Large pet supply chain files plans for store near Sixth and Wakarusa; Lawrence gasoline prices still the highest in the state
Somewhere in Lawrence, I picture a dimly lit, smoke-filled room full of canines. They’ve probably just gotten done playing pool or poker, and, of course, that big bulldog who chomps on his cigar is the leader. Let’s not kid ourselves, they run this town. How else do you explain that PetSmart — just months after opening a store on south Iowa Street — has now filed plans to build a new store in west Lawrence?
Whatever the reason, PetSmart indeed has filed plans to build a new 18,000 square-foot store near Sixth and Wakarusa. More specifically, the project will be in the Bauer Farm development on a vacant lot just west of the Sprouts grocery store. Plans at one point had called for a multitenant retail building there, but it looks like the developers have landed a bigger fish.
No word yet on when the store will open, but it obviously will be several months to perhaps a year in the making. The project does need to win approval from city planners. Thus far, though, it looks like a fairly routine approval process. The zoning is already in place, and the development group is taking steps to avoid a fight over the lingering question of how much retail should be allowed to develop at the northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa. City officials have placed a cap on the amount of retail that can be built at the northeast corner. Originally, the PetSmart proposal would put the development over the cap, but developers now are modifying their plan to remove some planned but unbuilt retail from a different part of the Bauer Farm development in order to keep the total under the cap.
The cigar-chomping bulldog cares nothing about that, though. (I know, you want to see a picture of the bulldog, so at the end of this article, I’ll allow you a peek inside my gallery.) The numbers must show Lawrence is a big pet town in order for PetSmart to propose a second store so soon after opening its first Lawrence store at 27th and Iowa streets, next to Dick's Sporting Goods.
In case you have forgotten, PetSmart is the largest chain retailer of pet supplies in the country. It operates about 1,500 stores. The stores carry food and supplies for dogs, cats, fish, reptiles and a variety of small pets. The Lawrence store also operates a grooming service, and a limited number of PetSmart locations also operate a kennel service, or what the company calls a PetsHotel. I can’t tell from the plans whether that service is planned for the new Lawrence location. I’ll reach out to the company, and if I get more information about the project and its timeline, I’ll let you know.
But enough with that: On with the art. This is one of my favorites. It is titled “That’s Not a Biscuit!”
In other news and notes from around town:
• Forget what the calendar officially says, it is summer. How do I know? Yes, the Gatorade stations in my home — in place of actually turning on the air conditioner — are one sign. But the surer sign is that readers have started to ask me to look into why fuel prices in Lawrence are higher than they are elsewhere.
That is the question that never goes away in Lawrence. Not to spoil the ending, but there is no definitive answer to that question. But I’m happy to share data with you. Here’s a look at the average fuel prices of major Kansas markets, as measured by AAA Kansas.
— Lawrence: $2.26; One year ago: $2.57
— Kansas City, Kan. $2.23; One year ago: $2.55
— Topeka: $2.09; One year ago: $2.43
— Wichita: $2.16; One year ago: $2.48
— Statewide average: $2.16; One year ago $2.50
As you can see, one thing hasn’t changed in the last year. Lawrence still has the highest average price of any major market in the state. What has changed is the gap between Lawrence and other markets is growing. Topeka is the leader in cheap gas in Kansas. Last year, prices were 14 cents per gallon higher in Lawrence than Topeka. Now, the average price is 17 cents higher in Lawrence. The gap between Lawrence and the statewide average also is up from 7 cents a year ago to 10 cents today.
The simplest answer to why this continually happens is supply and demand. Reporter Nikki Wentling last year did some digging at my request to look at why Lawrence’s market is different from Topeka’s. A big finding was the number of gas stations. Lawrence has about one gas station for every 3,000 residents. Topeka has about one gas station for every 2,000 residents. That’s a big difference, and leads you to believe that Topeka gas stations have to be more aggressive in pricing gasoline in order to attract customers.
Another factor that we haven’t gathered information on, but that may be more important, is the number of gasoline chains operating in a community. For example, the last time we checked, Lawrence had 33 gas stations, but a lot of them were all owned by the same corporation: Kwik Shop, which is owned by Dillons grocery stores. Kwik Shop surely has to be the largest seller of gasoline in Lawrence. Do other communities have a greater variety in retailers and thus have more natural competition? I would think they might.
You probably would see downward pressure on gas prices, if Lawrence had more QuikTrips, or if places like Wal-Mart started selling gasoline. If you remember, I noted a few months ago that both Wal-Marts in Lawrence made an inquiry with City Hall about whether their Lawrence stores had the proper zoning to sell gasoline. Thus far, I haven’t seen any plans filed for gasoline pumps to be installed at either Wal-Mart, but I’ll continue to check on that.
More details on proposed PetSmart on south Iowa Street; city gets incentives request for $75 million apartment project
It is going to be a different type of one-stop shopping at 27th and Iowa streets. All of us youth-league coaches will be able to load up on our sporting goods gear at the new Dick's and be able to walk next door to PetSmart to pick up the feed for our team's mascot. (We all do buy mascots, don't we? What do you guys feed your lions, by the way?)
We briefly reported on Friday that plans have been filed for PetSmart to go into a space next to the Dick's Sporting Goods store. Well, I've had a chance to review those plans a little more closely, and it appears PetSmart may be just the beginning of the new retail development at the corner.
The plans filed at City Hall also show space for two new retailers not originally envisioned as part of the redevelopment of the former Sears site. No word on who those retailers may be, but the fact that the site's Wichita-based development group is adding space surely is a sign that interest levels have been strong for the location.
PetSmart is taking about 15,000 square feet of space on the southern end of the approximately 85,000 square foot building that used to house Sears. But the plans also call for a small expansion on the southern end of the building. That would allow for another 5,000 square-foot retail space to be added to the addition. That retail space is new from the last time plans were filed at the site. In addition, the development still has about 9,000 square feet of retail space available on the north end of the building. Dick's Sporting Goods, which recently opened, is in the center portion of the building. See below for the latest rendering of what the building is expected to look like when fully developed.
The original plans for the site did include a restaurant building that would be located in the southeast corner of the parking lot, kind of near the Midas automotive repair shop. But now the new plans show that portion of the project has expanded. Not only will it include 4,000 square feet of space for a restaurant, but it also will include 4,000 square feet of space for a retailer.
So, if you are keeping track at home, the corner that once just used to house Sears now is slated to house five retailers and a restaurant. I'll keep my ears open for other possible tenants. For what it is worth, I've really only heard two rumors about this site in the past several months. One was PetSmart, which I first reported on in January. That rumor ended up being true, so perhaps there is some validity to the second one as well. Or maybe not.
Regardless, the second piece of speculation surrounding the site has been Chick-fil-A. As we reported in December, Chick-fil-A representatives filed paperwork at City Hall inquiring about the zoning status of the 27th and Iowa site. What Chick-fil-A asked for from City Hall was a zoning certification letter, which is a piece of paperwork often required before a company's lawyers will sign off on a new project. But I've heard nothing of Chick-fil-A and that site since December, so I've been having to put a quarter cup of mayonnaise and sliced pickles on my own sandwiches. But I'll continue to keep an ear out.
In the meantime, I've got a couple of other problems to figure out: Why does my team keep choosing an elephant, and how the heck am I going to get it in the gym?
In other news and notes from around town:
• City commissioners soon will get to decide how serious they want to become in providing financial incentives to spur new apartment development in Lawrence. As we have been telling you for weeks, the Chicago-based development firm proposing a large new apartment complex across from KU's Memorial Stadium will be seeking financial incentives from the city. Well, the group — HERE Kansas, LLC — has filed its request. It is seeking essentially a 95 percent tax rebate for 12 years on the new construction. It is asking for the rebate through the Neighborhood Revitalization Act, which is a program designed to spur the rehabilitation of downtrodden properties.
The request will go to the city's Public Incentives Review Commission for a recommendation, but ultimately the decision will be up to city commissioners. The request did provide new information about the project. Namely, it estimates the seven-story, 239-unit apartment complex with ground floor retail space will be about a $75 million project. So, even with a 95 percent tax abatement, local governments still would stand to get some new tax money from the project, although not nearly as much if no incentive were offered. But the development company says the project without a financial incentive is "on the borderline of acceptable financial risk."
The project as proposed includes what would be the state's first automated parking garage that uses robotics and lifts and other such devices to tightly park cars without the aid of a driver. The system, however, is one of the key drivers of cost for the project, but the development group says it is a key to maximizing the density of the site.
The project is proposed for the current site of the Berkeley Flats apartment complex and an adjacent single-family home at 1101 and 1115 Indiana Street.
The city has provided some financial incentives for apartment development in the past. But generally commissioners have touted the unique nature of those projects. Specifically, they have given financial incentives for the proposed apartments at Ninth and New Hampshire because they cited a city goal of adding living units to downtown. They also have given financial incentives to the Poehler Lofts project in East Lawrence, citing the goal to revitalize that rundown warehouse district and adding rent-controlled housing units to the area.
This project does have some uniqueness to it. There is the new parking technology. But it also is an example of a mixed-use project — about 14,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor with apartments above. The city has said it wants to see more mixed-use projects. But the biggest characteristic of this project seems to be that it is redeveloping a downtrodden apartment complex. There are lots of those in Lawrence, and I've heard people say that figuring out how to redevelop the multitude of old apartment complexes around town will be one of the bigger development issues in the city during the next decade or so.
There are some interesting numbers going on here in the Lawrence apartment industry. Since 2011, the city has added 921 units of new apartments compared with 408 units of new single-family homes. In other words, the number of apartments has grown at more than twice the rate than single-family home construction. That seems to be an important trend to take note of.
This is just back of the napkin type of stuff, but the Census Bureau estimates the average apartment unit in Lawrence has 2.11 people in it. The average owner-occupied home has 2.56 people in it. If you do the math, we've added enough living units for about 3,000 people but added only about 2,000 in population. Of course, the city believes we have more people living in Lawrence than the Census Bureau does, so you have to factor that in too.
I'm not saying those numbers should sway commissioners one way or another, but I do think we're at an interesting time in the community's residential development.
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.