A proposal to build one of the city's larger shopping centers in its history received a setback from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission early Tuesday morning.
Commissioners on a 4-2 voted recommended city commissioners deny a proposed shopping center that would add more than 500,000 square feet of commercial space southeast of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Iowa Street interchange.
The reason: Its location at the intersection of two major highways isn't the right location.
"I think there is a place for a development like this in town, but I don't think it is here," said Planning Commissioner Eric Struckhoff.
Several planning commissioners said they would prefer large retail development be located in areas already zoned for commercial development near the Rock Chalk Park sports complex in northwest Lawrence.
But leaders with the North Carolina-based company proposing the development said national retailers want to be located next to the other major retailers located on South Iowa Street. The area near Rock Chalk Park — near Sixth and the SLT — has been zoned for retail for multiple years but hasn't yet developed.
"The city has done a good job of providing opportunities for development around the city," said Planning Commissioner Jim Denney, who supported the project. "But in the long run I think it should be business that decides where it puts its ventures. It is the business that is investing lots of money."
Thus far, developers have said Old Navy, Academy Sports, Ulta Beauty, Designer Shoe Warehouse, and a speciality grocer are among the likely tenants for the center.
The Planning Commission's vote does not yet kill the project. Developers can still choose to have the development request heard by the Lawrence City Commission. A representative with the development group said it was too early to determine whether the project would move forward.
If the project moves to the City Commission in the coming weeks, expect a classic Lawrence battle. Commissioners voted on the project a little after midnight, after hearing more than four hours of public comment and presentations about the proposal.
On one side were residents who expressed concern that the project would harm downtown. On another was a group of developers who have undeveloped retail projects in the city who objected to the city's process. And then there were residents who said Lawrence needs new retailers and the tax dollars they would bring into local government coffers.
For some residents, the project brought back memories of when this site was proposed for a "Cornfield Mall" development in the 1980s that was fiercely opposed because it created concern it would damage downtown Lawrence.
"I know a lot has changed, but some of the reasons are still there," said longtime Lawrence resident Betty Alderson. "I can't imagine a project of this size doing anything but wiping out commercial development on Massachusetts Street."
Leaders of the development group strongly disagreed with that assertion. The main draw of the project is expected to be big box retailers, although it also is expected to have restaurants as well.
"Don't fight the same battle that you fought almost 40 years ago," said Chris Challis, the project manager for the development group. "You are not seeing a project that tries to recreate Massachusetts Street."
Lawyers representing local investors in the unbuilt retail areas near Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway also urged commissioners to vote against or delay the project because they said it would be too much of a deviation from the city's comprehensive plan, Horizon 2020.
But commissioners also were urged to consider that the project would be located at the intersection of two of the larger highways in the county.
"If you are looking at a map of Lawrence, you would say why not put retail here?" said Brad Finkeldei, a former member of the Planning Commission who spoke in favor of the project.
He noted the city's comprehensive plan already calls for commercial development at the property, although it is labeled as "auto-related" commercial development, which is a category that can include intense commercial development.
The designation could allow for car dealerships, large fueling centers, and a host of businesses that cater to motorists on the highway.
"I don't want to see auto-related development there," said Bruce Liese, chair of the Planning Commission, and one of the two commissioners to vote in favor of the shopping center. "If we vote this down, we may see a giant parking lot that is worse than our worse nightmare."
Some residents noted the site also is just west of the recently expanded portion of the Baker Wetlands, and development could create problems for the natural area. But Roger Boyd, manager of the wetlands, told commissioners that he did not object to the proposed development. The development group has entered discussions with Baker University about the possibility of Boyd's group managing several acres of open space along the Wakarusa River that would be placed in a conservation easement prohibiting future development on the property.
Commissioners also heard differing opinions about how much the retail development could add to the city's tax base. The development group produced a study that estimated it would add $1.1 million to the city's sales tax collections by the end of 2016.
But others argued the city's incomes aren't growing enough to reasonably expect a significant gain in sales tax collections. But several residents said it is clear to them that Lawrence residents are too frequently leaving Lawrence to shop.
"This represents a right-now opportunity to produce tax dollars," said Lawrence resident Gary Rexroad. "We need sales tax dollars right now. We need to keep people in town spending those dollars in town."
The shopping center proposal had received a positive recommendation from the city's planning staff. Only six of the 10 planning commissioners were present for Monday's meeting. Commissioners Struckhoff, Pennie von Achen, Bryan Culver, and Jon Josserand voted to recommend denial of the project. Commissioner Stan Rasmussen was present but recused himself after learning the project would be applying for development permits through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Rasmussen works for the Army and soon will be providing legal advice to the Corps of Engineers, creating a potential conflict of interest.