400-plus voice opposition to N.W. Lawrence store

Martha Perala didn’t have to go far Tuesday to find neighbors willing to sign a petition against a proposed new Wal-Mart Supercenter in western Lawrence.

She collected three dozen signatures in less than 90 minutes.

“I didn’t pull any arms. I didn’t even have to go door-to-door,” Perala, a northwest Lawrence resident, said Wednesday. “When they found out I was soliciting signatures for the petition, people stopped me on the street to ask if they could sign.”

Perala’s was one of more than 400 signatures on petitions delivered to city planners Wednesday afternoon, a week before the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission considers the proposal.

City Hall planning staffers said they expected to issue their recommendation on the proposal today or Friday.

Bill Newsome, developer of the Sixth and Wakarusa site where the store is proposed, said he had not seen the petition. But it won’t change his feelings about the proposal.

“Wal-Mart’s proposal has a lot of merit,” he said. “The site is already zoned commercial, it’s already zoned for a big box.”

The proposal

As proposed, the store would occupy 190,000 square feet  plus another 9,000 square feet for an outdoor garden center  at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive. The Wal-Mart would include a full-service grocery store and eventually be open 24 hours a day. Wal-Mart’s existing store at 31st and Iowa streets would remain open.

Developers are trying to overcome opposition by designing a fancier-than-usual store. They’re using trees, berms and a brick wall to screen the center from its neighbors. The store’s facade would be red brick; the garden center would have brick pillars and fake wrought-iron molding.

And Wal-Mart officials have redesigned the store so delivery trucks wouldn’t be seen from nearby neighborhoods while they’re unloading their cargo.

Aesthetics aren’t the prime problem mentioned in the neighborhood petition, though. The neighbors raise four concerns:

l The center would bring in traffic from the entire city, pushing use of the intersection beyond mere neighborhood activity. The intersection already is designated by the city as a community commercial center, however.

l The center will attract other big stores to the intersection and push out neighborhood businesses.

l Other big stores will be attracted to the intersection, creating even more traffic problems.

l Such traffic would be inappropriate next to Free State High School and the adjacent Indoor Aquatic Center operated by the city.

Tip of the iceberg?

“Over half of the students drive to school or after-school activities each day,” the petition said. “Mixing these young drivers with regional shopping traffic would be a tragic mistake.”

The Wal-Mart’s effect on traffic also has drawn the attention of state officials. Chris Huffman, a Kansas Department of Transportation engineer, said the store would draw more traffic than was anticipated when the agency designed improvements to Sixth Street that are expected to be complete by 2005.

“In short,” he wrote to city planners, “the life expectancy of the intersection is shortened.”

Huffman was not available Wednesday to comment on the details.

Jeanne Newman, who lives in northwest Lawrence, organized the eight volunteers who collected petition signatures Monday and Tuesday. She said planning commissioners should be expecting a strong neighborhood contingent Wednesday  the petition effort proves that.

“I think it’s more than 400 signatures,” Newman said of the petition. “I’ll bet I can get 4,000 easily.”