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Development group files plans to add more than 20 retailers, restaurants to south Iowa Street
Plans have been filed at City Hall for a new south Lawrence retail development that would add more than 20 new stores and restaurants.
An out-of-state development group has filed plans for the vacant property just south of the South Lawrence Trafficway and east of the dead-end bridge that spans Iowa Street. That's right, there are plans for the infamous Bridge to Nowhere to go somewhere.
Back in October, we reported that a group of Oklahoma- and North Carolina-based developers had an option to purchase the property and were beginning to shop the area to potential retailers. The shopping has gone well because the group has filed plans for what would be one of the larger Lawrence retail developments in recent memory.
A concept plan filed at City Hall shows spaces for 10 large retailers ranging in size from 74,000 square feet to about 10,000 square feet. In addition, the plans show 11 outlying lots that would ring the property and could accommodate restaurants or smaller retailers.
"When we started marketing this, we got a very strong and positive response from national retailers," said Chris Challis, a broker working on the project with North Carolina-based Collett & Associates and Oklahoma-based Sooner Investments.
Challis said he has commitments from about a half-dozen retailers who want to be at the site. He said he plans to release the names of those retailers soon.
I have been checking around, but don't yet have a strong lead on who the retailers are. There certainly have been on-again-off-again rumors that Lowe's still wants to put a home improvement center in Lawrence. But based on the concept plan that is filed, the development doesn't appear to be targeting that type of retailer. It also doesn't appear to be targeting the super-big-box stores.
I suppose that could all change. But at the moment, the concept plan indicates a development more similar to Pine Ridge Plaza, the south Lawrence shopping center that houses Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond, TJ Maxx and other retailers. But this proposed development would be a bit larger than Pine Ridge Plaza, which has about 240,000 square feet of retail space. This development could approach 400,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space.
The concept plan calls for a 74,000-square-foot anchor tenant - about the size of the Kohl's store in Lawrence. The plan also has space for 56,000- and 51,000-square-foot stores. Other larger spaces include 30,000-, 25,000- and 17,000-square-foot retail buildings. For comparison purposes, TJ Maxx and Bed Bath & Beyond are both in that 25,000 square foot range.
Again, I don't have any strong leads on who the future tenants may be, but I took a look at who this development group has attracted at other locations, primarily in Oklahoma. They've worked with a large number of retailers, including many we already have in town. But among those we don't have are: Ulta Beauty; PetSmart; Hibbett Sports; Academy Sports; The Children's Place; Catherines; Lane Bryant; and a whole host of restaurants.
Challis said the development group will work hard to bring in new types of retailers to Lawrence, specifically those that have been drawing Lawrence shoppers to Johnson or Shawnee counties.
"What we do best is create regional drawing-power shopping centers," Challis said.
Challis, though, said the development group understands that in Lawrence it will require a balancing act to make sure a new development doesn't harm the health of downtown.
"We understand that everyone wants to preserve the great Main Street that Massachusetts Street is," Challis said.
That will be a key point in the months ahead. Although plans have been filed, this project is a long way from a done deal. For starters, only an annexation request and rezoning request have been filed. More specific development plans will have to be filed before the project can win final approval. As for what has been filed, the rezoning requests total about 166 acres. About 122 acres would be used for the commercial development. The remaining 46 acres would be zoned as open space, recognizing the large amount of Wakarusa River floodplain that covers the site. Some of the proposed commercial area is located in the floodplain, and would have to meet special development code standards.
But an even larger question for the project will be political. The size of the project is sure to cause some community members to question whether the city's retail market is healthy enough to handle such a major expansion. Challis said his group will note that many retailers are eager to get into the Lawrence market because they see the amount of shopping that Lawrence residents do in Johnson and Shawnee counties.
The City Commission ultimately will decide whether to grant the necessary land use approvals. Commissioners did recently approve a major expansion of the South Iowa Street retail corridor when it approved a plan by Menards to redevelop the former Gaslight Mobile Home Park near 31st and Iowa Streets. In the past, though, city commissioners have tried to direct large retailers to commercially-zoned property in the northwest part of the city, near the Rock Chalk Park sports complex that is under construction. People in the marketplace, however, tell me that idea hasn't gained much momentum with retailers.
This land just south of the trafficway shows up in the city's long-range plan as a site for auto dealerships and apartments. Challis' group has filed documents to modify that plan, saying such a designation doesn't appear feasible in today's marketplace. Many of the community's current auto dealers have recently re-invested in their current locations, Challis notes, and the need for new apartment developments has been debated. He also notes the project is a natural site for a major retail development because it is at the intersection of two major highways — U.S. 59 and the South Lawrence Trafficway, which is scheduled to be completed in 2016.
We'll see how quickly this project moves through the planning process. We're about one year away from having a new Lawrence City Commission. (Elections are set for April 2015.) This type of project could become a campaign issue, if it lingers that long. In fact, it is worth noting that this very piece of property once dominated city politics. This site was proposed to house a traditional suburban mall — dubbed the "Cornfield Mall" — in the 1980s. That proposal created major battlelines in the city. This proposal is different, and the community has changed considerably since then. But I am curious to see the reaction.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I had someone question why the city was removing the heads of several parking meters on the east side of the 900 block of Massachusetts Street. Well, don't get your hopes up about free parking on Massachusetts Street. (There seems to be a stack of yellow envelopes in my wife's car that indicate there has been some confusion over the price of parking in downtown.)
Instead, the city is completing a project to replace about 60 light poles downtown. Several of those new light poles also double as locations to mount parking meters. So crews have been removing some meter heads as part of that project, but they will return on the new light poles. In fact, I think they're already back in place.
The light pole project cost about $125,000. Megan Gilliland, the city's communications manager, said many of the poles dated back to the 1970s and had become badly worn.