Lawrence city commissioners are taking an unusual next step in trying to stop big box stores from building near the intersection of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.
Commissioners last month adopted a building moratorium for the area that prevented a proposed Wal-Mart store from being built on the northwest corner of the intersection.
Later this month, though, city commissioners will ask planning commissioners to rezone more than 60 acres of property in northwest Lawrence. The idea is to make it more difficult for big box stores or large-scale retail projects to be built near the intersection.
At their July 23 meeting, planning commissioners are scheduled to debate three rezoning requests -- the northwest corner of the intersection where Wal-Mart has proposed its store, the northeast corner of the intersection, which is currently zoned agricultural but has been the subject of several development proposals, and the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Folks Road.
All three rezoning requests are unusual because they are being brought forward by the City Commission. The normal process for development in the city is for property owners to seek rezonings.
It was unclear whether the proposed rezonings were unprecedented in the city. The City Commission has initiated rezonings for land being annexed into the city. City officials, though, weren't able to point to an example similar to what they've proposed to do at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.
The proposed rezoning on the northwest corner of Sixth and Wakarusa has drawn the ire of the property owners. Bill Newsome, a partner in the ownership group along with Lawrence developer Doug Compton, said the rezoning request was unfair because a previous City Commission already had approved commercial zoning for the site.
"This City Commission obviously has an agenda," Newsome said. "I don't know if it is just to stop Wal-Mart or what, but whatever it is, this is not right and not equitable. We've been through the process on this property and it is done. Period."
Big box questions
In proposing the rezonings, city commissioners instructed planning commissioners to consider how much retail square footage should be allowed at the northwest and northeast corners of the intersection, how large any one building should be at the two sites, and what type of retail and commercial uses should be allowed on the site.
City commissioners already have said the current zoning for the northwest corner prohibited retail uses such as a Wal-Mart. That contention is at the center of a lawsuit filed against the city by Wal-Mart and Newsome's development group.
The new rezoning could prohibit other types of retail uses on the site, and it could reduce the amount of retail square footage allowed. Currently the site is zoned for about 155,000 square feet of retail space.
Lawrence Mayor David Dunfield said he wanted planning commissioners to consider whether any type of big box store should be allowed since Horizon 2020 calls for the intersection to serve only as a community commercial center.
"I've always questioned putting big box stores in a community center," Dunfield said. "That seems contradictory to me."
Dunfield also defended the commission's unusual action to move forward with a rezoning against the wishes of a property owner. He said the intersection had been "a thorn in the city's side for some time now."
"I think what we're trying to do with this is finally find a solution," Dunfield said.
He stopped short of saying, however, that the current city commission was pursuing the rezoning as a way to stop what it saw as a mistake by the previous city commission when it approved the zoning for the northwest corner in 2001.
"I'm not going to comment on that," Dunfield said. "It is an unusual situation. That's all I'm going to say about that aspect of it."
Marilyn Bittenbender, a commercial real estate agent who represents the property owners on the northeast corner, said her clients weren't sure what to think of the proposed rezoning.
The northeast corner currently isn't zoned for any type of commercial use. Bittenbender said she would wait to hear what type of development is appropriate for the corner.
"It may be positive for us or it may be negative for us," Bittenbender said. "We don't know yet."
Bryan Dyer, the planning staff member overseeing the rezonings, said he would meet with landowners later this week and likely would make a set of recommendations for the properties by the end of next week.