A plan to build a Menards home improvement center near near 31st and Iowa streets remained alive Tuesday night, but only after planning commissioners made a last-minute decision to measure twice and cut once on the project.
After more than five hours of discussion, Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioners voted to defer action on the project for a month. Just moments before, however, a majority of commissioners were ready to reject the proposal for an approximately 190,000-square-foot Menards store that would be just east of the Home Depot at 31st and Iowa streets.
Commissioners halted the vote after a pair of planning commission members both expressed concern that a negative vote on the project would reinforce a notion that Lawrence is unfriendly to new business.
“I think if we vote this down, it will be viewed as the Planning Commission killing another opportunity in this town,” Commissioner Richard Hird said. “I want my frustrations noted because I think this project is a unique opportunity.”
The project did create an unusual scenario at City Hall: The commercial project enjoyed significant support from neighbors but received a negative recommendation from the city's planning staff.
The proposal calls for a 190,000-square-foot Menards home improvement store, plus lots for up to six smaller stores or restaurants, to be located on the approximately 40-acre site that formerly housed the Gaslight Mobile Home Village.
The property currently is zoned to house a multifamily apartment complex, and commissioners heard from some neighbors who said they would prefer retail development over more apartments. But the idea of allowing retail development on the property has been a contentious one since 2000, when developers tried to rezone the entire trailer park for retail zoning at the time the Home Depot and Best Buy proposals were brought forward. Neighbors at that time expressed strong opposition to any development that would extend retail development eastward along 31st Street. Members of the Indian Hills neighborhood at that time expressed concern about increased traffic in the area.
But on Monday night, a representative of the Indian Hills Neighborhood Association said she had only talked to 10 residents about the project, and they were evenly divided on whether to support the project.
On Monday night, planning commissioners were considering a request to change the city's comprehensive plan and to rezone the property to allow for retail development. A representative of Menards was asked several times by commissioners why the retailer was not willing to locate on property already zoned for big box retail at the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway, which is adjacent to the city's site for a proposed $25 million regional recreation center.
Tyler Edwards, a real estate representative with Menards, said the lack of houses in the area and challenges related to the visibility of the site made the Sixth and SLT location unattractive to Menards. But he said he understands the city is working hard to convince retailers that their projects ought to be located in the far northwest corner of the city.
“I think I will call it more of a utopian style of planning,” Edwards said. “Somebody thinks it is a good idea and tries to funnel everything to one area.”
Edwards said the site may still prove to be a strong area for retail development in the future, but he said the current market conditions make being on South Iowa Street, where Menards can benefit from the synergy of being next to Home Depot, more attractive.
Several planning commissioners also expressed concerns about whether a new Menards would put Home Depot out of business, but Planning Director Scott McCullough told commissioners that he would not recommend taking that into consideration as part of the zoning review process.
Planning commissioners are just the first step in the approval process for the project. Ultimately city commissioners will make the final decision on the rezoning issue, but if the Planning Commission rejects the plan, City Commission approval becomes more complicated.