News and notes from around town:
• The mobile homes already are largely gone, but so too is a deal that would have converted Gaslight Mobile Home Village east of 31st and Iowa streets into a large new apartment community for university students.
A developer with the Texas-based group that was planning the project has confirmed to me the deal has fallen apart.
Now, speculation is growing that at least a portion of the approximately 40-acre mobile home park is set to become a major new retail development.
So far, I can tell you there is some smoke to that rumor. And you know what they say … where there is smoke, there usually is Chad Lawhorn doing a home improvement project that has caught something on fire. Which of course means that I have to go back to Home Depot to get more supplies.
But if this rumor comes to fruition, Home Depot may not be my only option. At the moment, the totally unconfirmed speculation is that Menards has an interest in locating its chain of big box home improvement centers next door to the Home Depot that is at 31st and Iowa streets.
Again, it is all unconfirmed, but there are two interesting developments that make this worthy of at least keeping an eye on. They are:
— The property no longer is set to become a 1,000-bedroom student apartment community. Even though Austin, Texas-based development company Aspen Heights received all the necessary land use approvals to build the major apartment community, the company is no longer interested. The reason? It feels like its market is drying up in Lawrence.
“Regrettably, the university’s enrollment numbers haven’t been strong, and they’re not anticipated to be strong in the near future,” said Charlie Vatterott, executive vice president of development for Aspen Heights. “We were very excited about that market at one time, but we have tempered that excitement.”
As a result, Aspen Heights never finalized its purchase of the Gaslight property from its longtime owners, an Edwardsville-based management company.
— I contacted an officer with the Edwardsville company that owns the mobile home park, and he made statements that led me to believe there may be some truth to the idea that retail development of the site is being contemplated.
“It would be premature for me to say at this time,” Tom Horner III said when I asked him directly whether he was discussing a deal to convert the property to a retail use.
Horner, though, said he may have information to share in the next 30 to 60 days.
For what it is worth, the Aspen Heights executive I talked with said he had heard the same rumors that I had about retail development being a strong possibility for that site.
In short, I’m pretty confident the idea of retail development on the Gaslight property is drawing strong consideration from several players. What I am less confident in is whether Menards is the leading candidate to bring a deal forward. I’ve heard it from multiple people, but that may be more wishful thinking rather than direct knowledge.
A Menards deal in Lawrence, though, would fit with what the home improvement retailer has been doing. Menards recently opened stores in Salina, Manhattan, Topeka, and St. Joseph, Mo., in addition to having two stores in Wichita. The Kansas market is on the company’s radar.
Locating a big box retail store at that site — which, if you are not familiar with it, is directly east of Home Depot — won’t be a cut-and-dried matter at City Hall. The property is zoned for medium-density apartment development.
Furthermore, the city’s long-range planning documents don’t call for retail development on that site. They call for medium density apartment developments.
The site also has a history of neighbors opposing retail development on the property. Years ago when the Home Depot/Best Buy development was proposed, several neighborhood groups argued against the proposal. One of the compromises brought forward was that retail development would be limited to just the 31st and Iowa intersection and would not stretch farther to the east.
But that was an entirely different City Commission with a different set of politics. It will be interesting to watch how commissioners react to any retail proposal that comes forward. If a plan is filed before the April City Commission elections, you can count on this becoming a big political issue.
All of this also appears to be another sign that the intersection of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway needs some type of boost to spur development at that location. Remember, the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the SLT already has two lots that are approved and shovel-ready for big box development.
But if this rumor is true, this will be at least the second big box store that has determined it is not interested in the site. When officials with Lowe’s Home Improvement Center previously were looking at Lawrence, the company said the Sixth and SLT site was too far removed from residential neighborhoods.
Lowe’s ended up wiggling off the hook here in Lawrence. They halted expansion plans after one site near Sixth and Folks Road was rejected by the city and before consideration could begin on a site near Sixth and Congressional.
Losing Lowe’s ended up being a disappointment for several city commissioners. If Menards is actually interested in the city, I think commissioners will want to close this deal.
But if the city invests $25 million to build a regional recreation center just north of the Sixth and the SLT intersection, how much pressure will commissioners be under to direct all big box development to that intersection?
It will be interesting to see if commissioners play hardball and try to direct development to an intersection they have big plans for, or whether they cede to the desires of the big box companies.
So, we’ll see if more smoke emerges on this rumor. (Smoke from something is likely. I am working on an electrical project this weekend.)