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News and notes from around town:
• Keep an eye open for another multi-story building to go up near the center of downtown. Sources tell me that a development group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton is close to filing plans at City Hall for a multi-story, extended stay hotel for the vacant lot on the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire. What I hear is that the group — which includes Lawrence architect Mike Treanor — is in the process of meeting with East Lawrence Neighborhood Association board members and plans to have a larger neighborhood meeting in the future. I haven’t seen the plans myself, but I’ve heard from others who say the building — which would be on the lot just north of the Lawrence Arts Center — would include its own underground parking. No word yet on whether one of the big franchise hotel companies, like a Hilton, have signed on to be a part of the development. I hear that in addition to offering hotel suites, the development also may have some condos for sale — much like how The Oread near KU offers units for sale. But the most interesting thing I’ve heard is that one version of the plans shows a swimming pool on the building’s roof. As I said, I haven’t seen the plans, so who knows whether that makes the final cut. But rooftop development in Downtown Lawrence would be something new. We obviously don’t have the mountain views like Boulder, but I’ve long wondered why the idea of rooftop patios haven’t taken off to some degree in downtown. I know of at least one bar owner who has shown an interest in it, but wasn’t able to get the idea through the city’s historic regulation review process. Perhaps this development opens the door to a new conversation on the subject. So many things to keep an eye out for, including whether the large project will seek any incentives. I’ve talked briefly with a representative of the development group — which includes many of the same people who are building the seven-story apartment/retail/office project across the street. The development group has been hesitant to say anything publicly until it has another meeting with neighbors, but I hope to get more details soon.
• Speaking of neighbors who may have something to say about a project, there are more signs that the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods is really going to fight the proposed Lowe’s development near the Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa. As I previously told you, LAN has voted to oppose the project, but it started to make some of those feelings more publicly known at Tuesday night’s City Commission meeting. (Remember, LAN is a group of many neighborhood associations. But, as far as I know, the West Lawrence Neighborhood Association — which is adjacent to the proposed site — hasn't yet taken a formal position on the project.) City commissioners agreed to start the process of creating a new zoning category that would accommodate the project. City commissioners unanimously agreed to send the zoning category idea to the Planning Commission for further debate. That will be in October, and possibly, the project could come back to the City Commission in November. The zoning category would be called CC600, meaning that an area could have 600,000 square feet of retail space. City planners believe a new zoning category is needed in order for the Lowe’s project to be in conformance with the city’s planning documents. Currently, the city’s planning documents call for most commercial centers — except for downtown and South Iowa Street — to have 400,000 square feet or less of retail space. But the Lowe’s development would push the Sixth and Wakarusa area over that limit. LAN president Gwen Klingenberg cautioned commissioners against even opening the door to such a zoning change. She said the proposed Lowe’s site is “inappropriate” for the development, but she also said the new zoning category would tempt other existing commercial centers in the city to expand.
LAN has taken a position that such expansion could be bad because of the amount of traffic such development could create through neighborhoods. But some LAN members simply believe the city can’t support more retail development. That school of thought is led by KU urban planning professor Kirk McClure. McClure submitted written testimony to commissioners saying the city “should stop the development of any significant new retail space.” He wasn’t just talking about the Lowe’s project. He was talking about city-wide.
According to his letter, he says the numbers show that retail space has grown much faster than retail spending over the last 15 years or so, which has led to a “large surplus of unused and underutilized retail space, blighting large sections of Lawrence.”
I’m not sure the current City Commission is going to spend much time debating the subject of whether a Lowe’s is needed in the city. I believe most commissioners already have said they support the idea of a Lowe’s, but now the question will be: Is the proposed site right? But this idea of the city not being able to support new retailers comes up frequently. I’ve heard some people say that the city needs to come to some resolution about whether McClure and others have a point or whether they are perpetrating a myth. It seems one of the questions hanging out there is what “large sections” of Lawrence are considered blighted? What’s the longest a big box store space in Lawrence has ever sat vacant? How does Lawrence’s growth in retail space vs. its growth in retail spending compare to other successful communities? And finally, how much should the city try to predict the future of retail? I have heard people point out that there have been major arguments in the past that have predicted Target would kill downtown’s lone department store, that Borders would kill The Raven bookstore, and most recently that the Sixth and Wakarusa Wal-Mart and its grocery department would kill the nearby Dillon’s store. People have pointed out that none of that has happened.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not bringing up any of this to suggest that McClure doesn’t have a point. There are a lot of questions that would take a lot of research. I bring it up because these issues keep getting brought up. It will be interesting to see whether there will ever be an effort to try to settle any of them or whether such a debate is just part of Lawrence’s DNA.
• Speaking of issues that take a long time to get settled, here’s some news on the South Lawrence Trafficway. The city and the state are applying for federal stimulus dollars to build an interchange on the completed portion of the SLT at Bob Billings Parkway. Commissioners last night agreed to send off an application asking for $10 million in federal stimulus funds — through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program. The interchange project is expected to cost about $20 million. The state says it will provide about $9.8 million in funding, leaving the city and possibly the county to come up with the remaining $200,000. Kansas Department of Transportation officials have urged the city to apply for the grant. KDOT says design work on the interchange is more than half done, making it truly a project that could be “shovel-ready” by the 2014 deadline. The state will ask for letters of support from KU — which could benefit by having Bob Billings Parkway become more of a true western gateway for the university — from the chamber of commerce and from the governor. Given the political climate, it will be interesting to see if the governor signs a letter of support for a project that is tied directly to President Obama’s stimulus program. Grant winners should be announced by the end of the year.