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Attorneys watching closely as city contemplates retail zoning issue at Sixth and SLT; former planning director sounds off on city's planning practices
Tuesday night at City Hall was a night for folks who bill by the hour.
City commissioners on Tuesday considered a request to rezone 146 acres for commercial and retail uses at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.
In a sign that the issue is still a bit prickly, the property owners — a group led by Lawrence businessmen Duane and Steve Schwada — didn’t just bring one attorney to the proceedings. They brought two lawyers plus a court stenographer to the meeting.
As we briefly reported, commissioners sent the rezoning request and related matters back to the Planning Commission for more review. The decision still keeps the idea of retail and commercial zoning for the corner alive. But it is not the result the Schwada group was hoping for.
Attorney No. 1 for the Schwada group, longtime Lawrence land use expert Jane Eldridge, had told commissioners that now was the time for a decision on the property. The property is in a unique situation because the city already has annexed it into the city limits. It pays city property taxes, yet at the moment it has no city zoning designation, which means it can’t be developed for any use.
City commissioners asked the Planning Commission to provide a more detailed recommendation on how it would allocate the amount of potential retail development at the Sixth and SLT intersection among the four corners of the intersection. As proposed, the intersection could have up to 600,000 square feet of retail development.
Another project by the Schwadas, the Mercato development at the northeast corner, already is approved for 360,000 square feet of retail development. Figuring out where the remaining 240,000 square feet of retail development goes is one of the outstanding issues.
So, the project seems to have taken a step in the direction of rezoning the Schwada site, which, if you remember, was once the site for the proposed sports park and city recreation center before it shifted to the east side of the SLT.
But the question now is whether it was a big enough step to keep Attorney No. 2 on the sidelines. Attorney No. 2 is Mary Jo Shaney, a Kansas City trial attorney who has successfully litigated cases related to the property rights of land owners. Some of you may remember that Shaney was part of the legal team that represented Lawrence developer Doug Compton and others in the lawsuit against the city related to the Sixth and Wakarusa Walmart.
But there was at least one other attorney making some noise at City Hall on Tuesday. Price Banks, the city’s former planning director who is now a land use attorney, really criticized the city’s planning process. Banks didn’t indicate he was representing a client, so I assume he was just talking for himself, and he didn’t pull many punches.
Banks said if the rezoning is approved, it will continue “the recent pattern of replacing good planning principles with the idea of ‘let’s make a deal,’” Banks told commissioners.
He said what development group is proposing a project makes more difference than what actual planning documents recommend for an area. Banks said he thinks the city’s professional planning staff is being put in a position to find a way around city planning regulations rather than ensuring development proposals meet the plans of the city.
He said ordinary property owners are at risk from the practice.
“People should be able to invest with a reasonable expectation about what is going to happen around them,” Banks said. “That will no longer be the case if we continue to play this game of ‘let’s make a deal’ planning.” The comments rubbed some city commissioners the wrong way.
“I greatly resent some of those statements,” City Commissioner Aron Cromwell said. “We are working with a changing scenario here. I would hope people would have some respect for what we are trying to accomplish.” One of the issues with the proposed rezoning for the Schwada property is that it was in conflict with a recently approved area plan for the intersection. That plan, the West of K-10 Plan, was approved about three years ago with the idea the corner would be used for industrial or office park purposes.
But city commissioners on Tuesday said it is not bad planning to deviate from approved plans when new opportunities present themselves. KU’s strong interest in building about $50 million worth of sports facilities near the intersection qualifies as a major opportunity, several commissioners said.
“Good planning is maintaining flexibility as conditions change,” City Commissioner Hugh Carter said in response to Banks’ comments.
Planning commissioners are scheduled to take up the zoning issue at their February meeting. That theoretically would allow the City Commission to consider the issue again in March, which would be before a new City Commission takes over in April.