Lawrence city commissioners tonight will consider putting out the welcome mat for new shoppers in a big way.
Commissioners at their weekly meeting will consider approving a new shopping district at the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
"It looks like it would be a good gateway to our community," City Commissioner Mike Dever said of the plan that would add about 185,000 square feet of retail space and another 150,000 square feet of office and commercial space.
That hasn't always been the view of city commissioners.
The previous City Commission in November refused to approve the project after three commissioners said they were concerned the city's retail market was becoming overbuilt. They voted to delay the project.
But two of those three no longer are on the commission. Only Commissioner Boog Highberger remains from that trio. He said Monday that he's still concerned the development would overburden the city's retail market.
"I've become more convinced that our retail sector is overbuilt," Highberger said of the nearly six months that have passed since the commission last considered the project.
Highberger said he's seen numbers - but could not quote specific figures - that indicate Lawrence's sales per square foot are below regional averages and its retail square feet per capita are above regional averages.
He said those figures create concern that if new retail areas are allowed, they could hurt existing retail areas, which could lead to some older shopping centers becoming blighted.
But those concerns didn't show up in a report that the city commissioned in 2005. That report cited statistics that indicated Lawrence's retail vacancy rates were below average, and that the community was losing significant amounts of sales tax dollars to other communities.
Dever said he thinks this development - coupled with about 190,000 square feet of already-approved retail space on the southeast corner of Sixth Street and the trafficway - would serve as a new retail draw for Lawrence.
"I think it is going to add an opportunity for people outside of Lawrence to come shop from all the outlying areas," Dever said. "I think we're going to attract people to come to Lawrence who otherwise would be going to Topeka. That's what we need to do to shore up our sales tax revenue."
The project, which would be called Mercato and built in a Tuscan architectural style, appears to have the necessary support on the commission. Both Mayor Sue Hack and Commissioner Mike Amyx spoke in favor of the project when the commission considered it in November.
The development plans call for a single 175,000-square-foot building that could be the home of a new big-box retailer. Plans also call for two smaller retail buildings of 5,600 square feet and 4,000 square feet, and seven office buildings ranging from 5,700 square feet to 60,000 square feet.
The development group, which includes Lawrence businessmen Duane and Steve Schwada and Thomas and Tim Fritzel, has said it doesn't yet have a big-box retail tenant for the project. The timeline for the project will be dependent upon finding a tenant, the developers have said.