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City set to approve plans for new West Lawrence grocery store; county and school district ask for more than $500k in fee waivers from city
In the future, please pay no mind to the woman at the intersection of Sixth and Wakarusa pushing a filing cabinet on wheels and muttering about 5 cents off yogurt cups. That will be my wife with her grocery coupons, and you really can't blame her for appearing a bit disoriented. If all goes according to plan, many a grocery shopper soon may be overwhelmed with options at that intersection.
City commissioners at their meeting tonight are scheduled to approve a plan that will allow for a new specialty grocery store to be built in the Bauer Farm development at the northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. That will make for the third grocery store at the intersection, joining Dillons and Walmart, which operates a grocery department.
As we reported in February, the plans call for a 27,000 square-foot building that would house a "farmers' market-style" grocer. The development group, which is led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor, haven't released the identity of the specialty grocer, at the request of the grocer. The best information I have from sources is that it is not a Trader Joe's, which for whatever reason is a store I always get asked when it is coming to Lawrence. The speculation around town is that a chain called Sprouts Farmers Market is the most likely tenant for the spot, but take that for whatever you think it is worth.
But there is some good reason to think Sprouts is on the way. The company has been on an expansion path, and it has opened a store in Overland Park. The company's website describes Sprouts as a "healthy grocery store offering fresh, natural and organic foods." The company was founded in 2002 in Arizona, and now has more than 170 stores in nine states. Again, there is nothing official on this, but we'll see if lips begin to loosen once plans for the project receive City Commission approval.
The project comes to the commission tonight with a positive recommendation from both the planning staff and the planning commission. The grocery store development has been the headline grabber, but there are other interesting elements to the plan. They include:
• The development group wants the master development plan for the area to show a 108-room hotel near the corner of Wakarusa Drive and Overland Drive. When I last talked to a representative of the development group, there was no tenant for such a hotel, but the group wanted to show it on the plan so marketing for such a tenant could begin. I was told developers think the site may have some potential for a hotel as more visitors come to the Rock Chalk Park area.
• A changing of the plans to allow for an 11,623 square-foot retail building that could house several smaller tenants. It would be next to the grocery store development.
• The addition of six multifamily apartment buildings to the plans. The buildings would be on property east of the current Lawrence Community Theatre property.
In total, the changes would allow for 122,000 square feet of retail development at that corner of the intersection, up from a previously approved cap of 72,000 square feet. Retail caps at the intersection have been a contentious issue in the past. Neighbors have opposed some retail development at the intersection because of fears that the area will become overwhelmed with traffic and other issues that come with big-box retailers. The most recent opposition was when the City Commission rejected a plan for Lowe's to locate in Bauer Farm. There have been some letters of opposition related to this current proposal, but thus far the amount of opposition has not approached what was seen with the Lowe's development, or the Walmart development before that.
On the apartment side of things, the proposed changes would allow for 342 dwelling units on the property, up from a previously approved cap of 272.
A change that is tougher to quantify is how the overall feel of the Bauer Farms development will change. The project was originally touted as an example new urbanism, a development philosophy that really mixes residential and commercial uses and promotes pedestrian activity and other features that you would be more likely to see in an urban, rather than suburban, environment.
The development as it has been built does have a mix of uses, and it does have a bit of a different look than traditional developments. For example, many of the commercial buildings are closer to the street and often have their parking more out of view from the main thoroughfare. But the planning staff's recent report notes that these proposed changes move the project closer to a "more conventional retail development form."
The Bauer Farm development in its beginning years certainly had to deal with a national economic downturn that caused a lot of plans to be changed. But I think it also is fair to say that the project has created the question of how large of an appetite Lawrence currently has for new urbanism development.
The city several years ago spent a lot of time, and some money, exploring the idea of new urbanism and traditional neighborhood designs. It will be interesting to see if community leaders continue to push for that type of development in the future.
In other news and notes from around town:
• City commissioners will have an interesting decision to make tonight that will affect two of its fellow local governments: Douglas County and the Lawrence school district.
Both governments are asking the city to waive some fees that are charged as part of development projects. City staff members are recommending against the fee waivers.
Douglas County is building a new public works facility on East 25th Street near the Douglas County Jail. As part of the project, the county is asking for a waiver of an approximately $265,000 sewer and water system development charge, or more commonly known as an impact fee. The city has been charging such fees since 1996, when new projects hook onto the sewer and water system. It is designed to help the city keep up with expanding water and sewer plants and other big-ticket items that are necessitated by a growing number of users.
The school district is asking for a waiver of about $280,000 in building permit fees associated with a variety of expansion and remodeling projects related to the $92.5 million school bond issue.
City Manager David Corliss is recommending that the fee waivers be denied. The general argument is that even though these are public projects, they still will be creating costs for the city. In the case of the public works facility, the city says it is another connection point on the city's system, and thus must be accounted for in future capital improvement planning. As for the school district project, the city will be sending building inspectors to the construction sites, and there is a cost to do that.
The school district issue, however, has an interesting twist. School district officials note that Kansas University isn't required to even go through the city's building inspection process. The school district believes it has found a lawsuit that says it is not required to go through the city's full building inspection process either, although it says it does want to do so. The city, however, doesn't agree with that legal analysis. Regardless, the school district says it wants to spend as much of the $92.5 million in bond money on children as possible.
"Like KU, USD 497 is an educational institution seeking to spend public monies to educate kids," Superintendent Rick Doll wrote in a letter to the city.
Although neither party mentioned it, it does seem the matter has been complicated by another decision by the City Commission. The commission last year agreed to rebate a whole host of building permit fees and other fees as part of the Rock Chalk Park project. The city was under no obligation to do so, but decided to offer the rebate as part of an "economic development grant" to the project. That grant was in addition to the city ultimately agreeing to pay for the vast majority of all the infrastructure needed to serve the privately owned softball, soccer and track and field facilities that will be leased by KU. I suppose the school district could make an argument that $92.5 million worth of improvements to the education system in the city will have a positive impact on economic development, and thus is worthy of a similar grant. We'll see how it goes tonight, and whether any of the three governments leave City Hall with hard feelings.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. today at City Hall.