A plan to bring shoppers and diners — and perhaps even moviegoers — to the edge of the Kansas River via a 1,800-foot boardwalk in North Lawrence is still afloat and is showing signs of gaining momentum.
A group of area businessmen have filed plans with City Hall that would allow for about 200,000 square feet of restaurants, shops, a hotel, a movie theater, offices and apartments or condos to fill in the area surrounding the Johnny’s Tavern location at North Second and Locust streets in North Lawrence.
“I have always been about 150 yards away from the river, but I’ve never really had the action of it here,” said Rick Renfro, an owner of Johnny’s and one of the developers of the proposed project. “Most people who come to Johnny’s don’t even know the river is so close. It would be neat if we could change that.”
The group first broached the idea for creating a commercial development along the river in late 2008, but a recent filing at Lawrence City Hall is the latest sign that the project is gaining a new level of seriousness.
“With big projects like this, you just keep waiting for somebody to slam the door in your face,” Renfro said. “So far, nobody has slammed the door.”
The group has filed a request to have the area around Johnny’s formally designated as a part of downtown. That would make the area eligible to receive a special downtown zoning designation that allows for taller buildings, fewer setback requirements and a different set of parking regulations.
The zoning would allow the nearly 18-acre site to have a downtown feel, but the centerpiece of the project would be something you don’t find in downtown Lawrence: a boardwalk. A “concept plan” calls for an 1,800-foot-long boardwalk to run alongside the top of the Kansas River levee. Multistory buildings that would house restaurants, shops and a hotel would be built adjacent to the boardwalk, giving people a chance to shop and dine with a view of the Kaw.
“We’re ecstatic about the possibilities,” said Lawrence architect Paul Werner, who is designing the project. “It would be an extension of downtown. We think it could really tie both sides of the river together.”
The project would be on about 18 acres that would include everything between the Kansas River levee, North Second Street and Lyon Street. That includes a trailer park, which ultimately would have to be removed to make way for the development.
The project does not yet have commitments from any tenants, but in plans submitted to City Hall, developers listed several possibilities. They included:
• A relocated Johnny’s Tavern that would move out of its longtime home in order to have a new facility with river views
• A 66,000-square-foot hotel
• A 50,000-square-foot movie theater
• A 27,000-square-foot sporting goods store, which would be large enough to accommodate a chain retailer such as a Dick’s Sporting Goods
• Space for at least two other restaurants, a microbrewery, and at least another dozen miscellaneous retailers
• Upper-floor office and condo/apartment space
Werner said the project is dependent upon the economy improving enough to get retailers interested in the development. But the group includes area developers who have had some successes in getting projects started. In addition to Renfro and his partners in the Johnny’s franchise, the group includes Jon Davis, who has owned multiple commercial properties in Lawrence, and Christian Ablah, an area deal-maker who led efforts to develop the Home Depot and Best Buy area at 31st and Iowa streets.
The development will need several approvals from Lawrence City Hall before it can move forward. But Werner said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently has given several approvals related to the suitability of building new structures next to the levee.
“We still have a ways to go, but a lot has been getting done,” Werner said.
Planning commissioners likely will take up the issue of whether to extend the downtown designation to the area at their January meeting. If approved, the development will have to submit specific plans for approval by both planning commissioners and city commissioners.