot down by city commissioners.
But John Bisio, a spokesman for the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer, said the company determined Lawrence had grown enough that it needed an additional Wal-Mart to serve its customer base.
"We have been looking for an additional store location in Lawrence for quite some time," he said. "We have determined that there are a lot of people who travel a bit out of their way to get to our current store.
"We think this will go a long way toward creating more convenience and more choices to customers on the other side of Lawrence and to the outlying areas to the north."
Bisio said the company would continue to operate its existing Lawrence store at 3300 Iowa. The new store, a Supercenter, would have additional features. It would include a roughly 50,000-square-foot, full-service grocery store and include space for a branch bank, vision center and photography studio.
The company has no firm date for opening the store, but Bisio said it hoped it would be within two years.
The proper location?
The plan, however, must win city approval. The proposed site currently is zoned for 155,000 square feet of commercial development. The property's developer, Southwind Capital, has filed a request with the city's planning office to change the zoning and development plan to accommodate the larger project. Planning commissioners are scheduled to hear that request at their Sept. 25 meeting. The plan also would have to be approved by the Lawrence City Commission.
Both commissions voted to deny the earlier development plan for the site.
Bryan Dyer, the city's long-range planner, said city officials this time would have a variety of issues to consider as they reviewed the proposed development.
"We'll have to look at the traffic implications, what the implications will be on the other commercial space in the area, how it fits into the city's long-range plan," Dyer said. "But really the biggest question is whether this is the proper location for this much square footage."
The development would be less than a block south and west of Free State High School.
Bill Newsome, a partner in Southwind Capital, said previously planned improvements for the intersection of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, along with the future widening of Sixth Street between Wakarusa Drive and Kansas Highway 10, would enable the area to handle any increase in traffic.
"I don't think there is anything about this use that is detrimental to the neighborhood, and that includes the high school and the homes out there," he said. "I think it is a real positive for northwest Lawrence because there is a need for some more basic services out there, and this will fill that need."
At least one neighbor said he was concerned about the plan. Jeffrey Moran, 4513 Harvard Road, was a leader of Citizens for a Sane Sixth and Wakarusa, a group that opposed previous development plans at the corner. He said he expected the group to become active again in opposing the Wal-Mart plan.
"I would expect the neighborhood, and I hope all of Lawrence, to get together and really think about what this will mean for the city," Moran said. "What this plan seems to be saying is we're putting our high school in the back yard of Wal-Mart, and that can't be good.
"It will generate unforeseen amounts of traffic in front of the school and natatorium. It will bring traffic on Sixth Street to a standstill."
Developers specifically are asking to increase the amount of commercial zoning on the 52-acre tract to 22 acres from about 19 acres, Dyer said. The remaining 30 acres would continue to be planned for a mix of office and residential uses, a plan that was approved in October by city commissioners.
Developers also are seeking to change the amount of commercial space allowed in the property's preliminary development plan, to 199,847 square feet from 155,000 square feet. That would allow for the 190,265-square-foot Wal-Mart building and a 9,582-square-foot outdoor garden center. It also would accommodate the facility's 823-space parking lot.
Dyer said the proposal was in compliance with the Horizon 2020 requirement that no more than 450,000 square feet of retail space be developed on the four corners of the intersection.
"It's under that level by just a whisker," he said.
Dyer estimated the total amount of commercial property surrounding the intersection would be nearly 445,000 square feet, meaning the vacant property on the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive could add virtually no retail space and still be in compliance with Horizon 2020, the city-county long-range development plan. The southeast and southwest corners of the intersection already are developed.
If the Wal-Mart were built, he said, it almost certainly would increase interest to build more retail at the intersection than would be allowed by Horizon 2020. That's because big-box retailers generally like to build in the same area, he said.
The term "big box" refers to large-scale retail stores such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, Circuit City and 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.
"If this store is built, it is pretty safe to say it will create a lot of pressure for large commercial development on the northeast corner," Dyer said. "That property will have lots of interest from lots of commercial users."
Moran said he feared the pressure would extend beyond the intersection area.
"I've argued from the very beginning that as soon as you let a big-box retailer there, you are opening the door for the re-creation of South Iowa all the way from Wakarusa to the K-10 bypass," Moran said.
Bisio said the Arkansas-based retailer decided to include the grocery component in its second Lawrence store because nationwide research showed consumers like to do their grocery shopping as they shop for general merchandise.
"Customers have told us quite literally that the Supercenter is the type of store they prefer," Bisio said.
Wal-Mart plans to add about 180 Supercenters in the United States this year, and about 50 traditional Wal-Mart stores.
Lawrence grocers said they were not surprised Wal-Mart wanted to enter the grocery market. But they said they weren't sure the market was ready for another grocer. The store would be the third grocery along the two-mile stretch of Sixth Street from Monterey Way to Folks Road.
"I'm not sure the increased demand is there," said Shawn Brown, store manager for Hy-Vee Food and Drug Center at 4000 W. Sixth St. "Usually somebody goes away, and that's how they thrive. But we feel like we can compete with anybody."
Bisio said company officials didn't think the new store would hurt other Lawrence retailers.
"There's usually a lot of misconception and misinformation about our projects," Bisio said. "I can tell you I get hundreds of letters a year from various chamber of commerces and economic development leaders, and time and again they're not talking about the projected and predicted bankruptcies and foreclosures, but exactly the opposite. They're talking about how the economy is prospering."