Pair of restaurants proposed for location near Sixth Street Wal-Mart; City Hall tensions rise over East Lawrence proposal

I often play a guessing game whenever I make the trip to Wal-Mart with my family. You know, like: I guess you need a new pair of shoes; I guess I can push back retirement an extra 10 years; I guess I could curl up in a ball and sob quietly beneath the rack of discounted sweat pants. But now we all have a new guessing game to play when it comes to the area near the Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa. Plans have been filed for two new restaurants near the store, but we don’t yet have names for them.

Plans have been filed to build about a 12,000 square foot building that will house two “upscale casual sit down restaurants” and a boutique retail type of tenant. The building is planned for the southwest corner of Wakarusa and Overland Drive, which is the vacant lot basically directly east of the Wal-Mart store.

According to the plans, one restaurant will be about 5,000 square feet while the other one will be about 3,700 square feet. The plans indicate the development group — which isn’t listed but is being represented by a Topeka architecture firm — has tenants for both restaurant spaces and will be looking for a tenant for the approximately 3,600 square feet of boutique retail.

“Both restaurants will be managed by successful homegrown companies specializing in the management of multiple establishments in the greater midwest area,” the plan states.

Other things we know from the plan are that the restaurants are of the type that have alcohol sales, and neither of the restaurants currently have a presence in Lawrence. This is what we call, in the world of restaurant detectives, a clue. Rest assured that I am on the case, I have picked up the scent and I will not rest until I come up with an answer. (Or until I become distracted by fried cheese sticks, or really any type of appetizer, which is a serious occupational hazard of a restaurant detective.)

Based on the plans submitted, I can’t even say with certainty that we’re talking about a national chain. It may be more a regional chain. But I like mentioning national restaurant chains about as much as I like fried cheese, so I looked at a recent list of the top 100 restaurant chains in America and pulled out the casual dining establishments that aren’t already located in Lawrence. Here’s that list: Olive Garden; Red Lobster; Outback Steakhouse; T.G.I. Friday’s; The Cheesecake Factory; Ruby Tuesday; Texas Roadhouse; Red Robin; P.F. Chang’s China Bistro; Hooters; Carrabba’s Italian Grill; California Pizza Kitchen; Logan’s Roadhouse; Romano’s Macaroni Grill; BJ’s Restaurant & Brewery; O’Charley’s; Ruth’s Chris Steak House; Bonefish Grill; and Cheddar’s.

I’m not saying that any of those restaurants are the ones included in this project. Clearly, some of them don’t make sense for the site or don’t even have operations in this part of the country. But I do find it interesting to note what major restaurants we don’t have.

The deal, which was brokered by Lawrence commercial real estate broker Lance Johnson, will be an interesting one to watch. The site needs to win zoning approval from the City Commission before it can proceed. The current zoning calls for more office-related uses than restaurant. The new zoning also will technically put the corner above the retail square footage cap that planners have set for the corner. The corner has about 99,000 square feet of retail space already constructed. The development group is asking for the corner’s retail cap to be increased by about 6,200 square feet.

Look for the issue to come up on a City Commission agenda in the next couple of months. In the meantime, I’ll keep scouring for clues to the identify of these restaurants. Well, I’ll get started on that right after I get this marinara dipping sauce off my tie.

In other news and notes from around town:

• As we’ve previously reported, a medical office building also is being built near the Sixth Street Wal-Mart. The large building is just north of the proposed restaurant site. We now have more information about that medical office building.

Lawrence physician Stephanie Suber is opening a new medical practice called Family Centered Medicine. The practice also will include two other certified physician assistants. A message on the business’s answering machine indicates that the practice will open during the week of Jan. 5. I haven’t had any luck in making contact with Suber or a a representative of the business to get more details.

The site is one to watch though, because it is a large new building. People in the medical community tell me that part of the building is set aside for another user, perhaps another medical practice or some other health-related company. No word, though, on whether that user has been found yet.

• Well, this could get messier than a double order of cheese sticks with extra dipping sauce. City commissioners last night began to show their frustrations with the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association. The association has been expressing concern about the proposal to convert a portion of Ninth Street east of Massachusetts into a unique arts corridor. Specifically, East Lawrence leaders have felt like the Lawrence Arts Center and the city haven’t done enough to make the neighborhood a “full partner” in the early stages of the process. City officials and Arts Center leaders have countered that the design process hasn’t yet begun and that East Lawrence and other stakeholders will be a major part of the process.

The East Lawrence association at the City Commission meeting last night presented a letter to commissioners spelling out how it hopes to be involved in the project. If commissioners follow the association’s suggestion, it will mark a different way of working with neighborhoods on projects.

How different? Well, for starters, the city would pay two representatives of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association to be active participants in the process. There weren’t a ton of details about everything these paid positions would do, but certainly attending meetings and keeping the neighborhood informed about the project would be major roles.

The idea brought a mix of reactions from commissioners. Both Mayor Mike Amyx and Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said the idea of paying neighborhood people to be involved in a project sounded odd to them. But Commissioners Bob Schumm and Terry Riordan said they wanted more information, and noted how it is difficult in a working class neighborhood for people to take off work to attend meetings and such.

“It would need to be very well defined, though,” Riordan said. “We would have to be careful because we would be setting precedent.”

The proposal also would require the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association to approve any design plans for the Ninth Street project before those plans are presented to the Lawrence City Commission for final approval.

That point caused significant discomfort with commissioners.

“That is not a partnership but is basically creating an authoritarian government,” City Commissioner Mike Dever said of the proposal, which equated to a veto power for the neighborhood association. “I’m trying not to get angry about this.”

Farmer did not do much to contain his anger about the proposal. Farmer said he wasn’t ready to give the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association any more money or power in the process. He said he’s uncomfortable providing any increased funding to the organization, in part, because “it continues to oppose everything that comes before us.”

Farmer also brought up concerns that the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association is not very representative of the actual residents of East Lawrence. Commissioners have been getting some e-mails about that concern from residents, and Farmer said he picked up on the theme when he walked the neighborhood during last year’s debate about whether to allow a multistory hotel to be built at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, which drew opposition from the neighborhood association.

“We heard everybody in East Lawrence was against that project, and it turned out that it was about four people who were against it,” Farmer said.

I didn’t get a chance to have detailed discussions with East Lawrence leaders last night, but I’m confident they don’t agree with that assessment.

Regardless, it looks like the idea of an arts corridor on Ninth Street is going to remain bumpy for awhile. In fact, Amyx said the tension between the neighborhood, the Arts Center and others is causing him to rethink his support for the project.

“This is something that I thought would be so good for East Lawrence, but now I’m having a hard time staying in the game,” Amyx said.

Right now, commissioners are just trying to hire a design firm for the project. At some point — probably next summer — a future commission will have to decide whether to spend an estimated $3 million in city money on the project. It will be interesting to see if the project ends up on the chopping block as the city seeks for ways to help pay for a new police headquarters.