Neighbors are worried about traffic snarls.
An economist thinks it might help kill off older businesses in Lawrence.
And the City Commission voted against allowing a Wal-Mart superstore at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, one of the city's choicest corners for development.
But the world's largest retailer will have its day in court following a judge's ruling made public Wednesday in a lawsuit brought against the city by the proposed developers of the property.
The developers have said city officials bowed to political pressures and ignored their own development rules in denying permission to build.
"All that matters to me is we're going to trial," said Bill Newsome, a partner in 6Wak Land Holdings, the property owner. "That is the bottom line to me. We have said from the start that what the city did was unlawful, and we intend to prove that in a trial."
The city and the developers had asked Douglas County District Court Judge Michael Malone to end the case by ruling in their favor. But Malone instead ordered the case to trial, virtually assuring that the debate over whether Wal-Mart should be allowed to build the new store will simmer for months to come.
Lawrence Mayor Boog Highberger said he still felt good about the city's chances in the case.
"Because the issue is still in litigation, I really don't want to comment on it, but I do think we'll prevail in the end," Highberger said.
Alan Cowles, president of the West Lawrence Neighborhood Assn., who lives in the Sixth and Wakarusa neighborhood, is against the proposed Wal-Mart and said he was surprised at the judge's decision but not upset.
"I thought the judge would just issue a decision, but we trust the judge's expertise on technical matters like this," said Cowles, who has lived in the area six years. "We also welcome the decision, because I think we are always very happy to leave the fate of the community in the hands of its citizens."
No date has been set yet for the trial. But the event is expected to be well-watched. The case, which began back in 2003, has been one of the more high-profile cases City Hall has been involved in recently.
Kirk McClure, an associate professor of urban planning at Kansas University, said there's good reason for the interest because there's much more at stake than whether Wal-Mart is allowed to build a 132,100-square-foot store on the northwest corner of the busy intersection near Free State High School.
McClure said at stake is the city's ability to properly regulate the city's retail environment.
"A real simple piece of economics is that stores don't create demand," said McClure, an opponent of the project. "It is the other way around. If we build more stores than we can support, what usually happens is that the new stores survive and the older stores don't. This is the type of thing that can kill off older stores."
More about Wal-Mart at 6th and Wakarusa
- Joint statment about Wal-Mart lawsuit
- Wal-Mart back, with bigger request (10-28-06)
- Wal-Mart question up for city approval (10-23-06)
- Wal-Mart proposal hits another roadblock (09-01-06)
- Planning Commission split on proposed Wal-Mart (08-31-06)
- City gateway taking shape (08-19-06)
- Wal-Mart reveals design for Sixth Street location (08-15-06)
- More stories in our Wal-Mart on Wakarusa section Â»
Neighbors in the area also have said that the proposed development would have far-reaching implications on the entire northwest area of the city. In particular, neighbors - usually more than 50 at a time - have repeatedly told city commissioners that the project would cause major traffic on Sixth Street and the surrounding neighborhoods, including at the nearby high school.
Developers have rejected claims that the project will cause traffic problems or overburden the city's retail market. But they said there are reasons why the entire city should be watching the case.
Newsome said he and his partners are pursuing the lawsuit for no other reason than to protect their property rights, but he said other community members should be concerned about how the city has treated the development.
"We have said all along that when a set of rules are laid out by the city, and you follow those rules like we did, and you get to the final step of those rules and then they change them on you, that should be a concern to the broader community," Newsome said.
Opponents of the project have rejected that argument. They said Horizon 2020, the community's long-range development plan, clearly showed Wal-Mart was too big for the intersection.
Determining whether city officials - particularly the city's Board of Zoning Appeals - followed their own rules will be at the heart of the trial.
Malone wrote in the ruling that there is at least one significant question that remains about the city's actions in denying the developers' application for a building permit.
Malone said a reasonable argument could be made that the Board of Zoning Appeals incorrectly believed that Victor Torres, director of the city's Neighborhood Resources Department, made certain determinations about the inappropriateness of the proposed store. But Malone noted that Torres has testified under oath that "he could not give a specific reason" why he denied the applications.
Developers have alleged that Torres received political pressure to deny the building permit application. City attorneys have denied those allegations.
Wal-Mart officials have been successful in pulling a building permit for an expansion to their existing store at 3300 Iowa. The 94,427-square-foot addition will convert the store into a Supercenter, which will allow the retailer to sell groceries, gasoline and other products.
When the trial starts, it will be going on in a sea of proposed development changes in the community, most of which have been controversial.
A new set of development codes - which would replace existing zoning codes that are more than 30 years old - have been put on hold after several development attorneys expressed concerns that the new regulations were burdensome and confusing.
An area plan for a major piece of property south and east of 23rd Street and O'Connell Road also is on hold while city and county commissioners disagree over whether the area should include a large amount of industrial development or residential development.
And it is expected that a new set of subdivision regulations, which will guide how neighborhoods and commercial developments look in the future, will produce considerable debate among developers and neighborhood advocates once the regulations are proposed.
"There is no question that we have a divided community that doesn't seem to be able to get on the same page of these issues very easily," said Greg DiVilbiss, a Lawrence developer.
But people on each side of the issue don't agree on what all the disagreement means. DiVilbiss said he thought it was a sign of a minority of people having too much influence on the process.
"I think the overwhelming majority of people in Lawrence, with the exception of 23rd Street, really like how the city has developed," DiVilbiss said. "There is a small minority of folks who are very loud and are against development on a lot of levels. They're the squeaky wheel. They look a lot larger than they are."
But McClure said the debate that is going on in Lawrence is common and healthy in growing cities. He said residents here realize that growth issues can't be left entirely to developers.
"The development community is an inappropriate entity to make those decisions," McClure said. "They will go with whatever makes the best profit margins."
Timeline of events
¢ March 2003 - City commissioners reject a proposal that would have allowed an approximately 155,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store at the site.
¢ May 2003 - Developers apply for a building permit for a 132,100-square-foot Wal-Mart store. Developers contend that existing zoning allows that size of store on the property.
¢ Aug. 2003 - City notifies developers that their building permit application has been denied, in part because Wal-Mart is considered a department store, and the current zoning prohibits department stores. Developers contend that the store is a variety store.
¢ Oct. 2003 - City's Board of Zoning Appeals upholds the city's decision to deny the building permit for the project.
¢ Wednesday - District Court Judge Michael Malone rules that the case will go to trial.
Good for developers The judge ruled a reasonable argument can be made that the city's Board of Zoning Appeals relied on wrong information to deny the building permit.
Good for city The judge dismissed arguments that the Board of Zoning Appeals denied developers proper due process.
Bad for city The judge refused to grant a motion to end the lawsuit without a trial.
Bad for developers The judge ruled that the Board of Zoning Appeals did not overstep its authority in denying a building permit for the project.