Earlier this week, Lawrence city commissioners were presented a set of rezoning requests to allow the development of a boardwalk area behind Johnny’s Tavern along the north side of the Kansas River levee.
Promoters of the project tell of their dream to have shops, restaurants, possibly a movie theater and even a museum along with a heavy emphasis on residential development. Sounds good, a project that would take advantage of the riverfront to create an attractive development.
As might be expected, however, several downtown merchants almost immediately voiced concerns that such a development might hurt downtown businesses. Commissioners directed city staff members to limit the footprint of retail building to no more than 25,000 square feet.
The same day the Journal-World published the story about the proposed riverfront development and the concerns of some downtown merchants, there was a story in the paper about a proposed “recreation center” on the northwest edge of Lawrence, which would offer “huge” opportunities.
This center would be located on land just northwest of the intersection of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
This general area has been in the news for some time as various developers have filed commercial zoning requests. In March, developers asked for 80 acres northwest of the intersection to be zoned for heavy commercial. This got their foot in the door. Now, two months after filing for the 80 acres, heavy commercial zoning is being sought for the entire 146-acre site.
This is where the proposed massive recreation complex would be located. This might include 300,000 square feet of enclosed space, an outdoor track and stadium, numerous other recreation/athletic facilities and maybe even an ice rink.
With heavy commercial zoning, this would allow several “big box” stores, like those that raised concerns in the North Lawrence project, along with restaurants, hotels or motels, supermarkets, bars and perhaps a bank and other retail outlets.
This site, along with 50 acres northeast of the intersection, would provide 1.5 million square feet of commercial space, making this area the third largest retail area in Lawrence, behind the area on South Iowa Street and downtown Lawrence.
Talk about the potential to suck the life out of downtown Lawrence.
The northwest project is moving far faster than any other recent or much smaller proposal. The North Lawrence levee project is a drop in the bucket compared with the rec center complex.
Granted, the project is exciting, and the sports facilities proposed for the development would be a major addition and asset for the city and Kansas University. However, the manner in which this has been finessed and the speed with which it has been presented and placed before the city offers a fairly good example of how so many projects suddenly have evolved from an initial proposal into something else requiring many city-approved variances.
There are too many cases of individuals or companies asking for forgiveness rather than permission!
Developers have invested millions of dollars and want to spend even more to provide additional living and hotel facilities in the downtown area, which would benefit retail merchants, but they are stalled time and time again because a building might block some sunlight or require removal of a trash Dumpster.
Developers have tried to work with city officials and neighbors about the height of a building and have redesigned their plans to try to please all parties.
In other cases elsewhere, buildings have been built and landscaped in a manner different from what was shown in the originally approved plans and the city has granted retroactive variances.
Consider the fight that lasted for years about the so-called “cornfield mall” development south of Lawrence. Downtown merchants fought this project, as well as compromise plans to shift the development to the downtown area.
Now, a huge commercial development is sought on the northwest edge of Lawrence, and city officials and developers are rushing to get everything greased for quick approval.
The athletic part of the proposed project is great. KU basketball coach Bill Self and his foundation have been generous in many ways, offering to provide substantial fiscal support for the project. Likewise, KU officials, although they have not made their plans public, apparently want to remove the track from Memorial Stadium and place it and other athletic venues at the site.
The project, however, will turn out to be far different if the KU sports facilities and a large city rec center are being used as a means to slip in zoning that would allow a massive retail development. This possibility deserves far more attention and study than it is receiving.
When the location of a city Dumpster can stall the development of a hotel, residential and retail building in the city’s downtown area and a riverfront development can be stalled or possibly rejected unless a 25,000-square-foot limit is place on retail businesses, and yet, a fast-track effort can place a 1.5 million-square-foot project that could have a huge impact on a highly prized and protected downtown business district, something is out of balance or something is wrong.
Again the athletic component of the northwest project is great. It would be tremendous for Lawrence and KU. But the OK for heavy commercial zoning for this 1.5 million-square-foot area deserves far more serious study.