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Archive for Sunday, February 24, 2002

Home Depot revisits old issues

February 24, 2002

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Battles to block proposed shopping malls in Lawrence spanned most of the 1980s. The South Lawrence Trafficway controversy has lasted for nearly two decades and shows no signs of abating.

The fight over Home Depot's desire to build a store at 31st and Iowa has been going on for a relatively short time: three years. But it can be argued that it has earned its own chapter in the annals of Lawrence's struggle with growth.

Home Depot's efforts have touched on most of the city's major growth issues: affordable housing, flooding, traffic problems, compliance with Horizon 2020, the official planning guide.

More recently the situation has raised another old issue. Does growth pay for itself? Opponents look at the $1.4 million the city will pay to improve the intersection of 31st and Iowa and say no. Advocates point to the additional $1.4 million Home Depot will pay for the improvements and say yes.

There is one big difference between Home Depot and earlier growth battles. Earlier opponents of the malls didn't want any mall in town. Some SLT opponents say a "no-build" option is the best.

But most opponents of the Home Depot development at 31st and Iowa streets say they would welcome the store to Lawrence  at a different location.

"The question here isn't yes or no, should it be here?" said Larry Kipp, who has opposed commercial development at that corner. "Let's think about planning and let's find a place for this thing."

Early developments

Developers went public in June 1999 with their plans for a Home Depot store at 31st and Iowa streets, saying 173 mobile homes would be pushed out of that site's Gaslight Village Mobile Home Park.

"It's South Iowa," Lawrence attorney Dan Watkins said at the time. "That's the retail commercial center at this point."

A month later, though, some of the park's residents vowed to fight their ouster.

"Home Depot can go lay an egg!" one resident yelled at a meeting on the subject.

That opposition temporarily prompted developers to pull back. By January 2000, however, they were ready to go again. Arrangements had been made to move more than 200 mobile homes from the site, they said.

And in May that year, they received a recommendation of conditional approval for the site's rezoning from a split Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission.

Before they gave the thumbs up, planning commissioners heard 50 minutes of testimony that encompassed most of the arguments that have been made against the development during the last two years.

Members of the planning staff said the proposal goes against Horizon 2020, the city's guide for development, which they said specifically limits commercial development at 31st and Iowa to what already exists.

David Longhurst of Downtown Lawrence Inc. said construction of Home Depot would hurt existing stores such as Payless Cashways and Kring's Interiors.

David Geyer of Indian Hills Neighborhood Assn. said he worried the development would only make traffic worse on Louisiana Street, which people would use to get to 31st Street.

And Danette Seymour of the Kansas Tenants Union spoke of the problems the development already has caused to those who have been forced from Gaslight Village.

Keep on chugging

Watkins said the mobile home park had become obsolete because the lots were too small to accommodate modern mobile homes. He said the three other corners of the intersection at 31st and Iowa have large commercial centers and that the store would help Lawrence sales tax receipts.

Planning commissioners were half-convinced. They told Watkins the plans would need to be downsized  and do more to solve traffic problems  before final approval would be granted. It took the better part of a year before he came back with a slimmed-down proposal.

City commissioners rejected the rezoning and plans in May 2001, saying the development still exceeded Horizon 2020's strictures. South Lawrence neighborhoods opposed the project based on traffic and flooding concerns.

Watkins came back in July with a proposal that reduced the size of the Home Depot store by 80 percent, and which answered flooding concerns by creating a stormwater detention area on the property. Developers also agreed to pay a substantial portion of street improvements needed to help the flow of increased traffic for the site. This time city commissioners gave approval.

Now commissioners must approve improvements to the intersection before construction of the store begins; that, with city and state tax dollars and Home Depot's contribution, would total $3.2 million. Neighborhood residents are still concerned about the traffic consequences; other opponents criticize the tax dollars the city will pay to improve the intersection.

Good planning?

Watkins said Home Depot's odyssey shows that the planning process works. The company has reduced its store size demands, worked to prevent flooding and several times increased the amount of money it has pledged for street improvements, all to make the project work.

"It's been a long process," he said. ""The development has been continuously and significantly refined to address the concerns."

Kipp isn't so sure. Home Depot, he said, is still shoehorning its store into an area of town that doesn't need the traffic problems it will create.

"We should have learned from what we didn't do on 23rd Street, the poor planning there," he said. "There are ways we grow our retail space that help our traffic and ways we grow our retail space that impede our traffic."

All sides agree that Lawrence's growth has made the city an attractive market for big retailers.

"We understand Lawrence is the only city in the country this size that doesn't have a home improvement store," City Manager Mike Wildgen said. "They apparently want to be here."

The Lawrence City Commission will decide whether to approve the 31st and Iowa intersection improvements on March 5 at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.

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