After three years of litigation, Wal-Mart is coming to Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.
City commissioners at a special Friday morning meeting unanimously approved an out-of-court settlement that gives Wal-Mart a clear path to build a new store - albeit a much smaller one than originally proposed - at the northwest corner of Sixth and Wakarusa.
"This decision is based on what's best for the community," City Commissioner Sue Hack said. "Most good projects are the result of compromise."
The settlement comes just days before a trial was set to start on Monday in which Wal-Mart alleged the city denied a building permit for a 132,000-square-foot store based on political reasons.
But several neighbors in the area - some of whom had helped gather a petition with more than 400 names opposing the original project in 2002 - said the deal would create a massive traffic problem for their area.
"I would rather have a Wal-Mart than rabies, I suppose," said Alan Cowles, president of the West Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. "Our primary concern has not been Wal-Mart but the total volume of traffic that all the commercial development in this area is going to bring. We're still concerned about that.
"It is disappointing to see the city give in to repeated requests for more development. Citizens should be free to plan their own communities. They shouldn't be planned by giant out-of-state corporations that send $300-an-hour lawyers to hammer them into submission."
Project developers said they remained convinced that the intersection and surrounding roads were designed to handle the traffic. They also noted that the settlement included provisions that the project meet strict aesthetic design guidelines.
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»
"We're committed to making this development one that we all can be proud of," said Bill Newsome, a partner with Lawrence developer Doug Compton in 6Wak Land Investments., which owns the property.
After a 10-minute closed-door executive session - their fourth closed-door meeting of the week - commissioners emerged to say that they had come to a meeting of the minds with Wal-Mart.
¢ The city, Wal-Mart and 6Wak all agree to put on hold the seven lawsuits that currently are pending on the property at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.
¢ During the next six months, Wal-Mart and 6Wak will submit a new plan for a Wal-Mart store on the site. The new store will be no larger than 99,990 square feet, plus a 6,500 square foot open air garden center. That's significantly smaller than the 132,000-square-foot store the company sought a building permit for in 2003, as well as the 200,000-square-foot building rejected in 2002.
¢ Wal-Mart will agree to pay two-thirds of the cost of a new traffic signal for Sixth Street and Congressional Drive.
¢ The total amount of commercial development allowed on the northwest corner will be capped at 128,000 square feet.
¢ If city commissioners approve the new plan, Wal-Mart and 6Wak will drop all seven lawsuits against the city.
The project must go through the city's normal planning approval process, but the settlement states that city commissioners already agree with the square-footage amounts proposed by Wal-Mart.
Douglas County District Court Judge Michael Malone must agree to allow the cases to be put on hold. He'll hear the matter Monday morning, but the city's attorney said Malone had indicated he would be willing to grant the request.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the new store would be smaller than many of the stores the retailer now builds. It will, however, offer all the general merchandise items of a typical Wal-Mart - and also include a full-service grocery department.
"We feel that this size in Lawrence in this specific location will work," said Angie Stoner, a spokeswoman with Wal-Mart. "We're always looking for ways to better serve our customers."
That would be Wal-Mart's second entry into the community's grocery market. Construction currently is under way to expand the retailer's store at 3300 Iowa to include a full-service grocery department.
The new store will be relatively small. The store at 3300 Iowa will be about 210,000 square feet when the expansion is completed. At 99,990 square feet, the new store will be just a bit larger than Wal-Mart's first store in Lawrence, which was built in 1983 at 87,152 square feet. It currently is occupied by Sears at 2727 Iowa.
Stoner did not give a timeline for construction to begin. She said once construction started, it would take 12 to 18 months to complete.
Several West Lawrence residents said that they didn't believe the smaller store would mean less traffic, especially because the store would also act as a grocery store.
"What's a smaller store really mean?" said Timothy Riling, a west Lawrence resident. "It means they might carry less of certain items that don't sell well anyway."
But city commissioners said the smaller size was a selling point in the settlement. City Commissioner Boog Highberger said the agreement ensures that the total amount of retail space at the corner will be 26,000 square feet less than what a developer could build there today.
Cowles, though, said he's wary that Wal-Mart at some point will come to a future commission seeking to expand the store.
"I'm not convinced this is over yet," Cowles said.
But the settlement does seem to start an end of an interesting political chapter in the city. The Wal-Mart issue was a major part of the 2003 City Commission elections, which featured candidates that were part of the "smart growth" Progressive Lawrence Campaign - Highberger, with Commissioners David Schauner and Mike Rundle - winning all three seats.
On Friday, Schauner said he wasn't thrilled with how the entire intersection was developing.
"I think that corner ultimately will be not a very happy place to drive through," said Schauner, noting that additional commercial development is already built or planned on the intersection's other corners. "But I don't think our interest is in saying no to this 128,000 square feet. We'll get design standards. It will be a good-looking project.
"But nobody got exactly what they wanted. What we got was a compromise."
Some neighbors, though, are having a hard time seeing what's in it for them. Gwen Klingenberg, president of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods and a resident of the area, said she believed it would become significantly more difficult for her to get in and out of her neighborhood.
"I personally feel like I've been let down by this commission," Klingenberg said. "I put a lot of time into this issue for what feels like nothing."
Wal-Mart: A timeline
2001: City commissioners approve zoning that would allow a 132,000-square-foot store on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive. Commissioners believe that the most likely user was a home improvement store. They place a condition on the zoning that would prohibit a department store from locating on the site.
August 2002: Wal-Mart announces plans to build an approximately 200,000-square-foot store on the site.
October 2002: Neighbors deliver a petition with 400 names to City Hall opposing the project. City commissioners ultimately reject the 200,000-square-foot store proposal and another one that would have reduced the size of the store to 154,000 square feet.
May 2003: Wal-Mart seeks a building permit to build a 132,000-square-foot store under the condition of the zoning approved in 2001. But city commissioners refuse, saying Wal-Mart is a department store and thus not allowed. Wal-Mart officials contend it is a variety store. The first lawsuit is filed later that month; a total of seven suits were filed.
April 2004: City rezones the property to limit any building on the site to less than 80,000 square feet. Commissioners remove the prohibition against department stores.
Friday:Commissioners unanimously agree to an out-of-court settlement - days before a trial is set to begin - that will allow Wal-Mart to build a 99,990-square-foot store on the site.