We’re soon going to have another test of how — or whether — city leaders want land along the South Lawrence Trafficway to develop. Plans have been filed for a new office, commercial and gas station development near the Haskell Avenue interchange of the SLT.
Specifically, the project is proposed for the northwest corner of 31st and Haskell Avenue. Some of you may remember the property from years ago as the former LRM concrete plant.
A group led by Lawrence businessman Scott Zaremba has filed plans at City Hall. The group is proposing that the property be rezoned from its current heavy industrial zoning category to a lighter industrial zoning category. That lighter industrial zoning category would allow for a variety of commercial uses, including fast-food restaurants with drive-thrus, smaller-scale retail stores, banks, office uses and other similar types of businesses.
The zoning also includes gas stations and convenience stores, and that is a business that Zaremba is in. He runs the Zarco fueling station businesses in Lawrence. A concept plan calls for a gas station to be built as part of the project. Any time a gas station project is mentioned in Lawrence — especially along a major highway — the question of a truck stop comes into play. Zaremba, though, indicated his current thinking is more of a traditional gasoline station/convenience store type of project.
“That is not in the plan today,” Zaremba told me when I asked about a truck stop.
Instead, Zaremba said he hopes to have a development that can serve as an eastern gateway to Lawrence. Haskell Avenue isn’t exactly the eastern edge of Lawrence, but the Haskell interchange and the 23rd Street interchange are the two most eastern interchanges along the South Lawrence Trafficway.
“I want to make it one of those places that highlights what the city has to offer,” Zaremba said.
Currently, a specific development plan hasn’t been filed for the project. Rather, the ownership group is asking for the rezoning and has provided a “concept plan” that has been developed by Lawrence-based Paul Werner Architects.
That plan shows the gas station and seven other buildings on the property. Two of the other buildings are strip retail centers that could house multiple stores. One is next to the gas station along Haskell Avenue, and another is on the southern part of the site next to 31st Street. The two largest buildings are listed as office buildings, and three other buildings are the right size to be fast-food restaurants.
But concept plans are meant to change. If the zoning is approved, it is likely that the concept plan will be changed, perhaps significantly, depending on what businesses are interested in the property.
In total, the site is just under 9 acres. It includes what has become a kind of funky piece of ground after 31st Street and Haskell Avenue were rebuilt following the SLT project. If you have driven in the area, you’ve likely noticed there are now two roads named Haskell in the area. The new road is called Haskell Avenue, but there is a short section of the old Haskell Avenue that continues to exist just to the west of the new road. That is called Haskell Lane. In between Haskell Avenue and Haskell Lane is a triangular piece of ground that is covered by a stand of timber. The concept plan calls for Haskell Lane to be removed. That would allow for the timbered piece of ground to be connected to the old concrete plant property, providing about 9 acres of contiguous space for the new development.
It will be interesting to watch whether city leaders approve the plans. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will consider the rezoning issue at its Wednesday evening meeting. The rezoning, however, ultimately will have to win approval from the City Commission before it can move forward.
Other plans to redevelop property along the trafficway haven’t been moving too quickly through the approval process. The large shopping center proposed for south of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange is the primary example. Another example is a large apartment complex proposed for west of the Bob Billings and SLT interchange. (That project has been really quiet of late. I do hope to get an update.)
This 31st and Haskell project is slower than either one of those, but I’m sure many developers will be watching how it turns out. In developers’ file cabinets, there's no shortage of plans to develop along the bypass. (Granted, some of the plans are in Latin because that was the language of the day when the SLT first started construction. For newcomers to town, it took a really long time to build the SLT.)
It will be particularly interesting about whether this idea of creating an eastern gateway to Lawrence is embraced. If so, then you have to wonder whether that is a green light for some projects to be proposed near the 23rd Street interchange of the SLT. Probably not. I think most people believe the political winds at City Hall aren’t favoring developments that would be built on the edge of town.
Someday they may, though, and it is worth remembering who owns one of the premier sites near that interchange: the Lawrence public school district. The school district owns the site outlined in blue on the map below. It is immediately west of where 23rd Street and the SLT split. The city of Lawrence owns the large, vacant piece of property in the lower left corner of the map.
Combined, the two could create some really interesting prospects for a statement-making type of project in Lawrence.