Listen up, Dillards, Macy's, Lowe's or any other large retailer looking to locate in Lawrence: City leaders are closer to creating a more stringent process for stores to win approval to locate in the city.
Three of the five city commissioners on Wednesday expressed support for a new retail market analysis requirement that would recommend the city reject any new developments of 50,000 square feet or more if the development is projected to push the city's overall retail vacancy rate to more than 8 percent.
"This is a tool that we have needed for a long time," said City Commissioner Mike Rundle, who was joined by commissioners Boog Highberger and David Schauner in expressing support for the proposed policy at a joint study session with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission.
The idea behind the policy is that high vacancy rates lead to blighted areas, which ultimately create problems - ranging from crime to dangerous structures - that the government must address.
But members of the development community are concerned that the proposal is nothing more than a way for some planning commissioners and city commissioners to reject new retail.
"These are just mental gymnastics for people who want to say no whenever they want," said Mark Andersen, a Lawrence lawyer who has represented several development projects. "It gives them more ways to say no."
As it is currently proposed, the new policy would mandate any large project pushing the vacancy rate above 8 percent be rejected. But there was talk at Wednesday's study session that planners and city commissioner should have the ability to deviate from the policy in certain situations.
The new policy also would require the city to create and maintain a sales tax database that would measure retail sales by geographic areas of the city and also by specific types of retail businesses. It also would compare Lawrence sales in specific sectors to broader averages to provide information about whether particular retail sectors were overbuilt or underbuilt in the community. That database also would be used in evaluating developments of more than 50,000 square feet.
"Hopefully, the decision-making process becomes more objective with better information," Schauner said.
Planning commissioners said one of the primary uses for the database would be to determine types of retail businesses that are lacking in Lawrence so that planners could figure out ways to perhaps attract those businesses.
But the data also could be used to determine retail sectors that are overbuilt in the city. With that information, planners would have greater ability to place conditions on development plans that prohibit certain types of retail businesses from locating in a development. Several planning commissioners, though, said they thought it would be unlikely the data would be used that way.
"I can't imagine that anyone is going to use this to look at a particular development and say you can't have this specific type of business in it," said Planning Commissioner John Haase.
Planning commissioners and city commissioners have done essentially that on at least one occasion. Development plans for the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive were prohibited from including a department store based on concerns that one would hurt downtown Lawrence.
Andersen said some members of the retail community are now concerned that the new policy would open the door to more instances where planners would begin prohibiting certain types of businesses based on market factors.
"I don't think most people in the retail sector are very comfortable with the idea of going to local government to get permission to open a business, essentially," Andersen said.
Horizon 2020, the city's comprehensive plan, mentions the need for a retail market analysis and spells out the need to keep vacancy rates at or less than 8 percent. But Andersen, who has represented the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce on the issue, said the language in Horizon 2020 gives planners all the direction they need.
"We don't need to create all this bureaucracy," Andersen said.
The issue is expected to be before city commissioners in mid-July.