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City delays final vote to deny shopping center at SLT and Iowa; issue of what city wants developed at intersection still unclear


I certainly know a thing or two about backtracking. When you live in a house with a 12- and a 9-year-old you get to hear plenty of it. When you “complete” home improvement projects the way I do, you certainly get to practice it too. (I never said the staircase would go all the way to the bottom.) So, I’ll be interested if I hear any backtracking from the City Commission meeting as it relates to a proposed shopping center at the intersection of the SLT and Iowa Street.

We were scheduled to hear the commission discuss the shopping center issue at tonight’s meeting. They were asked to approve a legal document officially denying the proposed shopping center. But on Tuesday morning, City Hall sent notice that a vote on the matter would be delayed by at least one week.

I’m not sure what is causing the delay, but I certainly don’t expect commissioners to change their vote from last week and now allow the approximately 250,000-square-foot shopping center at the southeast corner of Iowa Street and the SLT. It sure appears that decision is done. That site won’t house anytime soon an Academy Sports, an Old Navy or any of the other retailers that were planning on coming to the center.

This August 2015 plan shows a concept for a retail center at the southeast corner of the South Lawrence Trafficway/Iowa Street interchange.

This August 2015 plan shows a concept for a retail center at the southeast corner of the South Lawrence Trafficway/Iowa Street interchange.

But it will be interesting to see if commissioners seek to massage the message they are sending by denying the project. As I wrote last week, I was not surprised commissioners voted to deny the shopping center proposal. I was surprised at one of the key reasons they used to deny the project: that the city is not ready for development south of the South Lawrence Trafficway.

I thought that was a surprising position to take given that the property in question has been part of the city limits since 1979, and that the City Commission just two years ago approved a plan for the area that stated the property was suitable for auto-related commercial development.

People who invest millions of dollars to develop in this community look for signals from the City Commission. Having a piece of property in the city limits is a signal that it is ready for development. Having a planning document that spells out a commercial use for a piece of property is a signal that it is ready for development. Combine those two, and developers view it as a green light.

Last week’s denial of the plan has shifted the light to yellow. Commissioners said they didn’t want a shopping center at that site. People can argue about whether that is a good decision, but it is a decision consistent with the city’s plan. To be fair, the city never sent a signal that it wanted a shopping center at that corner. Developers were testing the waters, and it appears that test is now complete, at least with this City Commission.

But as part of last week’s denial, commissioners ended up sending another signal. At least three commissioners have said they think the Revised Southern Development Plan — the plan approved two years ago that says the property should develop as an auto-related commercial center — needs to be revisited. That’s sending a signal that the city is no longer sure any type of commercial development — or perhaps any type of development at all — should occur on the property just south of one of the larger intersections in all of Douglas County. Again, the light shifts to yellow, and the question is whether it will turn to a full red.

Simply put, commissioners must decide whether they want to send a signal that an auto-related commercial use would be appropriate for the intersection. That could be something like a new car dealership, or a complex of hotels to attract travelers off the highway, or a large fueling center, or some combination of all of the above. Again, you could argue why the city would rather have that type of development at the intersection than a major shopping center, but it doesn’t seem like that argument is going to go anywhere with this commission. That makes the more interesting argument one of whether the intersection should have any commercial development. A new car dealership at the site, for example, certainly could be a significant sales tax generator for the community.

Commissioners were scheduled to discuss the subject tonight, but now have delayed the discussion for a week. Commissioners will be asked to approve a legal document called a “findings of fact.” It basically is a document written by a city attorney that spells out why commissioners denied the project last week. As you may guess, it is usually not a good sign when you have to ask an attorney to write a document explaining why you did something. It is a mechanism used to put the city on a good legal footing in case the city gets sued over the denial. I don’t know how likely a lawsuit is in this matter, but the city doesn’t like to take chances with such issues.

You can read the entire document here. It lists several reasons for denial, but it is interesting to note that it does not state that the city isn’t prepared for development south of the SLT. Instead, the document basically says that a shopping center at that intersection doesn’t comply with the city’s comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan calls for something like a car lot or hotels or some other auto-related use. This legal document that the city is being asked to approve still contemplates that a commercial use is foreseen for the intersection. Is that the message the City Commission intends to send, or does it still intend to send its yellow light message of “We’re not sure what ought to be built there"?

City commissioners last week could have denied the shopping center project by simply saying “we have a plan for that intersection and we’re not interested in changing it.” But commissioners didn’t say that. Instead they said something along the lines of “We have a plan for the intersection, we don’t want to change it to allow a shopping center there, and furthermore, we’re not sure we like the plan we have.”

The last part of the statement has produced some questions that it seems the commission will have to answer at some point:

— What type of development do they want at the intersection? Is an auto-related commercial center appropriate there? Is any type of commercial development appropriate there? These questions are the ones that seem to be frustrating significant numbers of the public. I have heard, by far, from more members of the public who are disappointed with the commission about this issue than people who are pleased with the commission. Their frustration seems to be that they thought the commission already had planned for this intersection and sent the signal that some form of commercial development was appropriate. Their second point of frustration is one of timing. The South Lawrence Trafficway has been in the works for more than 20 years. It has been easy to predict that this intersection would be a focal point of development pressure once the SLT was completed. The SLT is now near completion, the development pressure is hot, and the city is still trying to figure out what it wants for the intersection.

— What type of incentives is the city willing to offer big box retailers? With last week’s denial, this City Commission has decided it doesn’t want big box retail on that property. The site that is most well-positioned to accommodate multiple big box retailers is the property near Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence. It is zoned and ready to go, but has not attracted any tenants for the last several years. Does the City Commission have a good understanding of why that development hasn’t attracted any tenants? Does the city believe some type of financial incentive will need to be offered to entice a retailer to go to that far northwest location? Does the city have a different plan for attracting retailers to the community?

— How important is it to add new retail options in Lawrence? I think this one produces a variety of viewpoints both on the commission and in the community. What is clearer is that City Hall budget makers are counting on significant amounts of retail growth to make the city’s budget work. I wrote last week about how Lawrence had one of the higher growth rates of sales tax collections in the state in 2015. Sales tax collections grew by 4.7 percent. That was good news, but the growth rate still fell short of what city officials were hoping for. City budget makers had projected a 5 percent sales tax growth. More importantly, the city has budgeted for a 5 percent growth in sales tax in 2016. That’s a more aggressive projection than what City Hall has normally used. In the past it has budgeted for growth rates closer to 3 percent. In short, City Hall is betting on more sales taxes.

Does the city need more retailers to produce those sales taxes? I don’t know, but it is a question that Lawrence taxpayers have a vested interest in seeing answered. One way or another, the city’s budget will need to balance.


Brett McCabe 2 years, 4 months ago

Sales tax collections in Lawrence went up this year, did they not? Why? Dick's filled a major need in the market, Rock Chalk Park brought in a burst of visitor spending and the national economy grew.

If you want increased sales tax collections, a hotel at this junction would fit the bill, especially with the Junior Olympic track meet headed to town. The city is sold-out on very football weekend, the Relays and a few other times during the year. Add rooms and you will add sales tax. Also, the dearth of fueling sites on the traffic way, and Lawrence in general, could be addressed to some degree with an auto-stop of some sort.

In terms of retail, the way to increase collections is to either fill a significant void (i.e. Dick's) or bring in a destination retailer (Costco), or capture more visitor spending at Rock Chalk. All three could be accomplished if the city, county and the developers got together and created a path for Costco to locate in Lawrence.

In terms of the community, a growth in enrollment at KU will help sales tax collections and keep the demand on services down. If you are a Lawrencian, and you don't support the growth and health of KU, then you don't support the single most important entity in the city. Attracting students to KU, supporting KU Endowment, Alumni Assn. and KUAC will all help to strengthen the city city's revenue streams.

Finally, what the city commission should be addressing is a creative way in which to raise the minimum wage in the city. An increase will drive spending, sales tax collections, and improve the overall quality of life of many of our residents. Which commissioner is leading this charge?

Bob Forer 2 years, 4 months ago

But sales tax is not an end all or cure all. Remember, most of the sales tax goes to the state. We only gave a small portion based on the local percentage, which I believe is only around 1 per cent.

The biggest boost to the tax base comes from new commercial buildings and production facilities. But its hard to increase the tax base through that method when every new huge project is given a long term abatement.

Phil Minkin 2 years, 4 months ago

As long as any development doesn't bring in retailers that provide something that will draw people from Topeka/KC or offer something new to the existing mix, we will not see an increase in sales tax revenue.

Bob Forer 2 years, 4 months ago

I am horrified Stacy, that we lost around $1.50 in sales tax because you decided to shop out of town. With the close proximity to both Kansas City and Topeka, folks will always go out of town to purchase some items. There is no way to avoid that

While I appreciate your taking the time to enlighten us on your personal experiences, both the experts and history indicate that for a city such as Lawrence, more retail will not increase the quality of life.

Instead of worrying about all those horrific $1.50 loses, why not solve the problem by tremendously curtailing all the multi million dollar hand outs we give to the wealthy.

Just saying no to one million dollar handout will offset 666,666 (Beware, the double mark of the Beast) Stacy Napier-like excursions to Kansas City.

And when you consider the tens of millions of dollars of handouts to the wealthy developers in the last few years, the loss of a little sales tax is laughable.

Stephanie Hull 2 years, 4 months ago

Minor point -- isn't the sales tax rate 9.5%? If so, that makes it almost $15 that we lost, not $1.50.

Theodore Calvin 2 years, 4 months ago

Stephanie, the largest portion of that money goes to the state. As mentioned above, the local tax rate is somewhere in the ballpark of 1.5%. The municipality of Lawrence doesn't receive ALL the sales tax on a purchase.

Cathy Tarr 2 years, 4 months ago

Bob, must you be so snotty to Stacy? You seem to take the time to "enlighten" us on your opinion all the time - most of which is backward thinking.

Bob Forer 2 years, 4 months ago

What is Stacy so self-absorbed and myopic that she evaluates major issues that involve all of us based on how it affects her, and her alone.

Moreover, why are you so hypocritical that you accuse me of being "snotty," yet you turn around and call my thinking "backward."

You must be a republican.

David Holroyd 2 years, 4 months ago

So, Chad, how can part of the project be built on KDOT right of way? Is KDOT selling the right of way to the developers? Is KDOT arranging a "trade"? Didn't Mr. Dan Watkins the attorney for some of the parties involved have a relationship with KDOT?

As for increase in sales tax revenue, one has to be proviced information that the cost of purchases have increased and thus an increase in sales tax. Are any merchants willing to be interviewed to reveal that their sales actually went up or did they raise their prices?

Mr. McCabe consistenly talks about increasing the minimum wage and the city commission should be creative in doing so. Just how would the commission do that, when they and the Chamber cannot even bring jobs to the community.!

Just what is a "creative" way to raise one's wage? That's a good one.

Richie Kennedy 2 years, 4 months ago

David: The site plan "sketch" indicates that 35th Street would be shifted to the south. I would presume that the ROW for the existing 35th would revert back to the developer's control once it is vacated.

Sue McDaniel 2 years, 4 months ago

They certainly need to reconsider; seriously they want auto related vs retail? I do not see that happening; I hope the developer does push for a good reason they denied the K10 Crossing as it was a great project! Not "jumping" the SLT was a huge cop out on their part.

John T. McQuitty 2 years, 4 months ago

Last week the commissioners sent a message loud and clear. There will be NO development south of the SLT intersection with Iowa. None. Zip. Nothing. - any time soon. So, forget about it. Nothing is going in there.

I already suggested a cornfield and a playground for bikers. Cornfields, playgrounds, fast food restaurants, and luxury apartments and/or luxury condos are about the only developments allowed in Lawrence, unless you go East to the struggling business park or West to the totally undeveloped cow pastures - and only then if anything out there has no effect on the college recreation center of Mass Street, and is NOT a big box chain store. At least we can all eat pizza, chicken, and burgers, drink beer downtown, and upgrade to Mexican food on birthdays and anniversaries. Or,, if we are well heeled enough to own a car we can go to KC or Topeka to spend our money, but not south of the SLT at all.

Bob Forer 2 years, 4 months ago

The headline reads: issue of what city wants developed at intersection still unclear

Are we forgetting another option? Should not the question of whether there should be more outward development at all be part of the discussion, at least for the time being. Shouldn't there be a limit to urban sprawl? The huge growth in Lawrence during the last half century has been mostly good, as it transformed a town which was essentially a rural backwater into a thriving, intelligent, and progressive midwestern city of note. The benefits are many: great cultural diversity, wonderful medical care, a sophisticated and well educated population, etc. But it has not come without cost. Lawrence is now the most expensive community in Kansas in which to live. Development has not increased the tax base and lowered taxes per conventional (and inaccurate wisdom) but instead has sent taxes through the roof. Both the violence and frequency of crime has increased dramatically. There are traffic jams. People don't recognize the same number of surnames they did forty years ago, which is indicative of a lower sense of community.

Increased retail will not decrease our tax burden, as it mostly takes away from other established retail in Lawrence. Increased residential development has the same counter intuitive effect, as the additional burden on the cost of infrastructure is more than the increase to the tax base. The past forty year history has proven this.

We have a nice choice of retail shopping. What more do we need on a grand scale. We all thought a large furniture store was needed, but the huge one on South Iowa lasted but a few years. If some folks get excited about Popeyes chicken coming to town, well, perhaps I might suggest that one reevaluate their priorities in life. If you can't find it here, you can probably get it in Topeka.

The retail sprawl consists mostly of huge national chains who pay our fellow citizens poorly and then take the money and run.

Why the hurry to further the sprawl?. Why not redirect our focus on rehabbing the parts of Lawrence that are in disrepair. Continued outward expansion obviously benefits the millionaire developers, as well as the preexisting businesses in town who want more potential customers, but how does it help the rest of us? it raises our taxes, increases crime, decreases our sense of community, and rationalizes it hungers by telling us they are increasing our choices and strengthening our tax base. Nonsense.

Why don't we start focusing on what is best for us. The greedy millionaires already have more than enough Why should they be allowed to increase their piles of cash on our lives? .

John T. McQuitty 2 years, 4 months ago

Bob - We're going to grow whether we like it or not. Trying to go back to what we never were doesn't work. Nostalgia does not pay the cities bills nor does it provide increased income through better paying jobs. Development of infrastructure and needed things to support the growth that is already here and that will come must happen. Urban sprawl is another issue, It implies mindless increase of area, not necessarily of development.

Lawrence is at an intersection of north/south highways and east/west highways, and we already have rail access. We have not used these natural advantages to grow the tax base. What about warehouses and distribution centers? What about light manufacturing? We need tax dollars, and we need economic development that brings good paying jobs to town in order to raise the standard of living for all of us.

The kind of development we've seen lately is fast food places, playgrounds, and luxury apartments and condos to line the pockets of a few wealthy developers. What we have not seen lately is infrastructure development - like a new police station, replacement of 100 year old water and sewer lines, sidewalk improvements, and most important of all increase in good paying jobs and retail development that keeps tax dollars in Lawrence.

We are not now and never were some blissful quaint little, laid back lazy rural backwater town like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Attempting to stop growth and go back to what we never were is a sure way to get neither the tax dollars necessary to support ourselves, nor to stop uncontrollable urban sprawl, which is really going to be just rural sprawl, but inside the city limits..

We have everything but a sustainable tax base and an economy that supports rising wages. We are a service economy and an artsy economy. I love the art and support of the arts, but very limited income and tax dollars there. Service economies mostly just pass the money around with a bit taken out for taxes each time s that there is less and less to support wages - even the same wages - each time the money is "passed around."

Going back to the 1950s or further is wishful thinking, and is not going to happen. We need to learn our history and appreciate it, but not live in it. Move on. Make the sometimes hard but necessary practical decisions. Manage the growth, but not be hostile to it. Step back and look at things realistically. We cannot be some isolated, idealistic enclave. Uncontrolled growth - no. Realistic, honest growth, based upon what we need as a city and what residents need to live decently - yes - by all means.

Bob Forer 2 years, 4 months ago

Apparently you are missing the point. There is something known as a economy of scale. At an earlier point in time, development created diversity, financial growth, and an increased tax base. However, there becomes a time when the costs of development far exceed the benefits of increased choice and a larger tax base. Sure, more development will increase the tax base, but it also increases the burden of the infrastructure in a larger amount., Why else do you thihk taxes have risen despite the tremendous growth of the last few years. Schools, streets, law enforcement, sidewalks, and firemen are not free.

You wrote, "We're going to grow whether we like it or not." Absolutely not true. Who determines the nature and extent of development/ We do, through our elected officials. We do have a choice. it is not something that is beyond our control.

i am not hostile to growth. Have you ever heard the term "inner growth." Instead of additonal sprawl, why not rehab the parts of Lawrence which are falling apart. Lets give incentives to folks who revive commerical areas like 19th and haskll and the several strip malls behind Dicks Sporting Goods, for example.

Greg DiVilbiss 2 years, 4 months ago

If you are looking at retail, you must consider demographics. A shopping center's location or a retail will be looking at traffic patterns, household income, number of children in the home and others. I would say the site at 19th and Haskell though in need of redevelopment will not meet most of the factors for the type of shopping that was proposed for the SLT & Iowa.

John T. McQuitty 2 years, 4 months ago

Not a bad idea, Bob. How do you propose to do that? They are empty for a reason. Failed businesses, bad locations, not concentrated enough to be shopping "destinations." Those little strip malls are economic desasters, but are the kind of "developments" that Lawrence has approved over and over again. People - most anyway - don't have the money to spend to support the folks that WERE in those vacant malls. That's why they are vacant, and "little" businesses neither generate much of a tax base, nor take in enough to stay in business.

Service businesses like fast food restaurants just pass the available money around, losing a bit to sales tax with each transaction. To support Lawrence you need some tax generators, and as long as the city is so hostile to businesses, warehousing, distribution centers, light manufacturing, and yes, store big enough to actually achieve enough economics of scale to survive, from outside Lawrence, and does not exploit our advantage of location, the small businesses will continue to turn over and over, and over.

You mention economics of scale, but you want to keep out chains and large businesses that have actually achieved it, even if they will not harm the existing local businesses. Makes no sense.

Now IF the vacant strip malls in Lawrence can succeed, I'm all for it, but so far they don't seem to have the economic power to survive. Further, businesses that pay only $8/hour or less are not helping things here at all. That's poverty wages, and people living in poverty cannot generate enough disposable income to even support their employers.

Like big businesses, we need to exploit and develop our advantage of location, road nets, railways, and being about half way between significant cities to the east and west. The undeveloped land in west Lawrence might be ideal for a distribution center for example, instead of insisting on local retail development there. Same on the east and sout sides of town, but as long as we think small we will raising taxes on homeowners just to survive the growth that is already here.

Bob, you are obviously a "no growther," in that you seem to think you can stop it from happening. You cannot stop it, but you can stunt economic development by making it more difficult to locate here, If I were a business looking around to locate somewhere, I think I'd simply write off Lawrence as a bad idea. Sooner or later the market for luxury apartments and condos will be saturated, and they will start to become vacant as well, but the developers will have already made their money, and moved on to other foolish cities.

Michelle Reynolds 2 years, 4 months ago

I would like to know the education or training the city commissioners have that they are the ones that decide if auto related or retail or somethings else is appropriate for this ground. Isn't that what commercial developers do for a profession. These developers wouldnt spend $100's of thousands of dollars to "hope" the project will work. They selected that site based on proven statistics and research. At the time horizon 2020 was written was a different time economically and socially then today. Most of us don't stay in the same houses, drive the same car, have the same job or even have the same color paint on our walls as when horizon 2020 was written. Horizon 2020 is s guideline. The commissioners are not experts Instead of driving away the developers why don't you try a new strategy. If the commissioners truly believe, and can prove the retailers shouldn't be south of the SLT and they should be at Mercato or even out east across from Venture Park then why don't you incentivize them to go there? Don't drive them away with nonsense and negativity. Help them to stay!

Cille King 2 years, 4 months ago

Michelle, 1) the H2020 was reviewed by a committee in the last couple of years, 2) the voters elected the city commissioners to make these decisions, 3) developers are in the business of making money for themselves. Many outside developers will build a project and sell it after a few years, before it becomes unprofitable, (i.e. the Riverfront mall and one in North Lawrence), 4) normally, retail does not qualify for incentives, 5) the requested Regional Commercial zoning allows almost any type of business, (including a truck stop) and the city, once approving the rezoning, would not have any control over what actually was built there, 6) IF the City Commission had approved the Kten plan, they would have ignored several city planning codes and would have no basis to deny any other proposal south of the SLT.

David Holroyd 2 years, 4 months ago

The "city" doesn't want a shopping center, but Planning and Development did? Is Planning and Developmentna different entity than the "city"?

Is Mr McCullough's department a private business entity working from city hall? And what about the planning commission? Is that a group outsourced to give suggestions to the "city"?

This is all so small town. And what a generous community just giving over $700 thousands of dollars to Mr Menard and NOT one question why he needs the money.

Is there actually a site plan on file? Just asking:)

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