News and notes from around town:
• A proposal to build a major recreation complex at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway cleared another hurdle last night.
Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioners at their Monday meeting recommended approval of a request to rezone the property to a heavier commercial zoning category, which is a requirement for a new recreation complex. The rezoning issue will now go to the Lawrence City Commission in the next couple of weeks for final consideration.
Monday’s action wasn’t your ordinary rezoning request. Planners actually signed off on creating a new commercial zoning designation. The designation calls for the entire intersection of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway to become a CC 600 commercial center. That means that a total of 600,000 square feet of commercial space can be built at the intersection. Under the current zoning, only 400,000 square feet of commercial space can be built at the intersection.
City planners recommended the new zoning category because they believed the recreation center would require an increase in commercial space at the intersection, but they did not want to go up to the next zoning category, which would have allowed the intersection to develop with as much commercial as the South Iowa Street area.
One detail I’m not clear on is whether the entire recreation center will count as commercial space or whether some of it will be counted as something else. If the entire building is counted as commercial space, then that will pretty much eat up all of the additional 200,000 square feet of space available for new commercial. The last plan I saw showed the building at about 160,000 square feet, although other concept plans had it closer to 300,000 square feet. If only a portion of the recreation center — such as the portion where food and merchandise sales take place — are counted as commercial, then that would seem to allow for significantly more businesses to locate at the intersection.
Specific plans for the proposed public-private recreation complex haven’t yet been submitted, but the city will host a public meeting on the project at 6:30 p.m. on June 6 at Free State High School.
The rezoning issue will come to the City Commission for final consideration sometime after that. I’ll let you know when the date is set. Regardless, the issue will come to the commission with a strong recommendation. The Planning Commission recommended approval on a 7-1 vote, with Commissioner Deron Belt in opposition. Commissioner Richard Hird abstained from the vote.
• Speaking of plans, the west side doesn’t have a monopoly on big projects that are in the planning stages.
Engineers hired by the city also are completing plans to remake the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant into a new business park.
A draft plan for that project is now available. Click here to take a look at a proposed layout of the 400-plus acre site that is on the eastern edge of Lawrence.
I hope to get a briefing soon from somebody at the city on the draft plan, but here are a few details I culled from looking at the document:
— It looks like the project would create 17 new lots for businesses to locate on. The lots would range in size from 78.9 acres to 3.3 acres Three of the lots would be greater than 25 acres in size, while nine are less than 10 acres in size.
— The 78.9 acre lot — which is kind of in the center of the Farmland property — looks like it could handle a significant industrial user. In addition to being a large lot, it also has a rail spur that runs through the lot.
— The Farmland business park likely will be quite a bit more visible than the adjacent East Hills Business Park. Seven of the 17 lots have frontage property along Kansas Highway 10.
— The main entrance to the park will be at O’Connell Road and 23rd Street. Plans call for the intersection to have a traffic signal. The entrance road to the park would connect with a new east-west frontage road that would be several hundred feet north of K-10. The frontage road would connect to the existing loop road that serves the businesses in the East Hills Business Park. In essence, the new road will create a new entrance into East Hills, allowing motorists to avoid the sometimes dangerous East Hills entrance at the top of the hill on K-10.
— The plans also call for 19th Street to be connected to the Farmland frontage road, but not right away. The plan labels the 19th Street connection as a future phase. The plan indicates improvements would need to be made to the existing portion of 19th Street before the connection would be prudent.
— The large area on the northern end of the property that is on a bluff overlooking 15th Street is shown as being undeveloped in this plan. The proposed plan also includes a couple of natural areas. Two waterways run through the center of the property. The plan proposes a trail area that would run along one of the waterways, leading to a large detention pond that be along the northern edge of the property.
The plan now will need to go the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission for review, and ultimately to the City Commission for adoption. No date has been set for that yet, but city officials won’t waste much time on this. I believe they want to build the new frontage road and entrance area later this year.
• The Farmland project may be the biggest economic development project that will impact Lawrence’s near term future. (I think most would still rank it ahead of the regional recreation complex proposal.)
But in terms of an indicator for the Lawrence economy here and now, home sales may be the most important one currently. As I’ve said several times before, if homes sales in Lawrence would pick up, the local economy would really have some positive signs going for it. Local unemployment remains relatively low, and retail sales are having a good year thus far. Home sales, though, have lagged even last year’s totals, which was a really poor year for the local real estate market.
Well, one month does not make a trend, but April home sale numbers are at least a step in the right direction. According to numbers from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, 104 homes sold in April. That up from 101 in April 2011.
The April numbers helped close the gap a bit on the year-to-date totals, but they still lag the 2011 mark. Through the first four months of the year, home sales are down 3.7 percent compared to the same time period in 2011. Realtors have recorded 288 sales compared to 299 through April 2011.
Here’s a look at some other statistics:
• Sales of newly constructed homes are holding their own, but still lag year-ago totals. Builders have sold 17 homes through April compared to 19 a year ago.
• Selling prices of homes continue to be a bit lower than a year ago. The mean sales price for homes through April is $171,990 compared to $176,709 a year ago — a decline of 2.7 percent. The median sales price dropped 3.9 percent to $149,900
• Homes are still taking longer to sell than they did a year ago. The median days on market for a home is 83, up from 74 days a year ago.
• If all those statistics have left you feeling flushed (what, statistics don’t do that to you), you’re in luck. The city has announced the outdoor aquatic center will open on schedule at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
The city also announced it is having a one week only special on swim passes for the season. The city this week is offering a summer swim pass for $60 through Friday. Come Saturday, the price of the pass increases to $81. To purchase the discounted pass, stop by the Indoor Aquatic Center, 4706 Overland Drive.