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Development group seeking to create major retail area south of South Lawrence Trafficway

My credit card isn't the only thing warm on South Iowa Street these days. (Halloween candy on credit: That's a good financial strategy, isn't it?)

The commercial real estate market is heating up on Lawrence's major commercial corridor as well. The Menards project in the former Gaslight Mobile Home Village got the ball rolling, Dick's Sporting Goods going into the Sears building kept the momentum going, and now I've finally gotten some details about a potential project that could kick it into a whole new gear.

I have received confirmation that an out-of-state development group has put about 100 acres between the South Lawrence Trafficway and the Wakarusa River along U.S. Highway 59 under option. For those of you have been in town long enough, this is the same tract that developers proposed for a suburban mall — or the "cornfield mall," as it was dubbed — in the 1980s.

A suburban mall isn't planned this time, but a major area for big box stores is. Chris Challis, a manager with the development team, confirmed that Oklahoma-based Sooner Investment and a sister company have an option on the property, and are talking with big box retailers about locating to Lawrence.

"I think we're awful close to having the two anchors we need lined up," Challis said.

He didn't provide any hints at who those retailers are, but he said the group is focusing on attracting retailers that people are driving to Kansas City to shop.

The site, which is basically at the southeast corner of the SLT and U.S. Highway 59, could theoretically accommodate 500,000 square feet of retail. Challis, though, said a more likely scenario is about 300,000 to 350,000 square feet. That's still a big project. To put it in perspective, the Pine Ridge Plaza with Kohl's, World Market, TJ Maxx and several other retailers is about 240,000 square feet. In other words, this project would be one of the larger retail developments in Lawrence.

Challis, though, thinks there is enough interest in the retail world to make it work.

"Lawrence is an interesting community," Challis said. "It is on the smaller side, perhaps, for some retailers, but the demographics are good. There are a lot of national retailers who have Lawrence on their lists. We've had a lot of people who want to talk to us."

At some point, the talk is going to have to make its way to Lawrence City Hall. City commissioners certainly are aware this project is being shopped around, but it is a little early to say how commissioners are lining up on this one. Challis said he already has come to understand that there is "sensitivity" to Lawrence's retail market becoming overbuilt and new developments that could challenge downtown's role in the retail market. But he said he thinks a project could be well received if it focuses on attracting retailers that aren't already in the market and that Lawrence residents are leaving town to patronize.

It will be an interesting project to watch. It further complicates the city's effort to drive new retail growth to the Sixth and SLT area in northwest Lawrence, where the city is spending millions of dollars for a new sports complex.

But one thing that was communicated loudly during the Menards discussion was that retailers want to be part of the South Iowa Street corridor. Menards told commissioners they needed to be on South Iowa or they weren't coming to town. Evidently, commissioners didn't think that was a bluff because the approval process was pretty smooth.

If this project gets a couple of exciting names in the retail world, I'll be interested to see how city commissioners react. The key, though, will be getting a couple of retailers that will excite the public. I'll keep my ears open.

In other news and notes from around town:

• The pending completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway, of course, is one of the factors that is spurring development interest along South Iowa Street. On that front, we're still waiting for official word on when construction of the road will begin.

Originally, local officials were told work wouldn't begin until KDOT had one last public open house-style meeting to inform the public on various construction-related issues with the project. But a spokeswoman with KDOT told me recently that upon further review another public meeting won't be held. Instead, KDOT will develop brochures and a website that attempts to answer frequently asked questions about the project.

That means work could get started in early November. Originally, KDOT officials had been saying that work in the wetlands likely would be the first part of the project to get underway. That may still be the case, but I've been told by others involved with the project that there is a chance work on the wetland portion of the project may not begin until early next year. That's in large part because contractors want to make sure they have the necessary steel in hand to construct the myriad of bridges that will be part of the wetland portion of the road.

The federal permit that allows crews to work in the wetlands comes with a pretty strict time limit, I'm told. If crews begin dirt work on the project and then encounter a delay because steel isn't available, that could create some problems with the permit.

The KDOT spokeswoman said she expects the agency to provide more details this week about a work schedule for the project.

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    City set to go out to bid for $25 million rec center; commissioners asked to OK retail rezoning for area across highway from center

    After a weekend of shoveling snow, perhaps you are looking for a new form of recreation these days. If so, mark your calendars for Tuesday evening to learn the details on the city of Lawrence’s biggest recreation project yet.

    As previously reported, the city will host an open house to show off the designs for its $25 million, 181,000-square-foot recreation center set for an area near the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.

    The open house will be from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. The public will get its peek at the plans just before city commissioners are set to send them out for bid. Commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday will be asked to start the bid process for the project.

    Under the process, the plans will be released to potential bidders on April 9 — the plans are complete enough for an open house but aren’t yet complete to the point that they can be shared with contractors.

    Part of what is going on right now is the city has hired its own Quality Control Management Team to review the plans that have been developed jointly by Paul Werner Architects and Gould Evans. According to a city memo, the Quality Control Team of Craig Penzler’s CP/Sports and Dan Foltz’s KBS Constructors is reviewing the roof and mechanical engineering plans of the facility.

    It is a bit unusual for the city to hire a separate team to check the plans of an architect that is working on the city’s behalf. But, as you have perhaps noticed, this is a bit of an unusual project. The architectural firms of Paul Werner and Gould Evans certainly have been working with the city on the design of the recreation center, but it wouldn’t be completely accurate to say they have been working for the city.

    During the design process, both architectural firms have been closely tied to Thomas Fritzel’s Bliss Sports company, which is the private company that has been the driving force behind the larger Rock Chalk Park sports village that will be built adjacent to the recreation center. So, those mixing of interests has caused the city to agree to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars or more to hire an independent review of the plans.

    At this point, the independent review has found the plans to be solid. The review team will stay on the job during construction of the facility to serve as the city’s representative on the job site.

    Once contractors receive the plans on April 7, they will have about a month to put together a bid for the recreation center. The city will open the sealed bids on May 9.

    As a reminder, the city has committed to pay $25 million for the project. If the recreation center bids come in below $25 million, the city will pay the difference to Bliss Sports and/or a KU Endowment entity that is responsible for building the infrastructure for the Rock Chalk Park sports village.

    We’ll see how much competition there is among area builders for the project.

    • Recreation center plans aren’t the only reason commissioners will be looking at the intersection of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway on Tuesday.

    Commissioners at their weekly meeting also will be asked to rule on a contentious zoning request for property directly across the South Lawrence Trafficway from the recreation center project.

    Essentially, commissioners are being asked to decide how much — if any — retail/commercial development should be allowed on 146 acres at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway.

    If you remember, the city’s recreation center once was proposed to be located on a portion of that site. At the time, the city was planning to approve commercial/retail zoning for a good portion of the site, in order to accommodate hotels, restaurants and other uses that would complement the recreation center.

    But when the project got pulled from that site and moved across the highway, there was talk from the City Commission that any idea of retail development on the site was done too.

    Well times and thinking do change. The project now comes to the City Commission with a positive recommendation from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission.

    The Planning Commission is recommending the northwest corner be allowed to have up to 155,000 square feet of retail uses in the future. City commissioners on Tuesday will be voting on a rezoning ordinance that will give the property that right.

    In somewhat of a surprise move, the Planning Commission also has opened the door to retail development on the southwest and southeast corners of the intersection. The Planning Commission is recommending approval of a planning document that calls for the southwest corner to have up to 25,000 square feet of retail development, and the southeast corner to have up to 60,000 square feet of retail development.

    At the moment, there aren’t rezoning requests for either one of those properties, but this plan makes it likely that such retail uses would be approved in the future. (Assuming the plan is followed, which isn’t always a good assumption.)

    The southeast corner is vacant, but is next to a growing housing development just north of Langston Hughes Elementary. The southwest corner largely is thought of as the west campus for Lawrence’s First United Methodist Church. But there also is a vacant portion of ground near the church. That ground is owned by a group of investors, and Allison Vance Moore — a commercial real estate agent with Lawrence’s Colliers office and one of the city’s leading retail brokers — already has a "for sale" sign planted in that property.

    It has been interesting to watch how opinions on this area have changed in a relatively short period of time. The Planning Commission in October voted to deny the retail rezoning for the northwest corner of the intersection. But by January, it became clear the political winds on the City Commission had shifted toward allowing retail zoning at the northwest corner, so the Planning Commission reconsidered the issue in February and recommended approval of the rezoning.

    So, what has changed to cause the City Commission to now look favorably upon retail development at the site? It is tough to say for sure, but certainly commissioners have gotten an earful from the owners of the property, which is a group led by Lawrence developers Duane and Steve Schwada.

    That group has been making the argument that the city is about to make a huge mistake in building the recreation center and Rock Chalk Park without a clear plan of how to build the necessary commercial and retail uses that visitors to the park will expect.

    The Rock Chalk Park property — as currently zoned — doesn’t have any area for retail or commercial uses. Originally city commissioners assumed the vacant Mercato development, just south of the Rock Chalk Park site, could accommodate the necessary retail development for Rock Chalk Park.

    But Schwada also controls that property, and there are indications he’s reluctant to change the plans of that development. It is the only site in town that is zoned for future big box store development. That was a hard-won victory at City Hall, so to change those plans to accommodate hotels, restaurants and other such uses may not be likely.

    Instead, he has pointed to his property across the street. So, perhaps, the city has decided it doesn’t want to play that bluffing game with the Schwadas.

    But that leaves a large question looming. If the area on the west side of the SLT is expected to carry the load in terms of hotels and such for the new Rock Chalk Park destination, who is going to pay to have the necessary infrastructure extended across the SLT?

    If there are several million dollars worth of expenses to extend water and sewer to the site, are any hotels, retailers and such going to pay to develop on that piece of property? If they don’t, how is the Rock Chalk Park area going to have the necessary hotel and retail space that many people say is needed to support the development?

    At this point, the city hasn’t done anything to indicate it is willing to pay to extend those pieces of infrastructure to the site. But, of course, just a few months ago the city was indicating that it wasn’t going to approve retail zoning for that property either.

    So, as I’m prone to say, it will be interesting to watch.

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