Hear David Smith, a local opponent to the Wal-Mart plans, speak about the project.
Hear Wal-Mart spokeswoman Angie Stoner talk about the proposed Wal-Mart project.
It is not about Wal-Mart.
That was the message the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission delivered Monday night as it unanimously agreed to recommend that the City Commission approve plans for a new Wal-Mart and four other retail buildings on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.
Commissioners heard about an hour's worth of public comment - largely against the project - but were not swayed by it because much of it focused on whether Wal-Mart was a quality retailer. Planning commissioners said their role was to determine land use issues, not whether the community needs a specific retailer in town.
"Nobody is forced to buy there and no one is forced to work there," Planning Commissioner Tom Jennings said. "We act like it is going to be indentured servitude out there. If no one wants to go into the front door or the back door, it won't be there long."
The issue now goes to city commissioners, who are expected to discuss the project at their Aug. 7 meeting.
Fitting development plan
On Monday night, members of the public brought up concerns ranging from Wal-Mart's employee health benefits and wages to the effect another Wal-Mart would have on the city's character. Others also said approving the Wal-Mart project would cause other businesses to go out of business because the city is already overbuilt from a retail standpoint.
"This should be about whether this is a good idea and whether it is responsible for the community to go forward with it," said David Smith, a member of Grassroots Action, a local organization that promotes sustainability and progressive politics.
But in supporting the project, several planning commissioners pointed to something more concrete: The city's comprehensive plan, which lists the corner as being appropriate for retail development.
"What it comes down to me is that this project is in compliance with what the City Commission has determined to be the long-range plan for this section of town," said Planning Commissioner Richard Hird.
Traffic issues had been a major concern of many residents who live near the proposed site. But engineers for the city presented the Planning Commission with a new traffic model that they developed in conjunction with the Kansas Department of Transportation.
The new model, the engineers said, uses more accurate projections for the amount of retail space that will be developed along the Sixth Street corridor. The new model shows far less congestion than a previous draft model from KDOT had shown.
"We feel pretty confident that the Sixth Street corridor can handle the committed projects," Chuck Soules, the city's director of public works, said in reference to the Wal-Mart store and other already-approved development.
Some neighbors weren't necessarily convinced. Alan Cowles, a west Lawrence resident who has been a longtime opponent of the project, said many neighbors still had traffic concerns despite the new model. But neighbors did put up a less vigorous fight this time around.
"I won't repeat all of the concerns that we have," Cowles told planning commissioners. "It will take less time this way."
The unanimous vote by the Planning Commission is in stark contrast to previous efforts by developers to get the Wal-Mart project approved. The development has been one of the more contentious projects at City Hall for the past five years.
The project sparked a lawsuit by developers, who contend the city illegally denied a building permit for the project. But the lawsuit was put on hold shortly after the April City Commission elections.
Following the elections, only one of the three city commissioners who had opposed the project remained in office. The new City Commission asked the developers to put the lawsuit on hold and submit new plans for the development.
The makeup of the Planning Commission, whose members are appointed by the City Commission and County Commission, also is significantly different. The 10-member Planning Commission - which split on the project 5-5 in August - has four new members since it last considered the project. On Monday, commissioners gave it a positive recommendation on an 8-0 vote. Commissioners Dennis Lawson and Lisa Harris were absent.
The preliminary development plan recommended by planning commissioners Monday would allow for a 99,840-square-foot Wal-Mart store and four smaller buildings that will add another 21,500 square feet of retail space. Tenants for those four buildings haven't been identified.
Developers for the project were pleased with Monday night's action, and said they're looking forward to going before the City Commission.
"This will bring alternatives," said Bill Newsome, who owns the property with Lawrence businessman Doug Compton. "It gives the people of Lawrence more choice in their shopping opportunities, and that is what it is all about."