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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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City commissioners to consider request for more retail zoning near proposed site of recreation center, sports park

It is beginning to look more and more like Lawrence won’t just be getting a new sports complex and recreation center in northwest Lawrence, but will be getting a new retail area as well.

Tonight’s meeting of the Lawrence City Commission will go a long way in determining whether that is true. Commissioners tonight will be hearing another request from a group led by Lawrence businessmen Duane and Steve Schwada to rezone 146 acres on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway for retail uses.

Yes, that was the piece of ground that originally was going to house the city’s 181,000 square-foot recreation center and KU’s track and field stadium and soccer field. When those plans were being touted as the greatest thing since Danny Manning’s baby hook shot, city officials were in favor of allowing retail zoning on the property. The idea was that such a sports complex would need to have some hotels, restaurants and other uses to support visitors.

But soon enough, those plans fell by the wayside. The city, KU and private developer/financier Thomas Fritzel banded together and changed the plans for the project.

The project in September made a sudden change in direction when KU said it no longer was interested in the site on the northwest corner of the intersection but instead had decided on a larger site near the northeast corner that could accommodate more facilities. City commissioners said they were interested in having their recreation center be on that side of the road too.

At that time, four out of the five city commissioners said the change in direction meant there no longer was a need for retail zoning on Schwada’s property.

That left the Schwadas with a piece of property that had just recently been annexed into the city, but doesn’t have any city zoning attached to it.

Schwada ended up looking like the kid standing on the playground after the other kids had left and taken their ball with them. But Duane Schwada is one of the more successful developers in this town, and it hasn’t taken long for folks to realize he has his own ball he can bring to this game.

Over the last few months, representatives of Schwada have been making the case that nothing really has changed in regards to the need for certain types of retail development — again, think hotels, restaurants, gas stations and such — to support this sports park. If anything, since the project has become larger, the need for supporting retail has grown.

Originally city commissioners believed the adjacent Mercato development would have plenty of capacity to support the sports park. After all, it is zoned for retail already, and it is empty.

But here are the two things to remember about the Mercato development: It is controlled by Schwada, and it is zoned and planned for a specific type of retail development — big box stores. Currently, the development is the only one in the city that can boast of shovel-ready sites for new big box stores in Lawrence. That zoning and development plan was hard won, and representatives for Schwada have indicated he’s not going to change those plans simply to accommodate a hotel or a restaurant or other types of smaller users.

But he would accommodate those type of users on the 146 acres on the northwest corner of the intersection. I suspect he also could accommodate another big box store or two on that site, especially since a 181,000 square-foot recreation center won’t be taking up any space on the property. (UPDATE: As I read through some of the proposed zoning language, there may be some limitations on big box stores at the site, depending on how large you consider a big box store to be. There probably will be more details tonight.)

Whether the development ought to get that type of zoning or not, is where city commissioners are at tonight. The Planning Commission has been split on the matter. In October, it voted 4-3 to recommend denial of the retail zoning for the corner. But then in November, it passed a new recommendation that essentially asked the City Commission to send the issue back to the Planning Commission for more in-depth review.

I don’t have a good sense about what city commissioners may do tonight. But it does appear clear that there is more consideration being given to making that corner a future retail hub than what was the case a few months ago.

Now, whether retail zoning will produce any new retail development at that corner in the near future is another question. Extending infrastructure to that site is expensive because some of it has to cross the highway. City officials were going to cover a lot of that cost when the recreation center was going to be located there. It is presumed now that any development on the corner would require the developers to pay for the infrastructure extension. But that’s not tonight’s battle, and, as this project has shown, everything is subject to change.

Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. tonight at City Hall.

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