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An update on Menards and other retail and restaurant rumblings

I have just come to expect that it will happen on every home improvement project: last-minute changes dictated by a higher power. You know, a potpourri station here, a chocolate fountain there, a 30-by-40 walk-in shoe vault around the corner. Those sorts of things. But I didn't know that the people who build home improvement stores have to deal with such last-minute tweaks as well.

But that's what is going on currently with plans for a Menards home improvement store near 31st and Iowa streets. (Put your marshmallows away. I didn't mean Menards is adding a chocolate fountain.) But designers are still making some changes to the project, which is one of the reasons construction hasn't yet started on the site that is just east of Home Depot.

Bottomline: There's still not a firm date for when the project will start construction.

At the moment, it appears most of the major changes are coming from Menards officials, not from city planners who are reviewing the site plan for the store. The biggest change is the store's outdoor storage yard is being reduced by more than half. That seems significant because, unlike Home Depot, Menards uses a covered, outdoor storage area to house most of its lumber and other building materials. Menards is proposing to reduce the size of the storage yard to 40,000 square feet, down from the original plan of 90,000 square feet.

I know that is going to create worry among some that Lawrence is going to get a smaller-than-average Menards store. There are people who feel like the Home Depot store is undersized compared with what's available in Topeka and Kansas City, and they don't want that to happen with Menards. It is worth noting that the size of the actual building hasn't changed, only the size of the storage yard.

I'm hoping to get someone from Menards to talk to me about what the change in size means for the store's future offerings. It is possible, though, that it may not be that big of a deal. Menards is moving its outdoor storage yard from the east side of its building to the west side of the building. That changes the traffic flow significantly and the amount of pavement needed to accommodate the traffic. People who have looked at the plans more closely than I have said it appears that the actual amount of area to store goods is about the same as originally proposed, but the amount of pavement to accommodate vehicles has shrunk considerably.

What's more interesting is what Menards is proposing to do with that saved space. As we hinted in November, Menards is trying to increase the size of one of its six outlying retail lots that will surround the home improvement center. The latest plans call for the retail lot immediately east of the Menards store to grow to 5 acres, up from about 1 acre. Obviously, that would allow for a significantly larger retailer to locate on the site.

What would be interesting to know is if Menards has somebody on the hook for the site, or if it is just speculating that this will make it more attractive to users in the future. Under the new configuration, two of the six proposed lots are pretty decent size. In addition to the one just east of the Menards store, there is an 8-acre lot right along 31st Street. It is commonly known as the Snodgrass tract, which was the single-family home that was just east of the Gaslight Mobile Home Village. It appears it can accommodate a decent size store. It has been a little tough to determine how big of a retailer could locate on either lot because there are some floodplain areas that make portions of the property tough to build on. But I've had some people in the business tell me that a 20,000 to 30,000 square-foot building may be possible on the site.

There are a host of major national retailers that occupy 20,000 to 30,000 square-foot buildings. But I haven't heard much talk of who may be interested in locating at the Menards project. As far as major retail speculation goes, the most recent retail rumbling I've heard is that PetSmart may have an interest in a Lawrence location. I certainly don't have anything confirmed on that, but it is worth noting that PetSmart and Dick's Sporting Goods have located next to each other in quite a few developments around the country. Dick's, of course, is under construction in the former Sears building at 27th and Iowa. The building has space for two more retail tenants, plus an outlying restaurant lot. As we reported in December, Chick-fil-A has made some inquiries about that site, but no deal has been struck yet.

In other news and notes from around town:

• If you have taken on the awesome task of keeping up with the city's Mexican food restaurant scene, get out your scorecards. There are changes on two fronts. The El Mezcal at 804 Iowa St. is gone, and a Mexican restaurant called Pueblo has replaced it. Pueblo is owned by a longtime employee of El Mezcal, which has operated Mexican restaurants throughout the area. Felipe Avila had worked in various jobs for El Mezcal for about 15 years, and jumped at the chance to buy the 804 location when El Mezcal decided to sell recently. The menu at the location is very similar to what El Mezcal offered, but Avila said he plans to put his own touches on the business as well.

"Lawrence does love Mexican food," Avila told me. "There are probably too many places in town, but I really like this location, and we will offer good food and good service."

West Lawrence also is getting in on the act of new Mexican restaurants. A sign is up for El Sol in the shopping center at Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive. If you remember, an El Mezcal used to operate in that shopping center, but it closed several months ago. I've reached out to the folks at El Sol and will report back when I hear more. There is an El Sol Mexican restaurant in Ottawa, although I'm not certain the two are connected.

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    Hostel and banquet hall proposed for site near North Lawrence; updates on Menards and other commercial real estate sales

    A little bit of Europe may be coming to rural Lawrence. My wife is rooting for a Cadillac-sized chunk of Swiss chocolate. I'm rooting for a meet and greet with the women's Swiss ski team. (Big fan of skiing.) But some of you are rooting for the European idea of a hostel. You are the apparent winners.

    Your prize is that you may be able to sleep in a small bunkhouse with people you don't know, but do so for a very low price. That's what a hostel basically is, for those of you who aren't as steeped in European culture as I am.

    Plans have been filed for a new banquet facility and hostel to be located near the Lawrence Municipal Airport in North Lawrence. Work already has begun to remodel portions of the old farmhouse that used to house University Photography at 1804 E. 1500 Road, which is along U.S. Highway 24-40 and caddy-corner from the Airport Motel.

    Lawrence resident Shane Powers is the man behind the project. He said his first priority for the business, which will be called The Fete, will be to get established as a banquet and reception facility. But the conditional use permit that he has filed for from the county also would give the property the ability to function as a hostel, and he said he hopes work can begin on that part of the project in about a year.

    "I don't think Americans, in general, are really used to the hostel concept yet," Powers said. "But I know a lot of people who travel around Europe or really the rest of the world, and it is common for people to open up their homes to travelers or at least rent a room out."

    Powers said his plan is to remodel a second-story portion of the property for use as a hostel. Plans call for a bunkhouse room that could house up to five people, plus a separate room that would house a queen-sized bed that could be rented by a couple.

    Not all the details have been worked out on the pricing for the hostel, but Powers said it likely would be in the $15 per person range.

    "We're not trying to make it like a bed and breakfast," Powers said. "The idea is to provide some cheap lodging."

    Powers — whom I've written about before when he was running a pedicab business in downtown Lawrence — thinks the location will work well. The property is just off of the Kansas Turnpike, and Powers hopes the location becomes popular with some of the touring musicians and such who travel through Lawrence and may be looking for a cheap place to stay.

    Powers thinks the location also will serve the banquet and reception business well. The property is technically outside the city limits, and Powers and his girlfriend plan to raise chickens at the site and have some other agricultural elements on the property. Powers thinks the location will fill a bit of a niche for people who want to have a country setting for a wedding reception, but don't want to travel far outside the city.

    The business also will focus on smaller receptions and events. The facility will have space for about 85 people indoors, plus will offer an outdoor reception area.

    "We would love to have it where people could have a wedding on the lawn and then retreat indoors for a reception," Powers said.

    The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will consider the project's conditional use permit later this month. The Douglas County Commission ultimately will be responsible for granting final approval to the project.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • Perhaps you have seen the sign already, but it looks like a former funeral home is going to become the site for an expanded veterinarian clinic. Gentle Care Animal Hospital has plans to move from its longtime location in the Westridge Shopping Center at 601 Kasold Drive into the former Lawrence Funeral Chapel space at the corner of Sixth and Monterrey Way. I had seen recently in the land transfers where a group led by veterinarian Marguerite Ermeling had purchased the building. A group involving Ermerling and longtime businessman George Paley also have bought the vacant lot between the funeral chapel building and the old Stone Canyon restaurant buidling as well. When I talked with Paley about the purchase, he said there were no immediate plans for development of that lot.

    • While we're talking about land transfers, here are some other commercial real estate transactions that have accumulated recently, according to the listings from the Douglas County Register of Deeds.

    — For those of you nervous that the proposed Menards home improvement store really isn't going to happen, rest easy. Menard Inc. recently finalized the purchase of the old Gaslight Mobile Home Village and also of the Snodgrass property just to the east of the mobile home park. As we've previously reported, the project won its major zoning approvals from City Hall. Now it officially owns the real estate too, so I would think we'll start seeing work at that site sooner rather than later.

    — It looks like folks connected with the Runza fast food restaurant have bought the restaurant's site at 2700 Iowa St. Land transfers show a Lincoln, Neb.-based land holding company — Lawrence Properties LLC — bought the site from a Lawrence-based company led by local businessman Doug Compton. Lawrence Properties LLC is run by a member of the founding family of Runza, according to documents on file with the Kansas Secretary of State's Office.

    — There is a good chance that Luminous Neon, the sign company in the 600 block of Vermont Street — may be moving out of downtown and onto 23rd Street. The commercial building at 801 E. 23rd St. — it used to house the G-Force gymnastics academy — has sold. A Hutchinson company, 801-23rd, LLC, has bought the property. Ron Sellers, the president of Luminous Neon, which is based in Hutchinson, confirmed to me recently that he had an option to buy the property. He said Luminous Neon has been looking for better configured space in Lawrence. No word on what may go into Luminous Neon's downtown space. I'll do some more checking and report back.

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    Store that specializes in e-cigarettes opens on 23rd Street; update on Menards project

    I'm not a smoker, and as my struggles to operate my VCR remote demonstrate, I'm not always a whiz with electronic gizmos either. So, although I have heard of electronic cigarettes, I figured they weren't for me.

    Jack Tran, owner of a new Lawrence store that specializes in selling e-cigarettes, agrees. But he is betting that the store will be just the ticket for thousands of smokers in the area.

    "I'm not recommending this to people who don't smoke already," said Tran. "But I think it will be great for people who do smoke and are looking for a healthier alternative."

    Tran earlier this month opened up Juice-E-Vapes, a store that sells only e-cigarettes and e-cigarette supplies, at 1216 E. 23rd St. For those of you trying to picture the location, it is in the building that houses the Avis car rental company.

    Perhaps you are like me — a perpetually confused parent — who thinks Juice-E-Vapes sounds like a $2 juice box that my kids will insist on having in their lunch sacks. (That's right, no high tech lunch boxes for my kids.) But Tran explains that Vapes is short for vaping, which is the term that has become associated with the act of "smoking" an e-cigarette. As for the Juice, well, the e-cigarettes are filled with a juice-like liquid that creates a vapor when heated by a battery-powered element.

    The store stocks more than 100 different flavors of the juices. Some simulate tobacco flavors, while others mimic the taste of fruit juices, snacks, candies, or your favorite drinks. The juices can be purchased with or without nicotine. People trying to quit smoking can gradually reduce the nicotine mixture.

    "What really made me decide to start this store is that I used to smoke cigarettes," Tran said. "About two years ago, I quit cigarettes because I started vaping instead. It helped me a lot in quitting."

    Plus, it appears to be a growing business. I found an interesting article written deep in the heart of tobacco country by The Charlotte Observer. It reports that e-cigarette sales are expected to hit the $1 billion mark in 2013, up from $500 million in 2012.

    Offshoots of the big tobacco companies such as R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris are in the process of releasing their own e-cigarettes. Their rapid rise in popularity has created questions about whether scientists understand enough about the health effects of the e-cigarettes and how the product fits in with a host of smoking bans that have been adopted across the country.

    The Observer describes the liquid that is heated by the e-cigarette as a mixture of propylene glycol (a common chemical used in many food products), vegetable glycerin, flavorings and nicotine. The article notes that little research has been done on the health effects of inhaling a nicotine-laced vapor.

    But anti-tobacco advocates have been hesitant to deride the e-cigarettes because it does appear that a water vapor-based product would create fewer health effects than the traditional tobacco-based cigarettes.

    As for how the products fit in with local smoking bans, it appears the bans don't restrict the use of e-cigarettes. The Kansas Attorney General issued an opinion in 2011 that said the use of e-cigarettes was allowed under the statewide smoking ban because the product doesn't involve tobacco or the use of a flame. Lawrence has its own smoking ban, but it is similar to the state ban and Tran says the Lawrence ban allows e-cigarettes too. (I've got an e-mail into the city attorney to confirm that. UPDATE: I heard back from the city attorney's office, and indeed, e-cigarettes are not subject to the city's smoking ban. )

    Kansas law does prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to people under 18-years old, which Tran said he completely agrees with.

    E-cigarettes have been in the Lawrence market for awhile now, but Tran said many times the product is sold alongside traditional cigarettes. Tran said he wanted to open a store that sold only the e-cigarettes because he believes smokers become too tempted when they enter a tobacco store.

    "My goal is to help people quit smoking," Tran said. "I'm against tobacco 100 percent. It really is killing people."

    The store is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

    In other news and notes from around town:

    • When I'm smoking, it usually is the result of me touching a wrong wire as part of a home improvement project. And when it comes to home improvement projects, everybody seemingly wants to know the latest on Menards' plans to build a store in Lawrence.

    In short, the project is still moving along, but is likely still a few months from pulling a building permit. Menards has filed its site plan application to build the previously-approved store on the site of the former Gaslight Mobile Home Park, just east of the Home Depot at 31st and Iowa streets.

    As we've previously reported, the store has won its necessary zoning approvals from the Lawrence City Commission. Now the project is going through the administrative review that takes place at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department.

    From what I have heard, Menards officials are looking at tweaking some parts of the plan related to how traffic accesses the site. Now that Mendards has reached a deal to acquire the Snodgrass property immediately east of the mobile home park, the site has two main roads to serve the property — Ousdahl to the west and a new street on the eastern edge that will be named Michigan. The purchase of the Snodgrass property will allow for the construction of Michigan Street north of 31st Street.

    The Planning Department has to review all those access issues before it can approve a site plan. I've also been told Menards officials are considering rearranging some of the other retail lots that are part of the project. The preliminary plans call for six other retail stores or restaurants to locate around the Menards store. There has been talk that Menards may seek to rearrange how the lot lines are drawn to convert an approximately one-acre pad site into about a five-acre pad site, which would allow the project to accommodate a secondary anchor tenant. No word yet on whether Menards is in discussion with possible tenants.

    The bottom line is that the project must still get a preliminary plat, a final plat and a site plan approved before it can pull a building permit to start construction on the approximately 175,000-square-foot store. All those approvals are largely technical in nature and are not the types that typically derail a project. But they still may take a couple of months to get through the approval process, folks at City Hall tell me.

    I talked to Menards' project manager for the location when he was in town last week, and he said that once a building permit is issued, it likely will take nine to 10 months to build the store.

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  • Reply 16 comments from Merrill Jack Tran Chad Lawhorn Roland Gunslinger Terrylee Dwardf Joshua Montgomery Bhall87 Krichards Kevin Kohls and 1 others

    Menards files plans to add another 8 acres to development near 31st and Iowa

    The same "architect" who "designs" my home "improvement" projects must be in charge of the new Menards project near 31st and Iowa streets. The project is growing before it even gets started.

    But unlike the addition of a knitting cabinet in my game room, this addition was expected.

    Menards officials have a filed a new annexation and rezoning request at City Hall to add 8.4 acres to their development, which is just east of the Home Depot on 31st Street. The land is part of what is known as the Snodgrass property, but perhaps you recognize it as that ranch-style house that sits next to a nice pond just east of where the Gaslight Mobile Home Village used to be. (Or, if you are some sort of postal freak, maybe we'll just call it 1352 N. 1300 Road.)

    Menards has a contract to purchase the westernmost portion of the property, and it plans to create another commercial lot to supplement its Menards store. The pending land purchase won't change the size of the planned store. It still is designed to check in at about 175,000 square feet.

    But the purchase will mean that there will now be room for six additional retailers, restaurants or other similar users on the property surrounding the Menards store. The new purchase will allow for a fairly large store to locate on the site. According to a traffic study submitted to City Hall, the lot can accommodate about a 60,000-square-foot store. For comparison purposes, the Hobby Lobby store on 23rd Street is about 50,000 square feet, according to county records.

    If you want to compare to some stores that aren't currently in Lawrence, places like Burlington Coat Factory, Toys 'R Us and several major theater chains often open in buildings around the 60,000-square-foot size, according to the industry publications I read. (Since my wife nearly bent her knitting needles due to excitement, perhaps I should clarify: Those names are just for comparision purposes. There's nothing to indicate any of those are coming to Lawrence.)

    In fact, Menards said in its application that it expects the lot to sit vacant for awhile. Menards has said it does not plan to build any buildings on speculation - which means building then hoping to find a tenant. Instead, it will wait for a solid deal — or in this case, deals — to emerge.

    Menards will have space to offer to several retailers. In total, the development will have space for 296,966 square feet of retail and commercial development. Menard's takes up about 175,000 square feet of that and the Snodgrass property will accommodate another 60,000. That means the remaining five lots likely will house stores or restaurants in the 5,000- to 15,000-square-foot range. There are a lot of players that can fit into that space.

    The Snodgrass deal still has to win the necessary land use approvals from City Hall, but planners have been expecting this application. When city commissioners approved the Menards deal in June, store officials said they were looking at the Snodgrass property then. Menards successfully lobbied the commission to change the city's area plan for the 31st Street corridor to show this portion of the Snodgrass property as being slated for commercial development in the future. The annexation and rezoning appear to have a clear path to approval at City Hall, but the weather has been known to change rapidly at the corner of Sixth and Massachusetts. So, we'll see.

    Regardless, the property is bound to change. After construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway, the property will be at a new intersection, the corner of Michigan and 31st streets. Michigan Street will be the name of the new street that will be built about a 1,000 to 1,500 feet east of 31st and Ousdahl. Michigan Street basically will replace the portion of Louisiana Street that is south of 31st Street. That portion of Louisiana will be removed as part of the SLT construction. Menards plans to build Michigan Street a few hundred feet north of 31st Street to serve as an additional access point to its development.

    In a few months, the world will look quite a bit different along 31st Street. Heaven help me if the new look includes a knitting store.

    Reply 19 comments from Chootspa Merrill Liberty275 Minimadoff Tolawdjk Jack22 Average Perses Tomatogrower Notwhatyouthink and 10 others

    As planners debate Menards project, new study finds retail vacancy rate at 7.2 percent citywide

    Let the number games begin. As we’ve previously reported, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is set to debate a proposal by Menards to locate a new store adjacent to Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.

    As we’ve also reported, one of the factors that planners are supposed to take into consideration when considering such large retail projects is the city’s retail vacancy rate.

    But at the time Menards filed its plans with City Hall, the last time the city had conducted a retail vacancy rate study was in 2010.

    Well, there are now new numbers. The city recently has completed its most recent Retail Market Report, which looks at vacancy rates as they were in December 2012. Here’s a look at some of the findings:

    • Citywide, the retail vacancy rate was 7.2 percent, down from the 7.3 percent found in the city’s 2010 report and up from the 6.9 percent found in the 2006 report. In other words, there hasn’t been much change in the overall number.

    • Downtown had a vacancy rate of 9.4 percent, up from 9.1 percent in 2010; South Iowa had a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, up from 2.7 percent; East 23rd had a vacancy rate of 10.4 percent, down from 13.6 percent; West 23rd Street had a vacancy rate of 6.1 percent, down from 6.7 percent.

    • The 19th and Haskell area had the highest vacancy rate in the city at 30.2 percent. North Lawrence was second at 16.4 percent, although the numbers indicate a turnaround is happening in the area. In 2010, it had a vacancy rate of 27.5 percent.

    • Turnarounds happened in a couple of other areas too. The Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa area has a vacancy rate of 7.8 percent, down from 26.4 percent in 2010.

    • The report also provides information about the type of retail uses in downtown. The report found 116 merchant-based retail businesses in downtown, which is down from 126 in 2006. Restaurant and beverage oriented uses grew to 83, up from 68 establishments, during the same time period.

    The report is an interesting one for people who watch Lawrence’s commercial real estate market. Perhaps the most interesting part about it, though, is how different it is from a private report that was put together during roughly the same time period.

    The Lawrence office of Colliers International released a report in January that measured vacancy rates for late 2012. It found an overall retail vacancy rate of 5.4 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in the city’s report.

    In downtown, Colliers found a vacancy rate of 4.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent in the city report.

    The differences, I believe, come down to the methodology of the two reports. I don’t know all the differences but I think a lot of it comes from how the two studies define retail space. For example, the city study counts some industrially zoned space as potential retail space because the city’s development code would allow for retail to be located in the space. Also, there are places like the former Riverfront Mall building. Whether that space is counted as retail space, which is what it was built for, or office space, which is how it is pretty much being marketed now, makes a difference in the vacancy rate calculations.

    Vacancy rates: They’re like my kids saying they’ve “cleaned” their rooms. It is a subject where interpretations and definitions matter.

    As far as the Menards project goes, we’ll see how much weight planners, and ultimately city commissioners, give to the vacancy rate subject.

    The city’s comprehensive plan, Horizon 2020, says large retail projects shouldn’t be approved, if there is evidence the project will push the city’s overall retail vacancy rate above 8 percent.

    If the 190,000 square foot Menards store and the 65,000 square feet of outlying parcels — restaurants and other smaller retailers surrounding the store — were built and then were entirely vacant, the city’s vacancy rate would rise to 9.7 percent. It would be odd, however, for Menards to build a store and then not occupy it, but technically that is the assumption city planners are supposed to make under the rules of Horizon 2020.

    Several planning commissioners the last time they considered this issue, however, indicated concern with making that type of assumption. The city also is in the process of rewriting that portion of Horizon 2020, but those changes haven’t yet been made. So, it is possible that planners may discard the idea that they should assume the new Menards building will be vacant after it is built.

    Staff members put together another calculation that shows what would happen if the Menards building is occupied but all of the 65,000 square feet of surrounding retail is vacant. The result would be the citywide vacancy rate would rise to 7.7 percent, which is still below the 8 percent threshold that Horizon 2020 says is critical.

    So, we’ll see what comes of all this. I’m not sure how much this retail market study is going to play into the Menards decision, but this report likely will play into future debates about whether Lawrence has too much or too little retail space for a community its size.

    The Menards discussion will take place at 6:30 tonight at City Hall.

    Reply 22 comments from Oneeye_wilbur Number_1_grandma Eugunieum Krichards Merrill George_braziller Oletimer Logicman Just_another_bozo_on_this_bus Shane Garrett and 6 others

    Planning Commission to debate Menards project Monday amid signs momentum may be turning

    Strap on your tool belt, it is time to talk again about Menards’ proposal to build a big box store just east of Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.

    The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will debate the project again at its Monday evening meeting. The Planning Commission debated it last month and failed to reach consensus on whether the plan should be recommended for approval by the City Commission. I know that left some of you feeling like I feel after completing an electrical-oriented home improvement project — a bit dazed. (My wife promised me she had turned off the circuit breaker. She never said she wouldn’t turn it back on, though.)

    If you remember, the Menards project hit a snag, even though there was no groundswell of opposition from neighbors in the area. Instead, it was the city’s planning staff that expressed concern about changing a portion of the city’s comprehensive plan, known as Horizon 2020, to accommodate the project.

    There have been some new developments on that front. The city’s planning staff hasn’t officially changed its recommendation for denial, but it has created a new staff report that provides a clear set of reasons Planning Commissioners can use to approve the project, if they so choose.

    That may prove to be important. For what it is worth, I felt like the Planning Commission last month was interested in recommending the project for approval, but was reluctant to do so because they hold the planning staff’s professional opinion in high regard.

    The new memo from the planning staff, however, makes it clear that there is a reasonable argument to be made for why Horizon 2020 could be changed to accommodate the project. The main point of contention here is that Horizon 2020 calls for the proposed Menards site, the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village, to be used for apartment development in the future. A map in Horizon 2020 needs to be changed to show the property is slated for commercial development.

    The memo lists the following reasons why a change could be prudent:

    • It is now clear the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway will be completed, which will alleviate the need for traffic to travel through neighborhoods to reach the new commercial area.

    • Public testimony from neighbors has indicated that there is a significant number of residents who may prefer retail development at the site rather than a large apartment complex.

    • Even though the city has other retail zoned areas in the city, sites that can accommodate big-box development remain limited.

    Planning staff members also are pointing out that it is unlikely that commercial development would extend all the way down the north side of 31st Street to Louisiana Street, if Menards is approved. Staff members confirmed the city is close to finalizing a deal to purchase the nearly six acres of property near the northwest corner of 31st and Louisiana streets. The city needs the property for a new utility pump station. City ownership means the corner wouldn’t ever develop as a retail site.

    So we’ll see what planning commissioners do on Monday. That meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

    But remember, planning commissioners only recommend things. It will be up to the City Commission to make a final decision on the project. It still is too early to tell how city commissioners may vote on this project, but there are indications Menards has a fighting chance.

    When I was speaking recently with City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer about economic matters, he brought up the need for the city to really update its comprehensive plan. He pointed to the Menards project as an example. Farmer said much of the underlying work to create the city’s comprehensive plan was done more than 20 years ago, and it probably is time to recognize that several factors in the city have changed since then.

    “Menards is a great example of that,” Farmer says. “Our comprehensive plan says no, and the community seems to be saying it doesn’t want more housing there.

    “I look at that and say ‘gosh, a Menards would be great in bringing some commercial taxes to a community that is going to have shrinking property tax revenues.'”

    So, while Farmer stopped short of saying he would vote for the specific proposal Menards currently has brought forward, it sounds like he’ll have an open mind.

    Privately, I have heard one other commissioners indicate he is going to give strong consideration to approving the project as well. It will be interesting to watch. Probably the biggest factor will be whether residents in the Indian Hills Neighborhood continue to either support the project or at least not vigorously oppose it. A large number of neighbors opposing the project could change things.

    At the moment though, it is safe to assume the Menards project won’t be dead on arrival when it comes to the City Commission. Which, that reminds me: I still have to rewire the kitchen light. Oh, boy.

    Reply 35 comments from Workinghard Irony401 Calitony Optimist Flloyd Chootspa Bike Logicman True_patriot Deec and 15 others

    Menard’s project highlights city rule on vacant space; a look at how Lawrence ranks in state retail report

    Build it, and it will be empty. That's the motto of Lawrence, at least in one way.

    City planners will be reminded of that tonight. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will consider a proposal by Menard's, the large home improvement chain, to build a 190,000-square-foot store just east of 31st and Iowa streets. As we previously reported, the city's planning staff is recommending denial of the proposal.

    But you may not be aware of one of the reasons the project has received a negative recommendation: When large retail projects are proposed in the city, planners are required to look at a retail market analysis to determine what the city's retail vacancy rate will be after the project is built. The way the rules are written, the vacancy rate is to be calculated by assuming the new project will be 100 percent vacant.

    So when city officials do the calculations for this project, they put aside the fact that Menard's has no plans to build a 190,000-square-foot building and then leave it empty. Instead, the city adds the 190,000 square feet of the new store onto the city's estimated amount of vacant square footage, which stood at 643,000 square feet the last time it was calculated, in 2010.

    When the city planners add on the 190,000 square feet, that pushes the city's supposed vacancy rate to 8.4 percent from 7 percent — which is just above the 8 percent total that is supposed to be a red flag when it comes to vacancy rates. According to a planning staff report, if you add in the approximately 65,000 square feet of smaller retail space proposed to be built along the outer edges of the Menard's project, the vacancy rate would jump to 9.6 percent.

    But the city's planning rules also suggest planners go a step further. The city staff looked at all the retail zoning that currently is in place in the city, but doesn't yet have any buildings on it. That totals about 932,000 additional square feet. The city then makes the assumption that all of that will be built, and then be completely empty. That produces a frightening vacancy rate of 17.8 percent.

    Planners, of course, don't think people are going to build large retail buildings without first having a tenant to occupy them. The city's planners understand the city's building market better than most because they are on the front lines of development proposals. But already I have heard people complaining about the city's Planning Department and why it would make this type of assumption. Well, city planners get the thankless job of being a referee in the city's politically charged development arena.

    In other words, the job of a planner is to apply the rules to the project — not to rewrite the rules. Rewriting the rules is the job of city commissioners, and the rule that requires the city to assume large new retail buildings are going to be vacant has been on the city's books for at least the past decade.

    Its days may be numbered, though. Scott McCullough, the city's planning director, told me the process has begun to change the rule. But it won't reach the City Commission in time to be considered for the Menard's proposal.

    The rule change probably will get some opposition as well. There is certainly a group of local citizens that is very convinced the city's retail scene is overbuilt. They argue that even though a new Menard's building won't be empty, the addition of that much retail space in the city will cause an approximate amount of retail square footage elsewhere in the community to go vacant. That theory is how the rule got put in place to begin with.

    In other words, the way the city's rules are written right now, retail is assumed to be a zero-sum game. For every one square foot of new retail space that comes into town, you must assume one square foot elsewhere will become vacant. Maybe that is the case in some economic climates. But maybe it isn't the case in other economic conditions.

    What's certain is that retail zoning requests are a judgment call. The first round of judging will begin tonight at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, when the Planning Commission meets. Ultimately, city commissioners will make the final decision on the Menard's request.

    • One other piece of information that was included in the city staff's report was a mention of a state report that ranks how Lawrence's retail scene is doing compared to other Kansas cities. It is called a “pull factor” report, and it is basically a look at how Lawrence's per capita sales tax collections compared to the statewide average. It is called a pull factor because it is assumed that cities with averages much higher than the state are “pulling” customers from other communities to shop.

    It is a perfect statistic for retail developers because it can be manipulated to fit the situation. When the pull factor is low, it can be argued that more retail development is needed in order to stop the amount of Lawrence residents who go outside of the city to shop. When the number is high, it can be presented as evidence that retail demand is high and the market can support additional retail development.

    But the numbers are interesting because they do a good job of showing how Lawrence's per capita spending stacks up against other cities. The most recent report, which is for the state's 2012 fiscal year, shows Lawrence's numbers have rebounded. The city's pull factor was 1.07, which means it is 7 percent higher than the statewide average. As recently as 2000, the city's pull factor was .99. Going back farther, the city hit a high-water mark of 1.13 in 2000. So, we're somewhere in the middle of the range but trending upward.

    Here's a look at how other large towns in the state fared. I'll leave the analysis up to you: Lenexa: 1.52 Overland Park: 1.51 Salina: 1.47 Garden City: 1.47 Manhattan: 1.40 Leawood: 1.40 Topeka: 1.37 Hutchinson: 1.27 Liberal: 1.23 Dodge City: 1.22 Olathe: 1.18 Pittsburg: 1.13 Junction City: 1.12 Wichita: 1.11 Fort Scott: 1.09 Coffeyville: 1.08 Emporia: 1.08 Lawrence: 1.07 Parsons: 1.05 Shawnee: .93 Atchison: .89 Kansas City: .86 Newton: .87 Leavenworth; .73 Prairie Village: .64

    Reply 45 comments from Ljreader Liberty275 Princessblea Workinghard Tammy Copp-Barta Oneeye_wilbur Logicman David Klamet Cheeseburger Streetman and 16 others

    Menards files plans for Lawrence store next to Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets

    A home improvement center battle in Lawrence is about to begin.

    Menards has filed plans at Lawrence City Hall to build a large home improvement center right next to Home Depot near 31st and Iowa streets.

    The company — as was previously speculated — wants to locate in the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village.

    The retailer has opened new stores in Topeka and Manhattan in recent months. Menards officials said in their application that significant numbers of Lawrence residents have been driving to the Topeka Menards. The retailer sells home improvement items — much like Home Depot or Lowes — but it also has a broader offerings that include home goods and other items.

    The plans call for the 41.5 acres to be rezoned from an apartment/multi-family zoning designation to a Planned Commercial Development designation.

    Documents included in the submittal indicate Menards is looking to build a 162,340 square foot store, although it isn’t clear whether that number is the size of the building or also includes outdoor storage yards and such.

    Either way, it appears the store would be significantly larger than the Home Depot store, which is just west of the proposed site.

    The proposal will create a major retail question at City Hall. The city’s long-range planning documents don’t call for the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village to become a retail development. The plans call for it to become an apartment development. (You may remember a Texas-based company proposed a large student apartment complex for the site last year, but then pulled out when it determined the Lawrence market couldn’t support it.) City commissioners will have to decide how much they want to stick to their previous statements that indicated the next area for big box store development should be the intersection of Sixth Street and the SLT, which not coincidentally is where the city and KU are working to build the new Rock Chalk Park sports village.

    But Menards officials, in a letter to the city, made it clear they have no interest in that site.

    “This site (Sixth and SLT) is very removed from the city’s rooftops and is surrounded by vacant ground on three sides for many miles,” Menards real estate representative Tyler Edwards wrote. “Additionally this site is not visible from the existing retail on Sixth Street due to a large hill. The amount of commercially oriented traffic that would pass by the store on Sixth Street or K-10 would be close to none and not enough to make a successful store.”

    The area around the Sixth and SLT site is obviously developing with the Rock Chalk Park project and just last night the city approved the preliminary development plan for The Links, a 630 unit apartment complex that will surround a private nine-hole golf course.

    But none of that has been enough to convince Menards that the area will be viable for their store in the near future.

    In the past — when Home Depot and Best Buy were built at the 31st and Iowa intersection more than a decade ago — neighbors expressed concern that retail shouldn’t stretch east down 31st Street because of traffic and other issues that could impact nearby neighborhoods.

    But with the South Lawrence Trafficway scheduled to start construction later this year, 31st Street will undergo major changes. An entirely new high-capacity street, dubbed 32nd Street, will be built through the nearby Baker Wetlands and connect with the existing 31st Street just east of the proposed Menards site.

    This project may be the first one that causes people in the community to realize how much the completion of the SLT and the new U.S. Highway 59 is going to change south Lawrence. In addition to the Menards, the development plan also has room for another 65,000 square feet of retail space spread out over six lots on the site. But documents in the plan indicated those would be part of a Phase II that likely would not begin until a few years after Menards opens.

    Menards confirmed it looked at creating a new retail site south of the SLT — basically between the SLT’s Iowa Street bridge and the Wakarusa River — but determined the cost of dealing with the floodplain on the site was prohibitive. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see other retailers look strongly at that site in the future.

    In the meantime, expect a lot of discussion about Menards at City Hall. The earliest the development proposal could make it to the Planning Commission is in late April, meaning it will be the next City Commission that decides this issue.

    Reply 61 comments from Oletimer Starlight Merrill Liberty275 Number_1_grandma Patriot2 Littlefuzzy Jhawkinsf Katara Scaramouchepart2 and 22 others

    Rumblings of Menards coming to Lawrence may be impacted by retailer’s decision to pull back on Kansas City area expansion, which it blames on Obama

    There have been rumblings for awhile that Menards — the home improvement chain — may be giving Lawrence a serious look. Well, here’s a new rumbling that may displease Lawrence folks on a couple of levels.

    The Independence, Mo., Examiner is reporting that Menards has put its plans to build a new store in Independence on hold. Furthermore, it said its reason for delaying a store for reasons related to President Obama.

    “I’m very sorry, but we are a family-owned business and with the Obama administration scaring the dickens out of all small businesses in the USA at present, we have decided not to risk expansion until things are more settled,” Menards spokesman Jeff Abott told the newspaper in an e-mail on Friday.

    Yeah, you heard that right. A spokesman used the word “dickens.” (I wonder if Menards sells dickens, and if they are cheaper there than at Home Depot.)

    Regardless, the bigger news is that if Menards is delaying projects they already have announced, then the chances of an announcement happening in Lawrence in the near future seem less likely. Menards has offered no timetable to restart the project.

    As a side note, the company’s politicizing of the issue probably won’t go over well with a majority of their potential Lawrence customers, since the city is one of the few in Kansas to come out big to support the president’s re-election.

    On Tuesday, Kansas City television station KCTV 5 contacted the Wisconsin-based retailer for more comment, and the spokesman declined to repeat his assertion that the Obama administration played into the decision.

    Anyway, I’ll leave those politics to you. I’m busy enough trying to figure out where all these scared dickens have gone.

    Reply 138 comments from Happyrock Armstrong Catalano Liberty275 Roland Gunslinger Bballwizard Gotland Kansasliberal Tomatogrower Milton Bland and 56 others