Archive for Monday, August 26, 2002

Residents debate effects of Wal-Mart SuperCenter

August 26, 2002


Downtown probably wouldn't notice any competition from the opening of a Wal-Mart SuperCenter at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, experts say.

But there's considerable debate about how the proposed store would affect commercial developments in the rest of Lawrence.

Opponents of the Wal-Mart say the city already has more retail space than it can fill. Developers say their studies show a need for more shopping options in the northwest part of town.

"We've done our homework," said Bill Newsome of Southwind Capital, the Lawrence developer trying to bring the Supercenter to town.

"As part of our submittal, we did a market study," he said. "It shows this can be supported. Wal-Mart has done their homework. They wouldn't be here if they didn't think it could be supported. And they've done this before; they know how to do this."

Kirk McClure, a Kansas University architecture professor, says telemarketers and payday loan companies fill strip malls on 23rd Street. Goodwill charity fills a prime spot on south Iowa Street  and the former Payless Cashways building sits empty a little ways away.

"We've built all this space on south Iowa, and now we want to build all this space at Sixth and Wakarusa," said McClure, who also helps lead the Progressive Lawrence Campaign political action committee. "You can't do both."

Not a department store

Wal-Mart confirmed earlier this month that it wanted to build a 200,000 square-foot center. 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 wants to build the store on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, a location that has been the subject of heated debates over development proposals in recent years.

An early proposal, with a home improvement store as the anchor surrounded by several smaller stores, was rejected by the Lawrence City Commission early in 2001. The commission approved a smaller, 155,000-square-foot version of the same project late last year, but with the proviso that the site never be used for a department store that would compete with downtown.

To the uninitiated, Wal-Mart might seem to fit the definition of department store  after all, it's listed that way in the Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages phone book.

Legally, it's a different matter.

"Under our antiquated codes, (Wal-Mart) is considered a variety store," said Bryan Dyer, the city's long-range planner, "and not a department store."

The difference in the legal classification, he says, is that variety stores carry everyday items like toothbrushes, while department stores concentrate on a few higher-end items.

Joe Flannery, president of Weaver's Department Store at Ninth and Massachusetts streets, said he wasn't concerned with competition from a new Wal-Mart store.

"I think eventually there's going to be a discounter in northwest Lawrence," he said. "If it's Wal-Mart, I don't have any problem with that."

Downtown consequences

Before the Wal-Mart proposal can go forward, the city and planning commissions must consider how it affects downtown. Horizon 2020, the city-county long-range planning guide, mandates that any new commercial centers do not damage the city's commercial core.

Downtown Lawrence Inc. opposed the earlier development plans for Sixth and Wakarusa in spring 2001, signing onto a letter with the League of Women Voters and the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods. DLI officials said at the time it would add too much retail space to the city.

Those concerns seem to have softened over the last year and a half.

"You go to Wal-Mart for one thing, and you go downtown for another," said Melodie Christal, DLI's co-director. "Downtown is a different atmosphere; we try to promote it as a park atmosphere, as an event. That's the way I continue to see it."

Indeed, it's hard to find anybody  even Wal-Mart opponents  who say downtown will be hurt by the new store.

"Downtown has thrived with a Wal-Mart on the south side of town," said Bill Sepic, president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. "I don't see why it wouldn't thrive with a Wal-Mart on the west side of town."

Hurting elsewhere

McClure contends that commercial corridors along South Iowa and 23rd streets might be hurt by the store.

"The strip malls are hurting right now," he said. "To further suck up that much spending is going to make it that much harder to fill them."

Others say the city needs the additional retail space that would be provided by Wal-Mart, and that 23rd Street and South Iowa would survive.

Newsome disagrees. "Our belief from our market studies is that there is a need in the neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods."

Even opponents concede that shoppers are increasingly disposed to shop at "big box" stores like Wal-Mart. And that may hinder efforts to protect existing commercial developments.

"There's some changes in the way people shop" McClure said. "We can't protect everyone and everything."

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