City commissioners late Tuesday evening cleared the way for a Wal-Mart store - the city's second - to be built at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.
Commissioners approved the request on a 4-1 vote after hearing a solid hour's worth of public comment against the store, and after enduring a lobby full of protesters waving signs with negative statements about the retail giant.
Commissioner Boog Highberger was the lone commissioner to vote against the plan. Concerns from the public ranged from traffic issues to predictions that Wal-Mart would seriously hurt the city's existing retail market.
Other than Highberger, commissioners were not convinced that another Wal-Mart will be economically harmful. Several commissioners did express concerns about traffic issues, but said they were reassured by a new analysis from the Kansas Department of Transportation and city engineers that indicated roads in the area were built to handle the increase in traffic.
"Sixth Street is as good as any road we have in this town," City Commissioner Mike Dever said.
Several residents were not convinced of the new traffic analysis and still feared that overflow traffic from the development will cut through their neighborhoods.
Commissioner Mike Amyx attempted to add a condition to the development that would have forced the developers to pay for some traffic-calming improvements in the adjacent neighborhoods, but his suggestion failed on a 3-2 vote, with only Amyx and Highberger voting for it.
The vote marks the largest victory in an approximately five-year effort by the retailer to build at the site. Developers have long said the property is well-suited for commercial development, and that the roads in the area can handle the increased traffic. The developers have contended that a previous City Commission denied the project for political reasons.
"I think we all want Lawrence to be a place where if you follow the rules, you will be given an opportunity, and that opportunity should exist for Wal-Mart as well as for mom-and-pop operations," said Bill Newsome, who along with Lawrence businessman Doug Compton owns the development site.
Angie Stoner, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the store did not have a timeline to begin construction. Technically, commissioners approved only the rezonings and the preliminary development plan. The rezonings must go through two "readings" at the City Commission level before they become official. A final development plan also must be approved. Normally, the readings and the final development plan are merely technicalities.
Stoner said once construction begins, the approximately 100,000-square-foot store - which is scheduled to include a grocery department - will be open in 10 to 12 months.
"Obviously, it is a project we have been working on for a long time, so we hope to move forward as soon as possible," Stoner said.