In northwest Lawrence there’s another battle brewing over a big box retailer.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department is recommending denial of a plan to build a Lowe’s near the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Folks Road.
Several neighbors have come out against the plan for the nearly 150,000-square-foot store, and now city planners say they are concerned about how the development would change the area.
“We already have a reasonable plan approved for that intersection, and it has created expectations for people who own property in the area,” said Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning. “With this new plan, those expectations would go away.”
Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioners will begin debating the issue at a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall.
The area proposed for a Lowe’s has been approved for a mix of residential and office development contained in a “new urbanism” style center that highlights walkability. The city’s comprehensive plan specifically states only a limited amount of retail development should occur between Folks Road and Wakarusa Drive.
But a representative for the development group — which includes local businessmen Mike Treanor and Doug Compton — said the Lowe’s opportunity is one the city should seriously consider.
“I understand that some people don’t like the fact that we’re going away from the plan that we proposed,” said Bill Fleming, an attorney for Treanor Architects. “But I don’t think that is the issue. The issue should be whether this is a good plan.
“The issue should be whether we want a Lowe’s in our community. Lowe’s will provide a lot of jobs, will provide a lot of property tax revenue, will provide a lot of sales tax revenue, and it will help the existing retailers who are already out there.”
But like a proposal to build a Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa — which ultimately happened after a lengthy court battle — this proposal is highlighting larger issues. The Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods has opposed the project on grounds that it could open up Sixth Street to the type of “strip” commercial development that has made 23rd Street a congested corridor. The association also argues Lawrence already is overbuilt with retail space.
The city’s planning department has taken up some of those same issues. McCullough said planners are concerned that approval of the project may set a precedent for other vacant property along Sixth Street to apply for retail development.
McCullough also said the department is seeing more signs that Lawrence income levels and population are not keeping up with the increase in the amount of retail space. Planners said it is concerning that studies show that since 2000:
• Lawrence’s population has grown by 13 percent.
• Incomes have increased by 0.3 percent.
• Retail space has grown by 22 percent.
Those concerns long have been expressed by some members of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, but have not gained much traction recently at City Hall. McCullough said the numbers, though, are significant.
“I think what it means is that future rezoning requests for commercial development are going to be scrutinized to a greater degree,” McCullough said. “There is no doubt that what helps support commercial development is income growth and population.”
Fleming, though, says such analysis doesn’t take into account numbers that suggest Lawrence is losing more retail sales to other cities than it has in the past.
“The marketplace makes its own analysis too,” Fleming said. “Lowe’s has made an analysis, and they must see something that says Lawrence is a market we want to be in. We should be pleased about that. I don’t think we want to have a public policy that protects Home Depot from competition.”