Lawrence city commissioners will take a stroll along the boardwalk, so to speak, at their meeting today.
Commissioners are scheduled to consider a host of rezoning requests and a major change to the city’s downtown boundaries that would open the door to a boardwalk-style development along the north bank of the Kansas River.
But the boardwalk likely won’t be the center of discussion at today’s meeting. Instead, the prospect of a big box store on the site is drawing concern from some downtown merchants who fear the project could be more of a competitor to downtown than a complement.
“I think having a major new development this close to downtown has the potential to be really awesome for downtown or really bad for downtown,” said Dan Hughes, owner of Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop, 804 Mass. “It all just depends on what we really end up getting.”
Plans being presented to commissioners today are just concept plans. The rezoning requests would allow nearly 9 acres of property surrounding the Johnny’s Tavern location at North Second and Locust streets to develop with the same type of guidelines that exist in downtown. In fact, the development group, which includes the owners of Johnny’s, Lawrence businessman Jon Davis and others, are asking that the official boundaries of downtown be extended to include the area.
But the group also is asking that the development be allowed to include buildings with a footprint of up to 50,000 square feet. In downtown, building footprints generally are limited to 25,000 square feet.
That has Hughes and a few other retailers concerned the development is going for a “fake downtown” look like Zona Rosa or The Legends in the Kansas City metro, which place an emphasis on big box retailers.
Paul Werner, the architect for the development, said that’s not the case. He said the project will be a true mixed-use development, likely with up to 300 or more apartments and condos, that aims to make the river a more prominent feature for all of downtown.
“We want a lot of residential,” Werner said. “Retail really is not the driving force of the project.”
Werner said concept plans still call for a boardwalk to be built above the level of the Kansas River levee. The boardwalk could be lined with retailers and restaurants, likely including a new Johnny’s. As for larger tenants, Werner said the request for a footprint of 50,000 square feet is designed to accommodate some special uses the project hopes to attract. Those would include either a grocery store or movie theater.
“I think people would love a movie theater in the area, and I don’t know where you would put a large one in downtown,” Werner said.
The project doesn’t have any tenants signed up, nor does it have a firm timeline for when it would start construction if approved. Werner said he doesn’t want to start placing unnecessary conditions on what type of uses could take advantage of the 50,000-square-foot provision.
“I don’t want to hamstring the project before it gets started,” Werner said. “But you have an 85,000-square-foot Sears building sitting vacant, and no one is talking about putting a big box store on a lot behind Johnny’s on the river.”
Some city commissioners, though, may want more assurances on the issue. Mayor Bob Schumm, who is a downtown restaurant owner and landlord, said he’s generally supportive of the project. But he said he would rather allow the project to move forward with the 25,000-square-foot limit, with the option of approving a larger building for a specific user that comes forward.
“But I like the idea of development near the river,” Schumm said. “It could create a new level of ambience that could help define the downtown environment.”
City commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. today at City Hall.