News and notes from around town:
• Well, plans for a new youth fieldhouse/recreation complex are scheduled on Tuesday to take their biggest step forward yet.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are scheduled to vote on rezoning the entire 146 acres located at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. The rezoning will allow retail and commercial uses on that corner.
About 50 acres of the corner will be used to house the actual sports complex. City officials argue those 50 acres must be zoned commercial to accommodate some of the uses that will happen inside the complex. City officials also have argued it only makes sense that the rest of the property surrounding the recreation complex be zoned commercial to accommodate uses that are likely to develop, such as hotels, restaurants and some retail shops.
The rezoning will be the most substantive step taken to date by the City Commission on this project. So, it seems like now is a good time to go over some of the many questions I’ve been hearing about the project.
— Has the city looked at other sites? It has, and I believe it has been doing so very recently. City commissioners have had two closed-door executive sessions the last two weeks. The one last Tuesday lasted for nearly two hours.
My understanding is commissioners were being briefed on another possible site for the recreation complex. I believe the site is near the Sixth and SLT intersection, but is on the east side of the South Lawrence Trafficway. That’s important because it means the city would not have to undertake the significant expense to extend city utilities west of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Unlike the 50-acre site on the northwest corner, the owner of this new site isn’t willing to donate the land to the city. But I believe an argument has been made that the city could pay for the land and still be money ahead because it would not have to spend as much to extend infrastructure to the site.
At their executive session on Tuesday, I believe commissioners were getting briefed on those types of cost issues. It has been indicated to me the cost savings for the east-of-the-SLT site are not as significant as people may believe. But, I haven’t seen those numbers. As to the overall question of whether it would be cheaper to build this site east of the trafficway than west, I don’t know. I believe some commissioners believe this other site may not be as visible, and thus won't be as effective in attracting folks to the complex. We’ll see if city officials decide to explain what type of due diligence they have done on other sites.
— Just what type of deal is the city making with the private developers in this project? The simple answer is the public has not yet seen any proposed contracts the city would enter into with the group led by Duane Schwada, which would be the group donating the land, or the group led by Thomas Fritzel, which is the group that would own the recreation center and lease it back to the city on a 20-year lease purchase agreement. The city also will need an agreement with Kansas University related to the proposed track and field and soccer facilities that will be located on the city’s 50 acres.
I’ve been under the assumption, based on previous comments I have received from city commissioners, that the city would approve the contracts with the developers at the same time the city approved the rezoning for the intersection. But on Tuesday’s agenda, the rezoning is up for approval but the contracts are not. The city is scheduled to receive a briefing on the contracts, but that’s far different from saying the contracts are ready to be approved.
It will be interesting to see the public’s reaction if commissioners agree to change the zoning at that intersection before they have a signed contract relating to details of this $24 million recreation center. Let’s be honest. This recreation complex has some good support in certain circles of the city but it hasn’t exactly been a slam dunk in the court of public opinion. I think there will be a certain segment of the community that wants to see the many details that will be spelled out in these contracts before the city agrees to a zoning category that could allow 180,000 square feet of new retail on the outer edge of the city.
To be fair, even if city commissioners approve the rezoning on Tuesday, the new zoning won’t become final that night. Zoning ordinances have to go through a second reading at City Hall, which is normally just a formality. But still, the question remains why the city wouldn’t do the contracts and the rezoning all at once.
— Has the city looked at how 180,000 square feet of new retail on this corner will affect retail in other areas of town? It has. As part of the rezoning request, the city conducted its own retail market analysis. In short, using the formula the city requires private developers to use, the project will put the city’s retail vacancy rate above the 8 percent level city planners generally consider unhealthy. Depending on how you measure it, the vacancy rate could be between 8.8 percent and 15.5 percent, using the city’s formula.
But private developers have been arguing for years that the city’s formula is nonsensical. It requires the city to assume all 180,000 square feet of space will be built and it all will be empty. Developers have pointed out that even in good times that never would have happened. But in these tough times absolutely no one is going to build that type of speculative retail space. In other words, new buildings aren’t going to be built unless a tenant has signed a deal to locate there.
It appears now that the city is having to apply that formula to one of its own projects, it also has come to the conclusion the formula is nonsensical. Well, I’m pretty sure the city won’t say that. Instead, the recommendation to proceed highlights that this vacancy rate thing is just one of many factors the city should consider when deciding whether to add new retail space in the city.
There’s also been the question of how this development may affect downtown in particular. I don’t have any specific numbers on that, just one interesting quote. One person involved with the deal noted that Thomas Fritzel is one of the largest landowners in downtown Lawrence. The person noted that Thomas would “have to be the dumbest (expletive) in the room” if he was pushing for this project and thought it would hurt downtown.
— What about parking at this complex? The proposal calls for 800 paved parking spots. There are also grassy areas on the site that could temporarily accommodate another 817 parking spaces, according to the architects.
Those approximately 1,600 spaces should accommodate a large crowd that would show up for a tournament at the indoor fieldhouse. I’ve been told the fieldhouse is designed to accommodate about 1,900 spectators.
But 1,600 spaces likely are not enough to accommodate a large event at KU’s track and field stadium. Plans call for it to have 7,000 permanent seats with room for 3,000 additional temporary seats.
Well, the city is now indicating it has an agreement to use 10 additional acres adjacent to the site. I assume the 10 acres are owned by the private development group. That site could accommodate about 1,450 vehicles, bringing the total to 3,067 spaces. I assume the details of that parking arrangement will be spelled out in one of the forthcoming agreements with the developers.
— Since KU is involved in this complex, are there some NCAA regulations that apply? There could be. There is a rule that basically prohibits AAU basketball tournaments and such from being held on university campuses anymore. The NCAA thought those tournaments may be giving some universities a recruiting advantage.
But the rule prohibiting those youth tournaments on campus also says that such youth tournaments can’t be held on off-campus facilities, if those facilities are regularly used for practice or competition by any of the university’s sports teams. The track and the soccer field regularly will be used by KU.
So, the question for the purpose of this rule is does the NCAA consider the indoor fieldhouse — which won’t be used by KU — its own separate facility? If so, then there should be no problem with the city and private organizers hosting lucrative AAU tournaments and such. But if the NCAA considers the “facility” for the purpose of this rule to be the whole 50-acre complex, then that’s a problem.
I talked with Jim Marchiony at Kansas Athletics, and he chatted with the rules experts in his department. He said KU is very confident that there will be no problems with NCAA rules on this matter. The fieldhouse will be considered its own separate facility and tournaments can be held there.
I suspect that’s right. Given that these tournaments are a big part of this $24 million fieldhouse, however, it would be good to have the NCAA say that as well. On Thursday, I did not get that out of the NCAA. I wouldn’t read too much into that. I just think the NCAA doesn’t like to talk about these things. But now that I’ve had a more detailed discussion with KU, I’m hoping to have a more detailed discussion with the NCAA.
— What role can KU play in helping attract youth tournaments to this site? This is one of the more interesting pieces of information I’ve gathered in the last few days. Everybody I have talked to in this industry has said that if Lawrence has any competitive advantage to attract these youth tournaments, it will be the synergy and connection this complex has to Kansas University.
But Marchiony was very clear about this point. He said that the university and the athletic department can have no involvement in promoting the fieldhouse or soliciting tournament organizers to use the fieldhouse.
“We can’t be involved with that at all,” Marchiony said.
Now, will there still be some advantages to having KU on the same piece of property? Probably. But if folks were hoping to have fancy brochures with Bill Self’s name and image promoting the fieldhouse as a great tournament site, that might be difficult. If folks were hoping Bill Self would make a call to an AAU tournament organizer to bring his tournament to Lawrence, that might be an NCAA rules violation.
Commissioners will meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to discuss, and possibly vote on, the recreation issues.
• If, as some people I know, your idea of recreation involves filling your closet with new clothes, then there’s news for you.
As we have previously reported, national retailer White House/Black Market is coming to downtown Lawrence. Well, the store is now open.
The women’s clothing retailer opened it store at 714 Mass. — the former House Parts building — on Thursday. The store will be open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
The store — which also sells accessories and shoes, I’m told — will be holding a special fashion show at 6 p.m. Thursday to introduce itself to the community.
The company has about 365 stores across the country, including many in the Kansas City metro area. But interestingly, the company doesn’t seem to have many stores west of here, such as in Topeka.
As the name suggests, you have to either work at the White House or be involved in a shady market to purchase clothes there. No, no, no. That’s not right. As the name suggests, most of the clothes there are either white or black. But not all of them are. The store features what it calls its “pop color.” About every two months or so the “pop color” changes.
Currently, the “pop color” is amethyst. K-State fans, you can put away your dictionary. (You know, the big word book.) Amethyst does look kind of like purple.