Bigger may end up being better.
Lawrence city leaders, it appears, are interested in finding out.
One day after Kansas University announced that it was abandoning one set of plans and proposing a new location for a more ambitious sports complex in northwest Lawrence, reaction from city leaders ranged from full-blown enthusiasm to cautious optimism.
“I’m ecstatic,” said City Commissioner Hugh Carter. “This can be so much more than just parking lots and buildings. This has the opportunity to be a real mixture between the university and the community.”
KU leaders on Tuesday delivered a letter notifying city officials that the university was no longer interested in a proposed partnership to locate a sports complex on 50 acres of property at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. Instead, KU leaders said they would like the city to locate its proposed $24 million recreation center/youth fieldhouse on a 108-acre site that would be north of a planned retail development at the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
In addition to a KU track and field stadium and soccer field — which were planned for the previous site — the new site also would include a KU softball stadium for its women’s team. If the city were to locate its proposed recreation center on the site, the project could become a major attraction for sporting events and recreation all year long.
“We invite the city to join us and forge new opportunities to make the city of Lawrence and the University of Kansas national leaders in providing athletic opportunities to its residents and student-athletes,” KU Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger wrote in a letter to city leaders.
City commissioners on Wednesday said they still believe the idea of the city and the university locating its facilities on the same property made sense.
“We may have changed our focus on locations, but I don’t think our focus on working together has changed at all,” said City Commissioner Mike Dever.
At least two city commissioners said they also are still interested in a partnership with Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel and his non-profit foundation. At the previous site, Fritzel had proposed that his foundation would build the $24 million building, and the city would purchase it from the foundation through a 20-year lease-purchase agreement. He also had proposed a similar deal to the university as it related to the KU facilities.
Both Carter and Dever said they still were interested in a Fritzel partnership.
“I think it is clear that we can only do a $16 million or $17 million building on our own,” Carter said. “The difference between that and a $24 million building is enormous. For this to be the type of draw we want it to be, we need to have some of these features we can’t do on our own.”
Attempts to reach Fritzel for comment were unsuccessful. But Paul Werner — a Lawrence architect who has been working for Fritzel on the recreation center project — said all indications are that Fritzel wants to partner with the city and KU on the new site.
“I think he absolutely wants to be involved in this,” Werner said.
Werner filed the application to annex and rezone the 108 acres, which currently are owned by an entity controlled by Lawrence builder Mike Stultz. Werner said the site — which is directly north and west of where George Williams Way dead ends north of Sixth Street — has a lot going for it.
Werner said the site, which is about 60 acres bigger than the original site at the northwest corner, will more easily accommodate expansion and overflow parking for major events. He also said its location on the east side the South Lawrence Trafficway should make it easier for west Lawrence residents who want to walk or bike to the complex.
“People won’t have to figure out how to cross the bypass, and that is significant,” Werner said.
The property also is adjacent to about 40 acres of undeveloped parkland the city already owns. The city-owned land runs through a wooded section of Baldwin Creek that Parks and Recreation leaders said could make for an attractive walking or jogging trail.
The size of the proposed sports complex also could allow the city to install lighted tennis courts to replace the lighted courts that were lost due to construction at Lawrence High, said Mayor Bob Schumm.
But there also are questions about the site. The property needs roads extended to it, and will need some work to hook onto city water and sewer service. City officials are preparing new estimates for those costs, which previously were projected at $5 million.
But the infrastructure costs for the original site at the northwest corner were expected to be about $7 million for the city and another $3 million in state road improvements.
The city, however, had planned on recouping a good portion of those infrastructure costs through a special tax that would be imposed on new retail development surrounding the sports complex. That wouldn’t be the case with the new site, and it is uncertain how those costs would be paid for. The KU plan does not call for any retail development on its 108-acre site.
Instead, necessary hotels, restaurants and other accommodations would be expected to develop in an already-approved retail development just south of the site. That development is owned by a group led by Lawrence businessman Duane Schwada. Schwada also owns the property on the northwest corner of the intersection. He had proposed donating 50 to 60 acres to the city for a recreation center, and then the idea of joint city-KU sports complex grew from there.
Schwada’s northwest corner is up for rezoning that would allow retail development at the corner. But a majority of commissioners said Wednesday they weren’t interested in zoning the northwest corner for retail, if the sports complex is not slated to go there.
An attempt to reach a representative for Schwada wasn’t successful Wednesday. Carter, though, said Schwada should be acknowledged for his contribution to the project.
“The Schwadas came up with a very good outside-the-box idea, and they deserve a lot of credit for jump-starting the discussion,” Carter said.
Commissioners plan on discussing KU’s proposal in more detail at their Tuesday evening meeting at City Hall.