Get ready for a whole lot of retail wrangling.
The next six months should determine whether Lawrence residents will have new shopping centers to patronize or whether the city will be closed - at least temporarily - to significant new retail developments.
City commissioners Tuesday night refused to give approval to the largest shopping center currently being proposed for the city - which would have been at the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. Instead, commissioners said they need to take up to six months to try to answer one basic question: Can Lawrence support more retail development?
"Maybe it is naive of me to think that we can really resolve this issue, but I sure want to try," City Commissioner Boog Highberger said.
Highberger was the key vote in deferring a development request for 184,600 square feet of new retail space at the intersection of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. The project - proposed by longtime Lawrence developer Duane Schwada and members of the Fritzel family - had already been approved by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on a 9-1 vote and had received a positive recommendation from the city's planning staff.
City commissioners, though, couldn't pull the trigger on the deal. A trio of commissioners - Highberger, Mike Rundle and David Schauner - were swayed by comments from Kirk McClure, an associate professor in urban planning at Kansas University. McClure said his studies indicate Lawrence is adding too much retail, too quickly. He said Lawrence retail sales were growing at a rate of 1.6 percent per year but retail space was growing at about a 4.1 percent rate.
"Simply put, this plan is not beneficial to the community," McClure said. "It is too much space and it is too soon."
McClure argued that the new space would attract new tenants, but that it would come at the expense of other retail areas in town.
Representatives for the developers, though, strongly disputed McClure's analysis. Jane Eldredge, a Lawrence attorney representing the developers, pointed to a study conducted by a City Commission-hired consultant. That 2005 study indicated the city could easily absorb the new retail space.
The trio of commissioners, however, said they weren't convinced that their consultant had done a proper analysis of all the data and perhaps had not factored in that the average income in Lawrence is lower than in other Kansas cities.
All three commissioners said they believed the question that needs to be answered in the next six months is not whether the city will have new retail developments, but when they will be needed. Highberger said if the city's analysis shows that the city currently is well-served by the existing retail options, he wants estimates on when new retail space will need to be added.
The timing of the city study could prove to be interesting. If it takes the full six months to complete, that will put its completion date just one month after the April City Commission elections. Highberger, Rundle and Schauner are all up for re-election. Highberger said he would like to have the study done before the elections.
Commissioners unanimously agreed to delay action on the project, but Mayor Mike Amyx and Commissioner Sue Hack made it clear that they would have approved the project if they could have found one more vote on the commission.
Amyx called the project a "gorgeous" gateway to the community. He also expressed frustration that the City Commission could not figure out how to approve a plan that had received such positive recommendations from planners.
"We have asked these people to go the extra mile, and they have done that," Amyx said.
Commissioners delayed any decision on improvements to George Williams Way, which were related to the project.