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900-unit apartment complex wins key vote; the path forward for SLT shopping center; Hurst Fine Diamonds to close, move
Well, now it is going to be particularly awkward when I ricochet a golf ball off one of the 900 new apartments that will be built as part of The Links development in northwest Lawrence.
The project, which is a bit east of the Rock Chalk Park Sports complex, has been in the news for years. The Arkansas-based development group has touted the plan as one where apartments will be built around a privately owned nine-hole golf course. But the plan has changed many times since 2008, and now the development has undergone its biggest change yet: The golf course has been eliminated from the project.
But Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioners at last night's meeting didn't blink at giving the revised project a new round of approvals. Commissioners approved it on a 5-1 vote, with Commissioner Jon Josserand the lone nay vote. Even though the project won't have a golf course, it will have an extraordinary amount of open space, according to the plans. The development plans to construct the buildings for its 900 apartments in clusters, leaving more than 60 percent of the 78 acre site as open space. Instead of a golf course, the open space will now have a trail system or simply will be left as natural areas.
As for why the golf course was dropped from the plans, the development team was pretty forthright in its answer: Golf is in decline.
"What we're learning more and more about golf courses is that, unfortunately for us, interest in golf is declining," said Kim Fugitt, an executive with Linsey Management. "It takes a long time to play, and it is expensive."
Fugitt said the economics of the Lawrence project long have been challenging, which is why the project has received several approvals from city leaders but has yet to be built. Fugitt said when it began reviewing the city's development code in more depth, it realized it could seek a higher density of apartments on the property, and that has taken the project financially from "a borderline development to something that became very attractive."
The project now must receive a round of approval from city commissioners before it can move forward. Look for the issue to come before the City Commission in the next few weeks. If approved, Fugitt said, construction could begin in late summer or early fall and likely would take about 18 months. The project has been estimated to have about a $40 million price tag. The plan is to build in phases, with the first phase consisting of about 600 apartments. It is unclear when the remaining 300 apartments may be built.
In other news and notes from around town:
• The big news out of last night's Planning Commission meeting, of course, was the commission's recommendation to deny plans for a new shopping center southeast of the Iowa Street and South Lawrence Trafficway intersection.
We have a full report of that meeting online, so I won't rehash all of that. But I do want to give folks an idea of what is next. The project can still proceed to the City Commission, and ultimately it still only will need three votes from city commissioners to move forward.
That may surprise some. There is a state law that says in matters of rezoning, the City Commission must have a super majority vote to overrule a negative recommendation of a planning commission. In Lawrence's case, that means four out of the five city commissioners would need to vote in favor of the project.
But I confirmed with Randy Larkin, the city's senior assistant city attorney, that there is another part of the law that can be invoked. A simple majority of the City Commission can send the rezoning matter back to the planning commission for reconsideration. If the Planning Commission reconsiders it and still recommends denial, the City Commission at that point can override the Planning Commission's recommendation with a simple majority vote. In other words, three votes is all it takes to move this project forward, but it will take more time.
I don't have a good sense whether there are three votes on the City Commission for this project. I think some city commissioners are struggling with it. Last night's Planning Commission meeting probably provides more food for thought. City commissioners will have to determine what to make of the Planning Commission's recommendation. At this point, the recommendation for denial is merely a plurality rather than a majority opinion. The Planning Commission has 10 members. Only six members participated in last night's meeting, and only four recommended denial. With a full group, the recommendation could change, although I'm not sure that is likely.
The bigger issue seems to be what policy the city wants to have on planning retail development. Does the city want to allow retail development only in areas already approved for retail development, or does it want to evaluate new sites that the research of retailers say will be successful? Last night, the four commissioners who recommended denial expressed significant concern that this project would too greatly hinder the plans of already approved retail zoning, primarily at Sixth Street and the SLT.
The project may create an interesting philosophical discussion about the role of planning, and it almost certainly will create an interesting exercise in politics. The groups that own the undeveloped retail land near Sixth and the SLT include two of the more powerful development families in the city: the Fritzels and the Schwadas. They both were present last night with their attorneys.
• One last retail note: Look for changes at Hurst Fine Diamonds at 3140 Iowa St. in the Pine Ridge Plaza. The retailer has announced that it is closing its Lawrence store but plans to reopen at another location in Lawrence. An employee at the store said she didn't have a timeline for the closing or information about where the store plans to reopen. I'm checking in and will report back when I have more information. In the meantime, the store is starting a closing sale on Thursday.