Archive for Wednesday, May 21, 2003

City blocks new Wal-Mart store

Zoning definitions reworked to guard Sixth, Wakarusa from ‘department’ stores

May 21, 2003


Lawrence city commissioners moved Tuesday to block construction of a Wal-Mart store at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, declaring a moratorium on all new and pending building permits for the site.

Commissioners also unanimously directed city staff to prepare revisions to city zoning ordinances to clarify that Wal-Mart and similar big-box retail stores shouldn't build at the location.

"I think this commission has said it stands behind department stores being excluded" from Sixth and Wakarusa, Commissioner Mike Rundle said.

Todd Thompson, Wal-Mart's Lawrence attorney, did not attend Tuesday night's meeting.

"I'm not going to comment on something you tell me happened," Thompson said in a telephone interview after the commission meeting. "I'll catch it in the meeting minutes tomorrow morning."

Tuesday's action rebuffs Wal-Mart's latest attempt to build at the site.

After two failed attempts at rezoning the site for a bigger Supercenter store -- which would include grocery sales -- Wal-Mart earlier this month filed an application to build a 132,000-square-foot store under the terms of the planned commercial development zoning approved two years ago for the site.

The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission in October 2001 approved plans for a home improvement store at Sixth and Wakarusa, with the proviso that the site never be used for a department store. The home improvement store project never materialized.

When Wal-Mart came forward with its proposal, city planners said the retailer wasn't a "department store" under city rules -- it was a "variety store." Thus, officials reasoned, Wal-Mart was exempt from the prohibition.

But city commissioners switched gears when they rejected Wal-Mart's second rezoning request in March. They said Wal-Mart was a "general merchandise store," a category that includes department and variety stores. As such, they reasoned, the store was prohibited.

Tuesday night, commissioners directed city planners to revise the zoning ordinance so that the "department store" definition was clarified to include Wal-Mart-style retailers.

Critics have charged that city commissioners were playing games with zoning definitions, but Mayor David Dunfield disagreed. Wal-Mart, he said, is clearly a department store.

"I would suggest that if anybody is playing games with the use groups, it's the applicant," Dunfield said.

West Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. residents who have fought the project approved the city's action, saying the store would draw too much traffic to an intersection shared with nearby Free State High School.

"A 132,000-square-foot building is too large for that corner," said neighborhood resident Gwen Klingenberg.

Planning Director Linda Finger said commissioners could see the proposed zoning redefinitions by August.

The moratorium will last six months. Commissioners will approve formal resolutions on the ban at their next meeting, 6:35 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts.

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