Always low prices.
Always high drama.
Yes, Wal-Mart is back at City Hall. The giant retailer's request to build a new store at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive is up for approval at Tuesday night's City Commission meeting.
It arrives with quite a history. First, there were months of litigation; Wal-Mart and developers contended that the city illegally denied the project a building permit. The two sides eventually agreed to put those two lawsuits on hold while the city considered a new Wal-Mart request, which was significantly smaller than its original plans.
Then there was a marathon Planning Commission meeting in August where planning commissioners debated the project for more than five hours and ended in a 5-5 deadlock on whether to recommend the project.
Now it is the City Commission's turn, and Mayor Mike Amyx said he hopes to have a discussion that keeps politics out of the equation and doesn't focus on the good or ill of the Wal-Mart chain.
"This is a planning issue, and that is what it needs to remain," Amyx said of the proposal that would allow a 99,985-square-foot store. "This is about the arrangement of buildings and those sort of items."
But even that likely will spark disagreement. Some city commissioners said they have concerns about whether Wal-Mart is following through on promises made in the legal agreement that stated Wal-Mart would use the city's design guidelines to shape the project, and that the store would be built to the highest aesthetics and quality standards of any Wal-Mart store in the country.
"I'm trying to keep an open mind about this, but it is difficult," said City Commissioner Boog Highberger.
Angie Stoner, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the retailer has complied with the requirements.
"We have worked very closely with city staff on this," Stoner said. "We have done traffic studies, we have very different elevations for the outside appearance of this building, and we have worked hard to preserve the land and provide additional landscaping to truly make this as nice as it can be."
Here's a quick look at several of the major issues surrounding the project that likely will be discussed at Tuesday's meeting:
l Design and aesthetics. The city's new commercial design guidelines generally encourage major retail developments to place their parking lots behind their buildings so they are not such a prominent feature of the site. They also encourage the placement of buildings closer to the streets to give developments more of a pedestrian-oriented feel. There are concerns that the Wal-Mart project doesn't do enough of either.
But the city's planning staff is recommending approval of the project's design. Wal-Mart also is agreeing that at least 30 percent of the exterior of the store will be made of natural materials such as stone, brick or wood. It also is agreeing to plant more trees and provide more landscaped areas than the city code requires.
l Traffic. Members of the West Lawrence Neighborhood Assn. have long voiced concerns that the number of vehicles traveling to the store will overwhelm the Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive intersection. They have said they fear vehicles will begin cutting through their neighborhood to avoid the congestion on Sixth Street.
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»
Wal-Mart leaders counter that they conducted extensive traffic studies of the area that show the intersection will handle the expected traffic. But neighborhood members have taken exception to how those studies were conducted.
l Litigation. Hanging over the entire process will be the fact that an agreement reached between the city and Wal-Mart to put a series of lawsuits on hold while the retailer's new plans are considered is about to expire. The six-month time period on the agreement expires Tuesday. The agreement allows for an extension, if all parties agree to it. But neither side would comment on whether they would seek an extension if the plan is not approved Tuesday.
Without an extension, Douglas County District Court Judge Michael Malone could restart the cases, two of which were just days away from going to trial before the agreement was reached in April. In the lawsuit, Wal-Mart is seeking permission to build a much bigger store than what it currently has proposed. The store proposed in the lawsuit would be 132,000 square feet.
The 5-5 vote by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission means four of the five city commissioners must vote for the plan to give it final approval on Tuesday. If the project receives only three votes, then it must be sent back to the Planning Commission to be debated again. Following that debate, regardless of the Planning Commission action, the City Commission can approve the development with three votes.
Commissioners will meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.