Speculation grows that Old Navy may be tenant of proposed shopping center south of SLT; city may get stricter on downtown drinking establishments
A plan to build a major new retail center just southeast of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Iowa Street interchange won't get a key hearing at this month's Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission meeting, as was once planned.
But I talked to the lead developer on the project, and he assured me the project is still very much moving forward, but simply needs a bit more time to tweak technical details of the proposal.
That's fine. It will give more time for speculation to build about what large retailers the center may attract to town. There certainly is a fair amount of speculation that Old Navy has agreed to locate in the shopping center, if the project is approved by city officials. Chris Challis, a broker working on the project for Collett & Associates and Sooner Investments, has said the project has drawn some preliminary commitments from retailers. He declined to confirm or deny the rumors about Old Navy but said he was not surprised such talk was surfacing around town. I have heard the speculation from people who have occasion to deal with such retailers, so I'm fairly confident that Old Navy is looking to get back into the Lawrence market. Some had thought a location next to Dick's Sporting Goods at 27th and Iowa was possible, but I haven't heard that speculation as much recently.
The prospect of an Old Navy in Lawrence does raise some questions. Is a "new Old Navy" an oxymoron? Why doesn't anyone ever call me an oxy? And how large will the tax penalty be when my wife withdraws our 401(k) money to go to an Old Navy grand opening?
No, the question you may have is why Old Navy would be returning to Lawrence after leaving the market in early 2012? A return wouldn't be surprising to me because I've long heard that Old Navy didn't leave because it was dissatisfied with the Lawrence market. Instead, I had heard the entire company was looking to decrease the size of its store footprints. As Old Navy's lease was set to expire in the Pine Ridge Plaza shopping center, next to Kohl's, it sought to decrease the size of its store. Pine Ridge officials said no thanks because they already had Ross Dress for Less interested in the space.
The bigger question that is floating around is whether this new retail development south of the SLT will win city approval. As we reported in March, the project is a big one. The plans filed at city hall show spaces for 10 large retailers ranging in size from 74,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet. In addition, the plans show 11 outlying lots that would ring the property and could accommodate restaurants or smaller retailers.
The project would be almost twice the size of the Pine Ridge Plaza development, which houses Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond, World Market and others. That may be too large for the taste of some commissioners. Commissioner Bob Schumm has made no secret in saying he thinks south Iowa Street retail is becoming overbuilt, so I would count him as a solid "no" vote going into this.
The other four commissioners, though, are tougher to read that the moment. Commissioner Jeremy Farmer recently engaged in some verbal jousting with Kirk McClure, the KU professor who is the chief proponent that Lawrence's retail market is overbuilt. That may indicate that Farmer isn't going to be swayed by that argument.
The project's fate at City Hall may hinge on what type of incentives it seeks. Thus far, developers haven't addressed that subject. Surprisingly, I have heard some City Hall talk that a special taxing district for the shopping development may be more palatable than a tax increment financing district that would rebate back some of the property or sales taxes to the developer. That thinking may be subject to change, but there is some logic behind it.
A special sales tax through a transportation development district would allow the developers a funding source for some infrastructure projects at the site, while ensuring the city gets its full share of property and sales taxes generated by the project. This project won't be occurring in a vacuum. It is possible it may be occurring near the same time the city is contemplating a tax increase for a new police headquarters building. It may be politically difficult to ask the public for a tax increase at the same time City Hall is providing tax rebates to a national chain store-oriented retail project.
The final consideration is whether a majority of city commissioners will decide now is the time to draw the line and insist new retail development be located in the northwest part of the city. That's where property is already zoned for retail development, and certainly some commissioner are eager for commercial development to start emerging around the Rock Chalk Park complex. But recently national retailers have seemed genuine in their disinterest in the far northwest part of the city. Just not enough homes out there yet for their liking, and the big retailers really want to be next to other big retailers, which means south Iowa Street. But I think it is fair to say that if commissioners could have their druthers, they would want the development in the northwest.
So, the final question may be whether commissioners have realized they can't always have their druthers?
But don't worry, if Old Navy has druthers on sale, I'm confident my house will soon be full of them.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Keep an eye on a dispute in downtown Lawrence that may have broader implications for restaurants in the downtown district. Randy Larkin, the city's senior assistant city attorney, confirmed to me that City Hall recently denied the renewal of a sidewalk dining license for Shots, a restaurant/bar at 1008 Mass. Street.
Larkin said Shots hadn't paid its sidewalk dining license renewal fee after several notices from the city. But the denial also came after Downtown Lawrence Inc. and others had filed a complaint about the appearance of the sidewalk dining area. There were some upholstered furniture that had been left out in the weather, and there was some sort of odd-looking display case that was being stored out there as well.
Larkin said officials with Shots have filed an appeal on the license denial issue, and a hearing will be set before the full City Commission. So, Shots officials will get a chance to tell their side of the story.
But the bigger issue is one brought up by Commissioner Bob Schumm. He questioned whether Shots was meeting the requirement that new drinking establishments in downtown make at least 55 percent of their total sales from food. That requirement is the city's way of ensuring that downtown doesn't become dominated by pure bars. Schumm, who was in the restaurant business for 40 years, said he finds it difficult to believe Shots is meeting that requirement. The establishment isn't open for lunch, and it operates on a schedule much more similar to a nightclub.
Schumm questioned whether the city is doing enough to confirm that downtown establishments are really meeting the 55 percent food requirement. Schumm said he wants city staff to investigate the ability the city to conduct a full audit of a drinking establishment's financial records. Currently, the city has access to the businesses' sales tax records, but Schumm said a look a complete look at the businesses' books would be more instructive.
• A housekeeping note: Town Talk will be off tomorrow. It is the last day of school for my kids, so I have to be home to direct the slew of delivery trucks dropping off Cheetos, Slim Jims and other health food that will be consumed in large quantities this summer. That's only partially true. There is also a 5th Grade graduation ceremony I need to attend, because somehow — almost overnight it seems — I have a son old enough to be going into middle school next year.
Chestnut likely to file for seat on City Commission; expanded rental registration up for debate at City Hall; sidewalk umbrellas and sandwich boards may draw new city regulations
News and notes from around town:
• Who’s ready for another election? Well, it doesn’t matter, you are getting one anyway. The end of the presidential election typically marks the beginning of the local campaign season for city commission and school board races.
This year is no exception. The streets are starting to fill with scuttlebutt about who may run and who may not run in April’s Lawrence City Commission race.
It is likely one shoe will drop this week. I fully expect former Lawrence Mayor Rob Chestnut to announce that he will run for the City Commission. Chestnut chose not to see re-election after ending a four-year term on the commission in early 2011. After a two-year break, all the signs are pointing to him making another bid, but he hasn’t yet made an official announcement.
Chestnut was considered a bit of a budget wizard (is a wizard better than a wonk?) on the City Commission. He is the former chief financial officer for Lawrence-based Allen Press, and now holds the same type of position for a Topeka-based publishing company. The man loves numbers, and I suspect he’ll crunch many of them during a campaign that probably will have its fair share of questions about financial matters — ranging from possible water and sewer bill increases to big ticket items such as the proposed $25 million recreation center.
As always, there are three commissioners on the five-member City Commission whose terms are expiring — Mike Amyx, Hugh Carter and Aron Cromwell. None has made an announcement about whether he seeks to run again.
Indications, however, are that Amyx will run again. As for Carter and Cromwell, I think there is a less than a 50 percent chance that either of them will seek re-election. I’m not sure either of them feels like he is in a position that to make the time commitment for the next two to four years, which is the length of a City Commission term. (First and second place winners in the election get a four-year term. Third place winners get a two-year term. Over the years, I’ve heard many incumbents say they would run again, if they could be guaranteed to finish third.)
So, Amyx and Chestnut would make two, but don’t forget Scott Criqui already has filed for the office. Criqui — a human resources commissioner for the city who also was recently named interim executive director for Lawrence-based Trinity In-Home Care — started campaigning for the 2013 City Commission race roughly during the Hoover Administration. Well, not quite. He filed for office back in June.
As for others who may jump into the race, I know that Leslie Soden — the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association president who has led some of the opposition to the proposed hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire — has been contemplating a run. It will be interesting to see if she decides to run. She recently got a prime political appointment from City Hall when she was named to the new Joint Economic Development Council.
I would expect at least a couple more candidates will emerge. Two years ago, there were five candidates, and that was the smallest field in memory. Historically, there usually are eight or nine candidates, and sometimes we have been around a dozen.
• Here’s a topic that likely will be a campaign issue regardless of how city commissioners deal with it at their meeting this week: Rental registration.
As we previously reported, some neighborhood advocates are lobbying the city to expand its rental registration program to include all rental units in the city. Absent that, they would like to have at least all rental units 50 years and older be required to register, which would subject them to periodic health and safety inspections from the city.
Currently, only single-family zoned properties that are used as rentals are required to register with the city and undergo the city inspections once every three years. That accounts for only about 10 percent of the rental units in the city.
Commissioners are set to debate the idea at their Tuesday evening meeting. Commissioners will be presented with several sets of numbers related to a possible expansion of the program. They include:
— A program that would inspect all rental units at least 50 years old once every three years. The city estimates the program would add about 2,500 rental units initially. City staff members believe they would need to hire one new inspector and one new administrative assistant to staff the program. Total startup costs are projected to be about $86,000.
— A program that would inspect all rental units in the city once every three years. The city estimates the program would add about 18,600 units to the program and would require five new inspectors and two new administrative assistants. Total startup costs are projected to be about $370,000.
The city currently charges a $25 annual fee for rental units that are part of the city’s rental inspection program that covers only single-family zoned rentals.
The annual fee would need to increase to about $45 in order to cover the additional operating costs if the program is expanded to include all units at least 50 years old, a report from City Hall estimates. But due to economies of scale, the city estimates the current $25 fee would nearly cover the additional operating costs if all units in the city were inspected.
It will be interesting to see how much the city’s landlord community fights the proposal. I think they’ll need to put up a fairly stiff effort, if they want to ward off the new regulations.
Commissioners in the past have expressed support for expanding the program, but always have balked at the start-up costs. Given some of the city’s past spending decisions, it will be more difficult for the city to argue that it can’t afford the one-time start-up costs.
But commissioners also don’t have to look very far to see how contentious a political issue rental registration can become. The city of Manhattan in recent years passed a rental registration program, then a new slate of commissioners got elected. One of the first items repealed by the new commission was the rental registration program.
In Lawrence, it is difficult to think of a group that can be more politically influential than landlords and real estate interests, if they want to be.
• Some people sit on the Massachusetts Street sidewalks with a guitar. I think I may sit out there with a portable welder and an acetylene torch. There may be some business to be had.
City commissioners at their Tuesday meeting will consider adding new regulations cracking down on umbrellas attached to sidewalk dining areas in downtown.
Many restaurants in downtown have begun connecting large umbrellas to their sidewalk dining railings. The city has become concerned that the umbrellas often overhang the portion of the sidewalk still used by pedestrians. Many times the umbrellas hang so low that people run the risk hitting them with their heads. The city has received a few complaints from members of the public, and City Commissioner Aron Cromwell — who, not coincidentally, is the tallest city commissioner in recent memory — has mentioned it.
City staff members are recommending a new regulation that would require the lowest point of all umbrellas to be at least 80 inches above the sidewalk.
As I mentioned earlier, many of the umbrellas are mounted in special holders that are welded to the wrought iron railings of the sidewalk dining area. I really don’t know how much modification will be needed to those expensive railings. I’m mainly just looking for an excuse to sit with a lit acetylene torch next to some of the less talented guitar players in downtown.
• While they’re at it, city commissioners also are being asked to tackle the growing issue of sandwich boards and other signs that are showing up on city sidewalks.
During a recent trip down Massachusetts Street, the city found 35 such signs out on the sidewalks. Staff members are proposing a simple regulation that would prohibit any sandwich board that is larger than 32 inches wide or 48 inches tall.
The regulations also would limit businesses to one sandwich board per entrance. The city also is proposing that the signs be within 12 inches of the building, and that at least six feet of passable sidewalk be maintained.
A bigger issue may be that city staff is proposing that, once these regulations are passed, the city get more strict in enforcing the sign code downtown and at other businesses. For example, there are several businesses downtown that attach banners to their sidewalk railings advertising drink specials and such. Those generally aren’t allowed. The same goes for businesses that tie large bunches of balloons onto the railings and such.
Commissioners will discuss the proposed sign regulations at their Tuesday evening meeting.
But fear not, business owners, the new regulations don’t say anything about acetylene torches. Call me, and I’ll sit in front of your business for awhile. After all, what says red hot deals better than a lit acetylene torch?