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City commissioners to consider request for more retail zoning near proposed site of recreation center, sports park
It is beginning to look more and more like Lawrence won’t just be getting a new sports complex and recreation center in northwest Lawrence, but will be getting a new retail area as well.
Tonight’s meeting of the Lawrence City Commission will go a long way in determining whether that is true. Commissioners tonight will be hearing another request from a group led by Lawrence businessmen Duane and Steve Schwada to rezone 146 acres on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway for retail uses.
Yes, that was the piece of ground that originally was going to house the city’s 181,000 square-foot recreation center and KU’s track and field stadium and soccer field. When those plans were being touted as the greatest thing since Danny Manning’s baby hook shot, city officials were in favor of allowing retail zoning on the property. The idea was that such a sports complex would need to have some hotels, restaurants and other uses to support visitors.
But soon enough, those plans fell by the wayside. The city, KU and private developer/financier Thomas Fritzel banded together and changed the plans for the project.
The project in September made a sudden change in direction when KU said it no longer was interested in the site on the northwest corner of the intersection but instead had decided on a larger site near the northeast corner that could accommodate more facilities. City commissioners said they were interested in having their recreation center be on that side of the road too.
At that time, four out of the five city commissioners said the change in direction meant there no longer was a need for retail zoning on Schwada’s property.
That left the Schwadas with a piece of property that had just recently been annexed into the city, but doesn’t have any city zoning attached to it.
Schwada ended up looking like the kid standing on the playground after the other kids had left and taken their ball with them. But Duane Schwada is one of the more successful developers in this town, and it hasn’t taken long for folks to realize he has his own ball he can bring to this game.
Over the last few months, representatives of Schwada have been making the case that nothing really has changed in regards to the need for certain types of retail development — again, think hotels, restaurants, gas stations and such — to support this sports park. If anything, since the project has become larger, the need for supporting retail has grown.
Originally city commissioners believed the adjacent Mercato development would have plenty of capacity to support the sports park. After all, it is zoned for retail already, and it is empty.
But here are the two things to remember about the Mercato development: It is controlled by Schwada, and it is zoned and planned for a specific type of retail development — big box stores. Currently, the development is the only one in the city that can boast of shovel-ready sites for new big box stores in Lawrence. That zoning and development plan was hard won, and representatives for Schwada have indicated he’s not going to change those plans simply to accommodate a hotel or a restaurant or other types of smaller users.
But he would accommodate those type of users on the 146 acres on the northwest corner of the intersection. I suspect he also could accommodate another big box store or two on that site, especially since a 181,000 square-foot recreation center won’t be taking up any space on the property. (UPDATE: As I read through some of the proposed zoning language, there may be some limitations on big box stores at the site, depending on how large you consider a big box store to be. There probably will be more details tonight.)
Whether the development ought to get that type of zoning or not, is where city commissioners are at tonight. The Planning Commission has been split on the matter. In October, it voted 4-3 to recommend denial of the retail zoning for the corner. But then in November, it passed a new recommendation that essentially asked the City Commission to send the issue back to the Planning Commission for more in-depth review.
I don’t have a good sense about what city commissioners may do tonight. But it does appear clear that there is more consideration being given to making that corner a future retail hub than what was the case a few months ago.
Now, whether retail zoning will produce any new retail development at that corner in the near future is another question. Extending infrastructure to that site is expensive because some of it has to cross the highway. City officials were going to cover a lot of that cost when the recreation center was going to be located there. It is presumed now that any development on the corner would require the developers to pay for the infrastructure extension. But that’s not tonight’s battle, and, as this project has shown, everything is subject to change.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. tonight at City Hall.