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Speculation grows that Old Navy may be tenant of proposed shopping center south of SLT; city may get stricter on downtown drinking establishments
A plan to build a major new retail center just southeast of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Iowa Street interchange won't get a key hearing at this month's Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission meeting, as was once planned.
But I talked to the lead developer on the project, and he assured me the project is still very much moving forward, but simply needs a bit more time to tweak technical details of the proposal.
That's fine. It will give more time for speculation to build about what large retailers the center may attract to town. There certainly is a fair amount of speculation that Old Navy has agreed to locate in the shopping center, if the project is approved by city officials. Chris Challis, a broker working on the project for Collett & Associates and Sooner Investments, has said the project has drawn some preliminary commitments from retailers. He declined to confirm or deny the rumors about Old Navy but said he was not surprised such talk was surfacing around town. I have heard the speculation from people who have occasion to deal with such retailers, so I'm fairly confident that Old Navy is looking to get back into the Lawrence market. Some had thought a location next to Dick's Sporting Goods at 27th and Iowa was possible, but I haven't heard that speculation as much recently.
The prospect of an Old Navy in Lawrence does raise some questions. Is a "new Old Navy" an oxymoron? Why doesn't anyone ever call me an oxy? And how large will the tax penalty be when my wife withdraws our 401(k) money to go to an Old Navy grand opening?
No, the question you may have is why Old Navy would be returning to Lawrence after leaving the market in early 2012? A return wouldn't be surprising to me because I've long heard that Old Navy didn't leave because it was dissatisfied with the Lawrence market. Instead, I had heard the entire company was looking to decrease the size of its store footprints. As Old Navy's lease was set to expire in the Pine Ridge Plaza shopping center, next to Kohl's, it sought to decrease the size of its store. Pine Ridge officials said no thanks because they already had Ross Dress for Less interested in the space.
The bigger question that is floating around is whether this new retail development south of the SLT will win city approval. As we reported in March, the project is a big one. The plans filed at city hall show spaces for 10 large retailers ranging in size from 74,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet. In addition, the plans show 11 outlying lots that would ring the property and could accommodate restaurants or smaller retailers.
The project would be almost twice the size of the Pine Ridge Plaza development, which houses Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond, World Market and others. That may be too large for the taste of some commissioners. Commissioner Bob Schumm has made no secret in saying he thinks south Iowa Street retail is becoming overbuilt, so I would count him as a solid "no" vote going into this.
The other four commissioners, though, are tougher to read that the moment. Commissioner Jeremy Farmer recently engaged in some verbal jousting with Kirk McClure, the KU professor who is the chief proponent that Lawrence's retail market is overbuilt. That may indicate that Farmer isn't going to be swayed by that argument.
The project's fate at City Hall may hinge on what type of incentives it seeks. Thus far, developers haven't addressed that subject. Surprisingly, I have heard some City Hall talk that a special taxing district for the shopping development may be more palatable than a tax increment financing district that would rebate back some of the property or sales taxes to the developer. That thinking may be subject to change, but there is some logic behind it.
A special sales tax through a transportation development district would allow the developers a funding source for some infrastructure projects at the site, while ensuring the city gets its full share of property and sales taxes generated by the project. This project won't be occurring in a vacuum. It is possible it may be occurring near the same time the city is contemplating a tax increase for a new police headquarters building. It may be politically difficult to ask the public for a tax increase at the same time City Hall is providing tax rebates to a national chain store-oriented retail project.
The final consideration is whether a majority of city commissioners will decide now is the time to draw the line and insist new retail development be located in the northwest part of the city. That's where property is already zoned for retail development, and certainly some commissioner are eager for commercial development to start emerging around the Rock Chalk Park complex. But recently national retailers have seemed genuine in their disinterest in the far northwest part of the city. Just not enough homes out there yet for their liking, and the big retailers really want to be next to other big retailers, which means south Iowa Street. But I think it is fair to say that if commissioners could have their druthers, they would want the development in the northwest.
So, the final question may be whether commissioners have realized they can't always have their druthers?
But don't worry, if Old Navy has druthers on sale, I'm confident my house will soon be full of them.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Keep an eye on a dispute in downtown Lawrence that may have broader implications for restaurants in the downtown district. Randy Larkin, the city's senior assistant city attorney, confirmed to me that City Hall recently denied the renewal of a sidewalk dining license for Shots, a restaurant/bar at 1008 Mass. Street.
Larkin said Shots hadn't paid its sidewalk dining license renewal fee after several notices from the city. But the denial also came after Downtown Lawrence Inc. and others had filed a complaint about the appearance of the sidewalk dining area. There were some upholstered furniture that had been left out in the weather, and there was some sort of odd-looking display case that was being stored out there as well.
Larkin said officials with Shots have filed an appeal on the license denial issue, and a hearing will be set before the full City Commission. So, Shots officials will get a chance to tell their side of the story.
But the bigger issue is one brought up by Commissioner Bob Schumm. He questioned whether Shots was meeting the requirement that new drinking establishments in downtown make at least 55 percent of their total sales from food. That requirement is the city's way of ensuring that downtown doesn't become dominated by pure bars. Schumm, who was in the restaurant business for 40 years, said he finds it difficult to believe Shots is meeting that requirement. The establishment isn't open for lunch, and it operates on a schedule much more similar to a nightclub.
Schumm questioned whether the city is doing enough to confirm that downtown establishments are really meeting the 55 percent food requirement. Schumm said he wants city staff to investigate the ability the city to conduct a full audit of a drinking establishment's financial records. Currently, the city has access to the businesses' sales tax records, but Schumm said a look a complete look at the businesses' books would be more instructive.
• A housekeeping note: Town Talk will be off tomorrow. It is the last day of school for my kids, so I have to be home to direct the slew of delivery trucks dropping off Cheetos, Slim Jims and other health food that will be consumed in large quantities this summer. That's only partially true. There is also a 5th Grade graduation ceremony I need to attend, because somehow — almost overnight it seems — I have a son old enough to be going into middle school next year.