By this time next year, when much of the Rock Chalk Park sports village is completed in northwest Lawrence, community leaders are hoping to have more than just a state-of-the-art athletics complex.
They’re hoping — and planning — for the recreation center and sports facilities to be a magnet for residential and retail development around the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway intersection. It’s an area that has been circled as a development hotspot for years, but it hasn’t yet reached critical mass because of the economy and other factors.
There are signs, however, that heat may be building. A quick look around the intersection shows at least three large pieces of vacant property being marketed by commercial real estate agents.
“The area is on the burner right now for some folks,” said commercial real estate agent Kelvin Heck, whose Colliers International brokerage of Lawrence has all three listings. “I wouldn’t say it is on the front burner yet, but I know that it’s coming.”
But Heck also is trying to temper expectations some may have that the area is poised to explode with new development now that Rock Chalk Park has gone from lines on paper to excavators on — and in — the ground. There are questions about how powerful a magnet the sports park will be.
“A boom area, in my mind, would be something 80 percent built out in three years,” Heck said. “I don’t see that much activity in the development world to make that happen. I think it will be a slow development, but I think it eventually will be a very important area for the community for quite a while.”
Residential on the way
What seems certain is that there will be more opportunities for people to live near the intersection. Arkansas-based Lindsey Management Company already has plans approved to build a unique apartment/golf course community on the east side of George Williams Way, on the property that essentially will be across the street from Rock Chalk Park and the city’s recreation center.
The development — called The Links — will be a mix of 630 one- and two-bedroom apartment units built around a nine-hole golf course that will be open to residents and the public.
Hugh Jarrett, an attorney for the management company, said work is scheduled to begin later this year. Some apartments could be ready for leasing about six months after construction begins.
“We had better have a whole lot of units available in 2014,” Jarrett said of the company’s plans.
Also already approved by City Hall is the Langston Heights development, a 27.5-acre project that is southeast of the interchange. The project, which will be a bit north and west of Langston Hughes School, is planned to include 52 single-family homes, 22 duplexes and 86 apartment units.
Another approved project: the long-dormant Mercato, a 122-acre development immediately south of the Rock Chalk Park property. Much of the focus on Mercato, which has been in the works for several years, has been on its commercial zoning and its potential for big-box store development, but the plans also include significant areas set aside for residential development. The project has zoning for 75 single-family homes, 36 duplex units, and about 13 acres for multifamily home development. Steve Schwada, a representative of the development group for the property, declined to comment on any timeline for the residential portion of the project.
A development led by Lawrence businessmen John McGrew and Roger Johnson, called Oregon Trail, also has been approved for the area for several years. It is just east of George Williams Way along Sixth Street, or south and east of Rock Chalk Park. It will be a mix of single family homes and duplexes.
How much more residential development will be slated for the area is an open question at the moment. New development filings currently are being made at City Hall for the area. The bigger question, though, is how attractive the Rock Chalk Park area will be for single-family development, and a lot of that depends on schools.
The area straddles the boundary between the Lawrence Public School District and the Perry-Lecompton Public School District. The Rock Chalk Park property, for instance, is in the Perry-Lecompton school district. Essentially everything north and west of the Rock Chalk property will be outside of the Lawrence School District.
That’s led some to speculate that the area will be more attractive to future apartment developments or senior living developments, rather than single-family housing that is geared more toward families.
“Why would you move into a house that is a mile-and-a-half away from Free State High School, but you are 12 miles from where you would go to school?” Phil Struble, president of Lawrence-based Landplan Engineering, said of the property on the Perry-Lecompton side of the line.
Commercial on the way?
It has been the prospect of commercial development in the area that has done more to capture the imagination of the public. Certainly some commercial development is expected, but there are questions surrounding that as well.
“You might see a motel on all four corners of that intersection,” said Doug Brown, a broker with Lawrence-based McGrew Commercial Real Estate.
Brown said the Rock Chalk Park development, and the events and tournaments expected to be hosted there by the city and Kansas University, will help draw traditional visitor-related businesses: motels, gas stations, certain types of restaurants.
But city leaders have been touting the area as primed for big-box retailers and other major shopping. Scott McCullough, the city’s planning director, said the area is planned to have retail that is more extensive than what currently exists at the 31st and Iowa intersection but less extensive than what exists along the entire South Iowa Street corridor.
The Mercato development is zoned to have up to two 175,000-square-foot big-box stores, such as a big department or discount store, or a home-improvement store. Currently, it is the only location in town zoned to accommodate a big-box store of that size.
Brown — who represents retail properties in other parts of the city — said he’s not sure he sees big-box retailers heading to the Sixth and SLT intersection anytime soon.
“I don’t think you are going to see a large increase in the desire for big-box retailers to run out there just because there is going to be a recreation center,” Brown said. “The thing about retailers is they don’t want to be pioneers. They want to go in where there are other retailers.”
At the moment, that still means the South Iowa Street corridor, unless the city or developers figure out a way to persuade a major retailer to be the first to enter the Rock Chalk area. City officials believe the day will come, although they concede it is tough to estimate the timing. But they are confident the area is ultimately where home builders and retailers will want to be.
“The market is showing us that west is still the frontier for our growth,” McCullough said.