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Proposed West Lawrence commercial development wins Planning Commission approval

Plans for a significant new West Lawrence shopping area have cleared their first hurdle.

Lawrence-Douglas County Planning commissioners on Monday night unanimously approved the rezoning and preliminary plat for the Langston Commons project, which is slated for the northeast corner of where the South Lawrence Trafficway intersects with Bob Billings Parkway.

As we reported last month, a local development group is moving forward with the project now that the state has committed to build an estimated $17 million interchange at the Bob Billings and SLT intersection.

Lawrence-based urban planner Tim Herndon has drawn up a pair of concept plans for the 17-acre commercial site. One includes a 60,000-square-foot grocery store building, with space for five other smaller commercial buildings. The second calls for a 30,000-square-foot speciality grocer or retail building, with room for seven other buildings ranging in size from about 15,000 square feet to a couple of thousand square feet.

Planning commissioners last night didn't have to pick between the two concept plans. Rather, the commission just recommended approval of the commercial zoning. More detailed plans on the commercial development will be filed as tenants start to emerge.

The last time I talked with the development group, it didn't have any tenants lined up for the development, but was optimistic the area would draw strong interest as the thousands of new vehicles per day start traveling by the area when the interchange opens by 2016.

Herndon, when I talked with him last month, even threw out the ever-elusive names of Red Lobster and Olive Garden. Now, put your lobster cracker down, because he mainly was just talking about the type of businesses the development will try to attract, not ones that have expressed an interest. But the development group will be aiming to impress because the new shopping center is expected to be an entry point for large numbers of people coming to the KU campus from the west. (But really, put that lobster cracker tool down. You're making me nervous.)

The development also includes about 14 acres of residential development. According to documents from the planning department, plans call for 29 units of single-family housing, 14 duplexes, and a mix of 34 row houses and apartment units.

City commissioners will be asked to give final approval to the rezoning requests in the next several weeks.

And, hey, take off that Red Lobster bib. It's way too early for that.

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New development slated for Bob Billings and SLT may land a grocery store

Several Lawrence developments are grabbing headlines these days. Rock Chalk Park, efforts to convert the former Farmland fertilizer plant into an industrial park, and downtown redevelopment are three of the larger ones.

But don’t forget about the nearly $20 million state project to build a new interchange at Bob Billings Parkway and the South Lawrence Trafficway in West Lawrence. Developers certainly haven’t.

A local development group has filed plans for a new commercial and residential development near the northeast corner of the planned intersection.

If all goes according to plan, the development, dubbed Langston Commons because of its proximity to Langston Hughes elementary, will be the next site for a Lawrence grocery store and all the typical surrounding development that comes with it.

RSR Inc., a group led by Lawrence builder Bob Santee and businessmen Tom and Doug Raney, have two concept plans for the nearly 17-acre commercial area. One calls for a 60,000-square-foot grocery store, plus five other smaller commercial buildings. The second concept calls for a 30,000-square-foot retail building, plus seven other buildings ranging in size from about 15,000 square feet to a couple thousand square feet.

Tim Herndon, a Lawrence-based urban planner who is consulting on the development, thinks either scenario could land a grocery store — either a full size one or a smaller specialty store.

“We would love to see something like the next Merc, or Whole Foods or Hen House or some other specialty neighborhood-scale grocer,” Herndon said.

The group doesn’t have deals signed for any tenants, but members are optimistic that interest will be high once the necessary zoning and development plans are approved. That’s because the interchange is set to become perhaps the major western gateway into Lawrence because it will provide a straight shot down Bob Billings Parkway into the Kansas University campus.

“This is going to be the way to get to KU that doesn’t involve worming your way down Sixth Street or 23rd Street,” Herndon said.

Estimates call for traffic volumes in the area to approximately triple once the interchange is open. Herndon said the group hopes to have the commercial development ready to go once the interchange begins serving traffic, which is expected to be by spring of 2016 at the latest.

As for other types of commercial development possible at the site, Herndon said a convenience store is very likely. There also will be spaces for sit-down restaurants. He mentioned the long-talked about duo of Red Lobster and Olive Garden being a good fit. He also said there will be one or two locations for fast food, Starbucks or other similar businesses. In addition, there will be space for traditional neighborhood services such as banks, dry cleaners and the like.

The concept plan also calls for about a one-acre pond-and-water feature. Herndon said that will open up the possibility for a water-side restaurant.

The commercial development, however, is just one part of Langston Commons. The residential development is significant. Plans call for a mix of about 75 single-family, duplex and multi-family living units. The zoning requests indicate about 60 percent of the residential development will be devoted to single-family and duplex units.

The new residential development will be just south of the recently-approved Langston Heights residential development, which is being developed by the same group. That project has a mix of about 140 single-family, duplex and row homes.

Most of the land for the new Langston Commons project will be bought from Alvamar Inc., which has bought and held the land for more than a decade. But about two acres of the property will need to come from the Lawrence school district, which has quite a bit of unused property surrounding the Langston Hughes elementary school. Herndon said the school property is needed to complete a road connection.

For those of you still trying to get your bearings, the entire project can best be described as being north of Bob Billings Parkway, west of Langston Hughes, and it will abut the South Lawrence Trafficway. From the maps, it appears there still will be a fairly significant stretch of open space between the elementary school and the development.

The project will require zoning, platting and site plan approvals from City Hall, but the area has been designated for commercial and residential development in recent long-range plans approved by the city.

It will be interesting to watch how the rest of the area develops. The school district, I believe, still has significant amounts of property around Langston Hughes that would draw heavy interest from developers, if the district decides to entertain such offers.

But things really will get interesting when developers start filing plans for property on the west side of the SLT. The area just west of the planned interchange is an expansive, flat stretch of land that could accommodate a thousand or more homes in future years.

Herndon, who for years was one of the top officials at Lawrence’s Landplan Engineering, said he doesn’t know when the city will be ready to make that jump, but when it happens, it will be a major moment.

“West of the SLT is a pending explosion of development activity,” Herndon said. “That will represent the next major growth center in Lawrence for upcoming decades.”

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