The idea of a major new shopping center south of the South Lawrence Trafficway has new life — and a new plan that is much larger than the one city commissioners already have rejected for the site.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for a 585,000 square-foot shopping center for the southeast corner of the interchange of the SLT and U.S. Highway 59. Plans call for about 395,000 square feet of retail development, about 50,000 square feet of new restaurants and 140,000 square feet of new hotels. The development would be one of the largest in the city, with plans showing room for more than a half-dozen large retailers and another 15 or so smaller retailers and restaurants. In the past, Academy Sports, Old Navy, HomeGoods, and Designer Shoe Warehouse have been among the firms the developer has identified as having a strong interest in the project.
The same North Carolina-based development group that previously has tried to develop the property — Collett development — is behind this proposal. The development group currently is suing the City Commission over its January 2016 denial of a 250,000 square-foot shopping center development for the property. But the new proposal may be an indication that the city is ready to rethink its past denial. City Manager Tom Markus confirmed to me that he has talked with the development group.
“I indicated to them that my preference would be for them to plan the whole site, and not just a piece of the site,” Markus said.
However, just because the city manager has shown an interest in the project doesn’t mean that it is set to win city approval. The city’s planning staff has recommended approval of the other two previous plans for the site. It was at the Planning Commission and the City Commission where those plans met their downfall. That could still happen with this proposal.
“It still has to go through the process, and the public process still has to be honored,” Markus said.
Markus, though, does think there are some significant differences between this proposal and previous ones. “I think it is substantially more environmentally designed in terms of protecting the (adjacent) wetlands and the watershed,” Markus said.
Dan Watkins, a Lawrence attorney who represents the development group, highlighted several differences between this plan and the previous ones. They include:
• The potential relocation of a frontage road would allow more of the development to be on the northern part of the site, which means it would be farther away from the Wakarusa River.
• The development group has a tentative deal for Baker University to take ownership of 55 acres of property on the southern portion of the site. That property, which is in the floodplain and near the river, would be dedicated as open space and would be managed by Baker, which also manages the Baker Wetlands to the east. The area would have a public easement to allow for a trail or other such use to be built on it.
• The project would be developed under a special part of the city code called a development overlay district. That gives the city greater ability to apply certain design guidelines to the project.
What hasn’t changed from the past plans is that the development group is not asking for any city incentives or tax breaks to build the project, Watkins said.
City commissioners in January 2016 rejected the smaller proposal on a 4-1 vote. So, obviously, at least two votes will have to change for this project to win commission approval. It will make for interesting political drama, especially given that this project will be happening during the middle of a City Commission campaign. Three of the five seats are up for election. A primary will be in August and the general election in November.
But if you are more interested in shopping than politics, there’s plenty to talk about on that front too. The plan would make way for several new big box retailers to come to town. And while the development group hasn’t specifically mentioned Costco or Sam’s Club, a representative seemed to hint at that when I talked with him Tuesday.
Brian Sturm, a planner with Lawrence-based Landplan Engineering, noted that there are a number of buildings between 12,000 and 65,000 square feet that could accommodate a number of national retailers. The group previously had said it had interest from tenants including Academy Sports, Old Navy, Designer Shoe Warehouse, HomeGoods and others. But Sturm also noted that the plans included one large building that he said could be “devoted to a membership wholesale club type of store.”
There has been a lot of smoke for a long time about Costco locating in Lawrence, but nothing has come up, even though the rumor has been in the wind for a couple of years. Certainly a competing development group — led by the local Schwada and Fritzel families — has been working to get Costco to come to its commercially zoned property near Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll believe any Costco rumblings until I see them break ground.
As for potential tenants, Sturm said Collett reports that interest from retailers has been strong as they’ve seen the South Lawrence Trafficway open.
“They’ve been in discussions with a number of different retailers who are anxious to locate in Lawrence,” Sturm said.
Watkins is hoping that the completion of the trafficway — the state completed the SLT late last year after more than 25 years of debate and delay — will cause commissioners to rethink their positions. “In past conversations, the trafficway wasn’t there,” Watkins said. “It is today, and it has made this is a logical place for this type of development.”
I’ve had this article on my list to do for nearly 25 years. No, I’m not quite that big of a procrastinator. I’m talking about an article detailing how much time the completed South Lawrence Trafficway would save motorists once it was completed.
I bought the stopwatch shortly after I wrote my very first article as a Douglas County journalist in 1992. It was about how the South Lawrence Trafficway project was in its final phases. Turns out, I was just a bit off. It seems I also could have saved the money on the stopwatch and used my sundial instead to measure the project.
That is all history, however, as the long-debated and long-litigated eastern leg of the trafficway opened to motorists this week. So, I spent some time driving it on Thursday — with the stopwatch on my phone. (You needed a really long cord to pull that off in 1992.) Here’s what I found.
• Rock Chalk Express? The SLT project is estimated to have about a $3.7 billion economic impact on the region in the years to come. I’m guessing a good part of that is additional health care spending by pickup basketball players who now will play more because they have a quicker route to the multitude of courts at the Sports Pavilion at Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence.
In all seriousness, one of the concerns some have expressed about Rock Chalk Park is that it is a long ways away from certain parts of the city. The SLT project should help in some regards. But how much?
Here’s what I did: I started in the Prairie Park neighborhood in southeast Lawrence. Specifically, I was near the corner of E. 26th Terrace and Bishop Street because I know for a fact that there is a resident near there who is a pickup brick layer . . . I mean basketball player. (Don’t worry, such insults won’t cause him to pass me the ball any less.)
I would take two routes: One via the trafficway, and another route assuming that the SLT had never been built. That part is important because it means I stayed off the new section of 31st Street between Haskell and O’Connell because all indications were that project wasn’t going to happen without the SLT.
The route I took through the city was O’Connell Road to 23rd Street, which turns into Clinton Parkway, then Wakarusa Drive to Sixth Street, and then George Williams Way to Rock Chalk Park. That drive took 25 minutes and 45 seconds midday Thursday.
Then I took the SLT route. I again took O’Connell Road to 23rd Street, but this time I turned east and got on the new SLT interchange that is just basically right around the corner from the Prairie Park neighborhood. I could have taken the new 31st Street west over to the Haskell Avenue/SLT interchange as well. But the philosophy in the Lawhorn house is the quicker you can get to 70 miles per hour, the quicker you will get there. (Warning: That philosophy at times has made getting auto insurance difficult.) So, I got on the SLT as soon as I could, and stayed on it until the Sixth Street interchange, and then took Sixth to George Williams to Rock Chalk Park. The time was 19 minutes and 18 seconds. So, a savings of about six and a half minutes. Just think of what you could do if you get to the Sports Pavilion about six minutes earlier. My buddy could put up about 3,000 shots and ruin at least five basketballs.
• From end to end. A big reason Kansas Department of Transportation officials stuck with the SLT project through more than 20 years of delay is because they believed the state was in need of a better route for motorists traveling between Johnson County and Topeka. Interstate 70 doesn’t go through Johnson County, and some of the connecting routes to I-70 in the metro area can get pretty congested. The SLT provides that link between Kansas Highway 10 — the major east-west route into Johnson County — and I-70.
So, I wanted to time how long it would take to go from the western end of the trafficway to the eastern end, and then how long it would take to go from the same two points by using Lawrence city streets instead.
For this exercise, I also pretended I was a semi-truck driver, which means I stuck to truck routes through the city. (It also was a good excuse to make lots of air horn noises, and say phrases like “keep the bugs off your glass and the bears off your . . . bumper.”) I mainly did it, though, because truck traffic is expected to be a major beneficiary of the new road.
I started at the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike, which is the western terminus for the SLT. For the non-SLT route, I took Interstate 70 to the West Lawrence interchange, then took McDonald Drive to Iowa Street, and Iowa Street to 23rd Street and stayed on 23rd until I got outside the city limits. Time: 21 minutes and 45 seconds.
The SLT route is simple enough: I started at the same Lecompton interchange and took the SLT to its eastern terminus just outside the Lawrence city limits. Time: 14 minutes and 10 second. That’s a difference of about seven and a half minutes. Perhaps some people expected it would have been a bit more of a time savings, but you have to remember that the old route did include a good stretch of 75-mile-per-hour roadway — the turnpike section between the Lecompton interchange and the West Lawrence interchange. By avoiding that stretch of interstate, you are not really saving any time. Your time savings comes by avoiding the Lawrence city streets. Whether the time savings is enough to justify the expense and trouble of the road probably will be debated. But it seems clear that trucking companies would be foolish not to use the SLT. Saving more than seven minutes and a lesser toll will be big selling points to the trucking companies.
• Shopper savings. I wanted to see how much time it would save somebody coming from east of Lawrence to get to the shopping district on South Iowa Street. This one was difficult because all Lawhorn vehicles have made the trip down 23rd Street over to Haskell and then to 31st Street and then to Ousdahl so many times that it was difficult to get the truck to take a different route.
But I managed, and here are the results. I started at the Davenport Winery and Orchard which is right near K-10 and County Route 1057. It was just an easy place to start from. My ending location was the Wal-Mart parking lot. For the non-SLT route, I took the route described above. Time: 13 minutes and 20 seconds.
The SLT route was simply starting at Davenport and taking the trafficway to the Iowa Street interchange, and then turning off of Iowa Street into the Wal-Mart parking lot. One note here: There is an odd change in speed limits between the Haskell interchange and the Iowa Street interchange. The speed limit for westbound traffic drops from 70 miles per hour to 65 miles per hour. The reason is because it is a transition zone. Remember, the SLT west of Iowa Street is still two lanes. Imagine how many out-of-town motorists are going to wonder why that road was built that way. Don’t worry, though, the eastern leg of the SLT is still a real time saver. This is maybe the key statistic of the whole trafficway. You can drive from Iowa Street to east of the city limits in four minutes by taking the trafficway. But, how much time did I save on the trip to Wal-Mart? The total time was seven minutes. In this particular case that is about a 50 percent reduction in total trip time. That’s a scary thought for my wallet. In all, the time savings was about six and a half minutes.
If you’ve noticed, that has pretty much been the savings each time. The SLT: The seven-minute trafficway. Or the 25-year trafficway. Take your pick. Probably the bigger quandary will be figuring out whether the time savings and other benefits of the road have been worth the cost and trouble. I’ll leave that to others to figure out.
But don’t plan on doing so during your commute. You may not have the time.
Budding business may cause school board member to leave board early; a six-mile traffic backup; chamber elects new leaders
A budding business may cause Lawrence school board member Kris Adair to end her term on the board early, Adair has told me. Some of Adair’s comments also may spark some discussion about what Lawrence does or doesn’t do to keep budding technology companies.
As we have reported, Adair and her husband, Joshua Montgomery, are founders of the artificial intelligence company Mycroft, which is working to create a device that allows consumers to do a variety of tasks on the internet through voice-activated commands.
As we reported in October, MyCroft won a $50,000 grant as part of the LaunchKC technology competition. As part of that grant award, it also received free office space in the Crossroads District in Kansas City, Mo.
On top of that, the Kansas City-based technology website Startland recently has reported that Mycroft has opened an office in Silicon Valley, and “senior Mycroft leadership” will work out of that California office.
Adair certainly qualifies as senior leadership of the company, so that begged the question of whether she would be staying in Lawrence and completing her school board term, which expires at the end of 2017.
Adair did confirm to me that her husband, Montgomery, is working in Silicon Valley full time. She said she could not yet say with any certainty whether she would move to California before the end of her term.
“There have been no definite decisions made,” Adair said. “It really is going to depend on how things go for him.”
Adair added that she hopes she’ll be able to finish out the term.
“It has been something that has brought me a great amount of pleasure,” Adair said of serving on the school board. “I’m hoping that we will not have to move until my term is up.”
The Silicon Valley office is primarily focusing on raising venture capital and establishing business relationships with Silicon Valley’s famed tech industry. So, Adair is rooting for those efforts to go well too, which may lead to a move before her term is up.
“It all depends on how things go with Mycroft, and right now it is going better than we really anticipated.”
Either way, Adair expects there will be more travel back and forth to California. Adair’s duties with Mycroft already have created some concerns about her ability to fulfill school board responsibilities. In March, then-school board president Vanessa Sanburn suggested Adair consider resigning from the board, unless she could start attending board meetings more regularly. That suggestion followed an announcement by Adair that she would be taking “a less active role” with the board through May, and after she had been absent from various board engagements, including the final stages of the board’s search for a new superintendent.
Adair had said that her decreased level of attendance earlier in the year was related to a 90-day business accelerator program that she was participating in as part of her Mycroft duties. She told me this week her attendance at recent school board meetings has become more regular.
So, we’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out as it relates to Adair’s school board term. What seems clear, though, is Mycroft’s presence in Lawrence is coming to an end, and Montgomery and Adair’s presence seems set to.
Adair said that there are no plans to keep any part of the Mycroft operations in Lawrence.
“There is nothing really for Mycroft in Lawrence anymore,” Adair said. “We are a high-tech startup and Kansas City, Mo. really has a tremendous startup program.”
Adair continued: “We think Kansas City, Mo. is really focusing on the high tech sector that is going to be the future. Lawrence just seems to be focusing on smaller projects like apartments and hotels. That may be where a small community like this can focus.”
But Adair made it clear she thinks Lawrence can do more on its economic development front. She said the type of programs offered in Kansas City that have been helpful to Mycroft have included the LaunchKC grant program and free office space, a mentorship program at University of Missouri-Kansas City, and venture capital and other assistance from the quasi public-private Missouri Technology Corporation.
“I think Lawrence focuses more on tax abatements for economic development and less on how spending in other ways could help the community,” Adair said. “I think it is just a difference of opinion on whether you think a tax incentive is going to bring in more economic development or a grant program is going to be more beneficial.”
While Lawrence doesn’t have anything quite like the grant program being used in Kansas City, economic development leaders have made some major efforts to attract technology startups. The city, the county, the chamber, the university and the state have created partnerships to invest $20 million to build and then expand the Bioscience and Technology Incubator on KU’s West Campus. It has had good luck in attracting both startup companies and well-established companies — like Garmin — who want to be on or near the KU campus.
So, there probably will be some difference of opinion about whether Lawrence is doing enough in that regard, but certainly Adair isn’t the only one urging the community to think more creatively in the incentives it provides and the programs it offers. It is always a conversation worth keeping an ear open for.
Adair also said two other changes are likely to occur as Mycroft moves its business out of Lawrence. Adair and Montgomery are founders of Wicked Broadband, which previously was known as Lawrence Freenet. Adair confirmed the company is seeking to sell the business, although no deal is imminent. The business provides broadband service primarily to apartment complexes, fraternity and sorority houses, businesses and some residential subscribers. It has been in the news a lot over the years, primarily over disputes about whether the city should provide it grants, or low interest loans or other such assistance to expand its services in the community.
“I like to explain it this way: It is like having a child in a sense,” Adair said. “Wicked has been around for 11 years now. We feel like it is time to send it off to college.”
Adair also said it was likely that she and Montgomery would shut down the Lawrence Center for Entrepreneurship that they operate in office space near Ninth and Iowa streets. The center was designed to offer low-cost office space and maker space services to startups and small companies. Adair said the center has stopped taking new members for the space.
“I see that project probably folding in the future,” Adair said.
As for Mycroft, it will be interesting to watch how that company develops. Its device is similar to devices offered by Amazon, Microsoft and others. It allows you to use voice commands and the internet to turn off lights at your home, start a coffee maker, search for answers online and a number of other tasks that are part of this new technology called the Internet-of-Things. So, Mycroft will face major competition in becoming a player in the space, but it has received some early funding, in part, because it uses an open-hardware and open-source system that allows software developers from around the world to build features that can be added onto Mycroft’s functionality.
In other news and notes from around town:
• More of an observation than anything else, but it will be interesting to watch how the new South Lawrence Trafficway function on KU basketball game nights. In particular, the east end of the road where you can exit K-10 and enter 23rd Street will be worth watching.
Last night I noticed traffic at about 6:30 p.m. — a half hour before the tipoff of last night’s KU game — was backed up from approximately Noria Road to just west of the main Eudora exit on K-10. That is about six miles that traffic was backed up on the westbound lanes. That is largely due to a long section of road being one lane due to the SLT construction. But, as several people have noted, even after the road is completed, exiting K-10 and entering 23rd Street will have to funnel down to one lane for a significant stretch.
Those of you who drive the road now know what I’m talking about. The portion of road that goes under the new bridge where Noria Road used to intersect with K-10 is one lane and doesn’t become two lanes again until about East Hills Business Park entrance. I’m guessing the one-lane stretch is a little less than a mile in length.
That stretch probably won’t create a 6-mile backup every KU basketball game, but it probably will create some back up. However, people may quickly adjust their routes to get to the fieldhouse. Instead of taking 23rd Street, motorists may find it easier to take the South Lawrence Trafficway all the way to Iowa Street and Iowa Street to the either 19th or 15th streets, which both lead to the fieldhouse.
I keep talking to people who say traffic patterns in Lawrence are going to undergo their largest changes in years once the SLT opens and people learn how to use it. As a reminder, the ribbon cutting for the road is Friday, although it won’t immediately open for traffic. A full opening is expected by Thanksgiving.
• The Lawrence chamber of commerce has announced its board members for the upcoming year. Here’s a look at the leadership positions:
— Chair: Jason Edmonds, Edmonds Duncan Registered Investment Advisors;
— Incoming Chair: Michele Hammann, SS&C Solutions;
— Treasurer: Joe Caldwell, Bartlett & West engineers
— Past Chair: Cal Karlin, Barber Emerson attorneys
— Government and Community Affairs: Beth Easter, Intrust Bank
— Communications: Kristin Eldridge, Snap Promotions
— Operations: Kirsten Flory, Colliers International
— Joint Economic Development Council: Rick Hird, Petefish, Immel, Heeb & Hird attorneys
— Leadership Lawrence: Tom Karasek, CEK Insurance
— Economic Development: Mike Orozco, US Bank
— Membership: Crystal Swearingen, McGrew Real Estate
Running, clothing store set to move to Massachusetts Street; KDOT backs off plan to close SLT and Kasold intersection
There is a certain someone in my house who appreciates any new shoe store on Massachusetts Street, especially running shoes. She needs all the help she can get staying a step ahead of the parking meter patrol. If you are like her, you are in luck. One of Lawrence’s more popular running stores is undertaking a major expansion and moving to Massachusetts Street.
Ad Astra Running has signed a deal to move into the vacant space at 734 Massachusetts St. For those of us who are more into elastic waistbands than running shoes, you may know that as the space that is next door to the old Hot Box Cookies location. (I say old because as we have reported, Hot Box moved to The Oread hotel recently.)
Ad Astra currently is located at 16 E. Eighth St. in downtown Lawrence. The pending move will allow the store to more than double in size, said Grant Catloth, who owns the store with business partner J. Jenkins.
The expansion is coming just eight months after Ad Astra opened for business. Catloth said the store’s status as a locally owned establishment has resonated with the running community.
“We’ve had a great reaction from the public and the running community,” Catloth said. “Douglas County is just a very homegrown, populous-oriented type of community, and they have really supported us.”
Catloth said the larger space will allow the store to stock a larger shoe inventory, but really will allow the store to grow its athletic apparel lines. Catloth said the larger space also will make it easier for the store to host events. Ad Astra currently hosts a Thursday evening running event in downtown, along with several other classes or gatherings each week. Although the events usually take place outside, the store serves as a gathering place and a location for runners to store their belongings. Catloth said crowds — the Thursday event attracts upwards of 80 people — were filling the store to capacity during those times.
Catloth expects one of the larger benefits of the move will be greater visibility among shoppers.
“One of our biggest issues is that a lot of people just don’t know we exist,” Catloth said. “Getting on Mass, you will have a couple hundred people walking by every 10 minutes on a Saturday.”
Catloth said minor renovation work is underway on the space. He said the store hopes to be open in the new location by the end of June.
In other news and notes from around town:
• This just in this morning: The Kansas Department of Transportation is backing away from its one-time plan to close the intersection of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Kasold Drive in in southwest Lawrence. But KDOT leaders aren’t willing to go so far as to install an expensive traffic signal at the intersection.
Instead, KDOT plans to convert the intersection into a right-in, right-out intersection. That will mean no left turns will be allowed at the intersection, and it also means that traffic won’t be able to fully cross the busy SLT to get to either Kasold Drive or to the rural county road that is just south of the SLT. Access to those roads will be limited to motorists turning right off of the SLT.
KDOT has included its recommendation in a final report that was delivered to local officials yesterday, and was placed on the city of Lawrence’s website Friday morning.
The idea of closing the intersection sparked much concern from many rural residents who live southwest of Lawrence. They use the intersection as a way to get into Lawrence, via Kasold Drive. Lawrence Landscape, which owns a tree farm just south of the intersection, also had objected to its planned closure.
KDOT officials had lobbied for the closure because they fear accidents will increase at the intersection once the eastern leg of the SLT opens this fall. Traffic at the intersection is expected to more than double once the eastern leg of the SLT opens.
In their final report, KDOT leaders said closing the intersection still would be the best decision for motorist safety, but said the right-in, right-out proposal is a “compromise solution.” The project won’t involve widening the intersection at all, but will include restriping and other minor modifications to the intersection. It is expected to cost $70,000, and will be paid for by KDOT. The City Commission and Douglas County Commission are expected to receive a briefing on the project by KDOT at their June 21 and June 22 meetings, respectively.
Plans filed for nearly 2,000 new apartments near South Lawrence Trafficway; several hundred single-family homes may follow
West Lawrence soon may have a new meaning. Plans have been filed for the first major neighborhood to be built west of the South Lawrence Trafficway, and, if approved, it likely won't be the last.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for annexation and rezoning of about 160 acres of property southwest of the new Bob Billings Parkway and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange. The development in the near term could add about 2,000 apartment units, and in future phases could add about 600 single-family homes.
“It is an area that is ideally situated for residential development, and it is consistent with the community’s plans for the area as well,” said Lawrence attorney Dan Watkins, who is representing the ownership group, which is led by longtime Douglas County landowner Don Hazlett.
The map below shows a proposed master plan for the development, which is being dubbed Clinton Farms. The ownership group is seeking rezoning only for the apartment part of the development currently. Those show up as the dark brown and and orange units that are on the right-hand side of the map. The two shades of yellow are the proposed single-family development, which would be built in a future phase and would need to receive separate zoning approvals from the City Commission. The yellow areas also aren’t included in the current annexation request.
Here’s a look at what is proposed in the first phase:
— 416 units of apartments in four-story buildings spread out over 16 acres. That is the area labeled No. 18 on the map.
— 804 units of apartments in three-story buildings spread out over 30 acres. That area is labeled No. 17 on the map.
— A retirement campus that would include skilled nursing, assisted living, memory care services and independent living facilities. In total 270 units would be spread out over 18 acres. That area is labeled No. 16 on the map.
— 44 units of townhomes on 6 acres. That’s No. 15 on the map.
— 120 apartment units in two-story buildings spread out over 8 acres. That’s No. 14 on the map.
— 210 apartment units in two-story buildings spread out over 14 acres. That’s No. 13 on the map.
— 120 units of townhomes on 14 acres. That’s No. 12 on the map.
Here’s a look at what is proposed for a future phase of development:
— 219 low density single-family homes on 49 acres. That’s No. 10 on the map.
— 233 low density single-family homes on 47 acres. That’s No. 9 on the map.
— 34 very low density single-family homes on 18 acres. That’s No. 8 on the map.
— 92 very low density single-family homes on 29 acres. That’s No. 7 on the map.
— 40 apartment units in two-story buildings on 3 acres. That’s No. 11 on the map.
One thing to keep in mind is that the drawing above is a proposed master plan, which is subject to change. What the landowners really are seeking approval for is to convert two pieces of property from agricultural zoning to multifamily development zoning. One request is for about 53 acres for RM32 zoning, and another is for about 80 acres of RM15 zoning. Both of those zoning designations would allow for a variety of apartment and multifamily development.
Another thing to keep in mind is that this development will take some time. Watkins didn’t have a specific timeline, but he agreed that it would take multiple years to build out the project. But Watkins said he is convinced there is significant demand for new apartments in Lawrence.
“The market for multifamily housing in Lawrence is strong,” Watkins said. “Younger and older people both are trending toward leased property instead of owning it. And the studies we see show the absorption rate of new apartments over the last five years has kept pace with construction. Vacancy rates are pretty constant, and rents are rising.”
The issue of how many apartments the city needs is one that comes up at City Hall. I would suspect that it will get some discussion as part of this development request.
Another issue that sometimes comes up at City Hall is the idea of urban sprawl and whether the city can afford to extend infrastructure to new developments on the outer edge of town. That’s a complicated issue for sure, but sometimes it is overlooked that many of the traditional infrastructure costs are paid for by the private development group. In general, private developers pay for pretty much all streets, unless they are wide thoroughfares that are more than 31 feet across. In those cases, the developers pay to construct the street to a standard residential size, and the city pays for the portion of costs associated with widening it to a thoroughfare. The same concept applies to waterlines. The developers pay for water line construction, unless the waterline is a large main meant to serve a larger role in the city’s overall water distribution system. Sewer line extensions also are paid for by the private developer. Don't get me wrong, there are also costs that the city bears when a large new area develops, either directly or indirectly. But there's also significant new property tax revenue that comes with such development, especially if the project doesn't seek any financial incentives from the city.
Watkins said the ownership group doesn’t plan to ask for any special incentives from the city to help pay for the development.
Probably the bigger question to watch for is: What type of growth mindset does the City Commission have these days? This commission is serving in interesting times. The complete South Lawrence Trafficway is actually going to open to traffic this year. It is a more than $190 million investment in infrastructure by the state, and, not surprisingly, it has created development pressure along the SLT. Simply put, we’re in a period where the iron is hot, and some developers are looking to strike.
As we have reported, this City Commission already has turned down one major project that wanted to jump the South Lawrence Trafficway. That was a retail project that wanted to go south of the SLT at the Iowa Street interchange. The city is getting sued over that denial.
What will this commission think about going west of the trafficway? The idea certainly shouldn’t catch anybody by surprise. The school district already owns land in the area that was bought for a future school site. The city has a planning document called the West of K-10 Plan that envisions this property developing with a mix of high density and medium density residential uses. Take a look at the map below to see just how much new housing is envisioned for the area west of the SLT in the decades to come.
And there is another important fact about this property: Unlike the area near Rock Chalk Park at Sixth and the SLT, this property is largely flat and is in the Lawrence school district. That last reason has caused many in the development industry to speculate that this area will be the one that will really take off as the next new major housing area for Lawrence.
The question now seems to be how soon that will happen. City commissioners are getting closer to answering that question.
Look for this development to go to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission in June or July and to the City Commission at some point after that.
Plans filed for large industrial site, unique recycling center near east end of South Lawrence Trafficway
A plan has been filed to add nearly 80 acres of industrial property near the soon-to-be-completed eastern interchange of the South Lawrence Trafficway. But don’t look for a big manufacturing plant or distribution center at the prime spot.
Instead, look for a lot of broken concrete, used bricks, discarded asphalt and other signs that someone made the mistake of letting me operate a jackhammer. The owners of Kings Construction, a large excavating company in the Lawrence area, have filed plans to open a unique recycling center that will specialize in construction materials.
Kings is seeking to rezone 77.5 acres of property from agricultural zoning to the county’s I-3 industrial zoning district. The property is at the intersection of county roads North 1300 and East 1750, which also is known as Noria Road. If you are confused about the location, it is just south and a wee-bit west of where construction crews are tying in the South Lawrence Trafficway to Kansas Highway 10.
In case you have wondered where the massive amounts of dirt for the SLT project has come from, this site has been one of the prime providers. For the last two years, construction crews have been cutting off the top of the hill on the property, and also have been digging pits to obtain the tremendous amount of dirt needed to build the highway.
Kings Construction plans to continue taking soil from the site, said C.L. Maurer, an engineer with Lawrence’s Landplan Engineering who has filed the plans on behalf of Kings. But the property needs industrial zoning because it also wants to operate a unique recycling center at the site.
Maurer said Kings envisions running a business where construction companies throughout the area can bring concrete, brick, asphalt and other similar material that they tear out of construction projects. The new industrial site will stockpile the material, run it through a crusher and then resell the crushed material. Crushed concrete often is used as aggregate in a number of projects, and also can be used in the production of new cement. Ground asphalt also can be used in the production of new asphalt. Crushed brick sometimes is used as decorative rock.
“Right now they are often taking that type of material to a landfill,” Maurer said.
The site will operate a bit like a rock quarry, minus the dynamite blasting that comes with a quarry, Maurer said. He noted the property doesn’t have any homes around it, and is not envisioned to in the future. The property is just west of where county officials recently approved plans for a new soccer complex.
The project will create some truck traffic, though. I don’t have an estimate on that number, but Maurer said trucks primarily would access the property from East 1750/Noria Road. Once the SLT is completed, however, motorists won’t be able to access Noria Road directly from K-10. That means trucks likely will need to exit K-10 at the County Route 1057 interchange that is between Lawrence and Eudora. Trucks then can use old K-10 highway to access Noria Road.
The property is outside the Lawrence city limits, so ultimately it will be up to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the County Commission to decide whether to rezone the property. It will be interesting to watch the outcome. You would figure that more requests will be coming in the future to develop near the long awaited trafficway. Although the plans call for a recycling center today, the industrial zoning would allow for a a variety of industrial uses in the future, if the recycling center were to no longer be in operation.
The property is near what will become a major entrance into the community. Maurer, though, said due to the way the property is sloped, much of the recycling center and its stockpiles of material likely won’t be visible from the trafficway.
The Kasold Curve — that stretch of road in southern Lawrence where Kasold turns into 31st Street — has produced plenty of arguments inside my Ford Taurus. They mainly have been related to how many g-forces my body can withstand as a passenger in the car. But get ready for a different type of argument. A debate is brewing about whether a portion of the Kasold Curve should be closed.
For those of you not familiar with the Kasold Curve, there is a small county road just to the south of the curve that connects with the busy South Lawrence Trafficway. As we’ve previously reported, the Kansas Department of Transportation is in the early stages of creating a design that would expand that portion of the trafficway from two lanes to four. KDOT has long said it would want to close that at-grade intersection at the Kasold Curve at that point. But for most motorists, that possibility was some far off event. The earliest that four-lane project could happen would be 2020.
But now, KDOT officials are proposing to close the intersection this year. Some residents and at least one business are gearing up to oppose the move. A new website called savethekasoldcurve.com has been created, and a petition that aims to persuade KDOT officials to change their minds is circulating.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the current intersection is dangerous,” said Rodger Henry, who lives south of Lawrence and is an organizer of the petition. “But they need to spend the money to fix the Kasold Curve intersection, not close it.”
Henry said closing the intersection will eliminate a key access point for hundreds of residents southwest of Lawrence. He said the Kasold intersection is a convenient way to get access to west Lawrence. Henry has been joined by Lawrence Landscape in creating the petition. Lawrence Landscape operates a tree farm just south of the Kasold and SLT intersection.
Henry said he thinks the closing of the Kasold intersection will cause some residents who live southwest of the city to begin taking the road that goes across the Clinton Lake Dam to access west Lawrence. He said the dam road isn’t built to handle that type of traffic.
In addition to the petition drive, the group is urging people to attend a meeting later this week. The city-county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board is meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday at Lawrence City Hall to offer a recommendation on whether the Kasold/SLT intersection should be closed.
Officials from KDOT will be at the meeting to make the case. They are recommending that access to Kasold be closed later this year when the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway is open to traffic.
KDOT officials are predicting a large increase in traffic on the western leg of the SLT once the portion of the trafficway east of Iowa Street opens. Current projections are traffic at the Kasold intersection will increase to about 18,000 vehicles per day, up from about 11,000 vehicles currently. KDOT engineers are forecasting the number of accidents at the intersection will grow to about three crashes per year, up from a little more than one crash per year currently. They note that because of the high speeds on the trafficway, crashes at the intersection can be very serious.
KDOT engineers also are estimating it would cost about $1.6 million to improve the intersection with some acceleration and deceleration lanes, and other features. Those improvements would have to be removed when the SLT is expanded to four lanes.
KDOT officials also are reminding leaders that if the western leg of the SLT ultimately is expanded to four lanes, plans call for a new interchange a couple miles to the west of the current Kasold interchange. It would be in between the existing Kasold intersection and the existing at-grade Wakarusa Drive/YSI Sports complex intersection.
But as Henry notes, that interchange is years in the making, if it ever develops.
“You know it is going to be at least 10 years before any of that every comes to fruition,” Henry predicted.
In other news and notes from around town:
• I got word this morning that Biggs BBQ on Mass. is set to reopen later this week. Owner Doug Holiday told me he expects to open either Thursday or Friday of this week. The restaurant has been closed since March 3, when it and the adjacent Ladybird Diner were damaged by fire.
Holiday said the process to refurbish the restaurant has taken longer than he expected, and has been trying.
“It has been difficult trying to keep everything together,” Holiday said. “But the nice thing about it is we have a great new smoker. It will be a lot better environment for us to smoke in.”
The new smoker has meant a few tweaks to menus and cooking processes, and Holiday said he thinks patrons will notice the difference in a positive way. He said the restaurant has fine-tuned its processes for baby back ribs, brisket and burnt ends, and “we’ve create a few new recipes and jazzed up some to others.” Among the new ones Holiday said the restaurant is adding a vegetarian smoked portobello mushroom sandwich.
As for the interior of the restaurant, Holiday said he’s stuck with much of the same theme that existed before the fire. Holiday said the restaurant repairs were completed earlier, but he wanted to wait until students returned before he started hiring staff and preparing for the opening.
“We’re excited to reopen,” Holiday said. “There is a lot of relief to get the monkey off my back.”
City delays final vote to deny shopping center at SLT and Iowa; issue of what city wants developed at intersection still unclear
I certainly know a thing or two about backtracking. When you live in a house with a 12- and a 9-year-old you get to hear plenty of it. When you “complete” home improvement projects the way I do, you certainly get to practice it too. (I never said the staircase would go all the way to the bottom.) So, I’ll be interested if I hear any backtracking from the City Commission meeting as it relates to a proposed shopping center at the intersection of the SLT and Iowa Street.
We were scheduled to hear the commission discuss the shopping center issue at tonight’s meeting. They were asked to approve a legal document officially denying the proposed shopping center. But on Tuesday morning, City Hall sent notice that a vote on the matter would be delayed by at least one week.
I’m not sure what is causing the delay, but I certainly don’t expect commissioners to change their vote from last week and now allow the approximately 250,000-square-foot shopping center at the southeast corner of Iowa Street and the SLT. It sure appears that decision is done. That site won’t house anytime soon an Academy Sports, an Old Navy or any of the other retailers that were planning on coming to the center.
But it will be interesting to see if commissioners seek to massage the message they are sending by denying the project. As I wrote last week, I was not surprised commissioners voted to deny the shopping center proposal. I was surprised at one of the key reasons they used to deny the project: that the city is not ready for development south of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
I thought that was a surprising position to take given that the property in question has been part of the city limits since 1979, and that the City Commission just two years ago approved a plan for the area that stated the property was suitable for auto-related commercial development.
People who invest millions of dollars to develop in this community look for signals from the City Commission. Having a piece of property in the city limits is a signal that it is ready for development. Having a planning document that spells out a commercial use for a piece of property is a signal that it is ready for development. Combine those two, and developers view it as a green light.
Last week’s denial of the plan has shifted the light to yellow. Commissioners said they didn’t want a shopping center at that site. People can argue about whether that is a good decision, but it is a decision consistent with the city’s plan. To be fair, the city never sent a signal that it wanted a shopping center at that corner. Developers were testing the waters, and it appears that test is now complete, at least with this City Commission.
But as part of last week’s denial, commissioners ended up sending another signal. At least three commissioners have said they think the Revised Southern Development Plan — the plan approved two years ago that says the property should develop as an auto-related commercial center — needs to be revisited. That’s sending a signal that the city is no longer sure any type of commercial development — or perhaps any type of development at all — should occur on the property just south of one of the larger intersections in all of Douglas County. Again, the light shifts to yellow, and the question is whether it will turn to a full red.
Simply put, commissioners must decide whether they want to send a signal that an auto-related commercial use would be appropriate for the intersection. That could be something like a new car dealership, or a complex of hotels to attract travelers off the highway, or a large fueling center, or some combination of all of the above. Again, you could argue why the city would rather have that type of development at the intersection than a major shopping center, but it doesn’t seem like that argument is going to go anywhere with this commission. That makes the more interesting argument one of whether the intersection should have any commercial development. A new car dealership at the site, for example, certainly could be a significant sales tax generator for the community.
Commissioners were scheduled to discuss the subject tonight, but now have delayed the discussion for a week. Commissioners will be asked to approve a legal document called a “findings of fact.” It basically is a document written by a city attorney that spells out why commissioners denied the project last week. As you may guess, it is usually not a good sign when you have to ask an attorney to write a document explaining why you did something. It is a mechanism used to put the city on a good legal footing in case the city gets sued over the denial. I don’t know how likely a lawsuit is in this matter, but the city doesn’t like to take chances with such issues.
You can read the entire document here. It lists several reasons for denial, but it is interesting to note that it does not state that the city isn’t prepared for development south of the SLT. Instead, the document basically says that a shopping center at that intersection doesn’t comply with the city’s comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan calls for something like a car lot or hotels or some other auto-related use. This legal document that the city is being asked to approve still contemplates that a commercial use is foreseen for the intersection. Is that the message the City Commission intends to send, or does it still intend to send its yellow light message of “We’re not sure what ought to be built there"?
City commissioners last week could have denied the shopping center project by simply saying “we have a plan for that intersection and we’re not interested in changing it.” But commissioners didn’t say that. Instead they said something along the lines of “We have a plan for the intersection, we don’t want to change it to allow a shopping center there, and furthermore, we’re not sure we like the plan we have.”
The last part of the statement has produced some questions that it seems the commission will have to answer at some point:
— What type of development do they want at the intersection? Is an auto-related commercial center appropriate there? Is any type of commercial development appropriate there? These questions are the ones that seem to be frustrating significant numbers of the public. I have heard, by far, from more members of the public who are disappointed with the commission about this issue than people who are pleased with the commission. Their frustration seems to be that they thought the commission already had planned for this intersection and sent the signal that some form of commercial development was appropriate. Their second point of frustration is one of timing. The South Lawrence Trafficway has been in the works for more than 20 years. It has been easy to predict that this intersection would be a focal point of development pressure once the SLT was completed. The SLT is now near completion, the development pressure is hot, and the city is still trying to figure out what it wants for the intersection.
— What type of incentives is the city willing to offer big box retailers? With last week’s denial, this City Commission has decided it doesn’t want big box retail on that property. The site that is most well-positioned to accommodate multiple big box retailers is the property near Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence. It is zoned and ready to go, but has not attracted any tenants for the last several years. Does the City Commission have a good understanding of why that development hasn’t attracted any tenants? Does the city believe some type of financial incentive will need to be offered to entice a retailer to go to that far northwest location? Does the city have a different plan for attracting retailers to the community?
— How important is it to add new retail options in Lawrence? I think this one produces a variety of viewpoints both on the commission and in the community. What is clearer is that City Hall budget makers are counting on significant amounts of retail growth to make the city’s budget work. I wrote last week about how Lawrence had one of the higher growth rates of sales tax collections in the state in 2015. Sales tax collections grew by 4.7 percent. That was good news, but the growth rate still fell short of what city officials were hoping for. City budget makers had projected a 5 percent sales tax growth. More importantly, the city has budgeted for a 5 percent growth in sales tax in 2016. That’s a more aggressive projection than what City Hall has normally used. In the past it has budgeted for growth rates closer to 3 percent. In short, City Hall is betting on more sales taxes.
Does the city need more retailers to produce those sales taxes? I don’t know, but it is a question that Lawrence taxpayers have a vested interest in seeing answered. One way or another, the city’s budget will need to balance.
Rejection of south Iowa Street shopping center sends confusing signals about future of south Lawrence growth
I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that this intersection has confused me. After all, for more than a decade it has had a “Bridge to Nowhere.” I’m of course talking about the Iowa Street and SLT intersection, where a bridge that leads to an uncompleted road has stood for years, and likely has confused many a visitor about why we build bridges that don’t lead anywhere.
On Tuesday night, the intersection was the center of debate for the Lawrence City Commission. As we reported, commissioners on a 4-1 vote rejected plans for an approximately 250,000 square-foot shopping center at the southeast corner of the intersection.
I wasn’t confused or surprised that the commissioners rejected the plan. I knew that was a real possibility. But I was confused about the reasoning that some of them gave. Mayor Mike Amyx led the way on the opposition, and gave quite a speech about how the city is not ready to cross over to the south side of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
I didn’t expect that to be an issue on Tuesday night, given that the city already has crossed the SLT at that very point. The property that the North Carolina-based development group was seeking approval for commercial zoning is already in the city limits. It has been in the city limits since 1979. There was no decision on Tuesday night about whether to cross some line.
Commissioners knew that. They were aware the property was in the city limits. In talking with several of them on Wednesday, they seemed to be talking not about the city limits crossing the SLT but about city infrastructure — think water and sewer lines — crossing the SLT.
I did not see that being a stumbling block for this project.
First, city water and sewer lines clearly are headed not just south of the trafficway but south of the Wakarusa River. The city is in the process of building an approximately $50 million sewage treatment plant south of the Wakarusa River. But even without that project, there would seem to be little question that the proposed shopping center site is eligible to receive city utility services. It is, after all, in the city limits. Why would people agree to pay city taxes if the city can’t provide their property basic services?
I asked Amyx on Wednesday if the time wasn’t right for the city to jump the SLT whether the city ought to de-annex the property? He said he wasn’t sure but that “discussion may need to happen.”
That would be a strange turn of events. The city decides — after 37 years — to de-annex a piece of property at what will be at one of the larger and busier intersections in the entire county. Most communities are seeking to annex property in that situation, not de-annex it.
To be clear, I don’t expect the property to be de-annexed. The future of the property, though, will perhaps get discussed. Both Commissioners Lisa Larsen and Leslie Soden told me Wednesday that they think the community needs to have a large discussion about whether to cross the trafficway and what type of development should occur there.
That implies that the community hasn’t already had such a discussion. That’s not accurate. The city has a plan for the area in question. It is called the Southern Development Plan. It dates back to 1994. Then it got revised in 2008, and it got revised again in 2013. That plan spells out how it expects the southern portion of the south Iowa Street corridor to develop. The plan maps out future development south of the SLT, all the way to the Wakarusa River.
The plan shows multifamily development south of the trafficway, lots of open space in the floodplain areas, and for the parcel in question it shows something called “auto-related commercial” development. That has come to be defined as a commercial development like an auto dealership, or a hotel that attracts travelers off of K-10, or some would argue it also could include a truck stop or fueling center.
The North Carolina development group wanted to change the plan to just say commercial development. It wants the same type of commercial designation as the shopping district just north of the SLT, which can house big-box stores and other retailers.
So, to be clear, the developers were seeking that the city change its plans. I would not have been surprised if the City Commission simply said it wasn’t interested in changing its plans. The commission could say it had a well thought-out plan, and that for the sake of consistent long-term planning it wanted to stick to it. That would have caused some grumbling by people who think the city is missing an opportunity in the retail world, but the city could honestly say it was following its planning principles.
But that’s not what the city said. Instead, commissioners are saying they’re not sure they like the plan that was just approved two years ago. Both Larsen and Soden told me they had concerns about an auto-related commercial development for the site. Larsen, Soden and Amyx all said they thought they needed to discuss changing the Southern Development Plan.
As a reminder, the plan was just approved by the commission two years ago. Amyx was on that commission, and voted for the plan at the time. I asked him what had changed in the last two years. He responded by saying he just “doesn’t think the time is right” for development to begin in that area. There seems to be a question about whether our community’s long-term planning is going to change every two years when new commissioners are elected. It probably wouldn’t be the first time.
I tried to reach the fourth commissioner who voted against the project, Stuart Boley, but he didn’t return a call on Wednesday. (In case you are counting, Commissioner Matthew Herbert was the lone yes vote for the project.) Boley said in the meeting that if the city was going to change its plans, let’s do it “intentionally.” I called him because I’m not sure what that means. The proposed plan change — which received a positive recommendation from both the Planning Commission and the city’s professional planning staff — was clearly going through a formal, intentional process. The first plans were filed in early 2014. Some would say that is a lot of process.
Again, my surprise in all this isn’t that the commission rejected this shopping center plan. Reasonable people can disagree on whether this proposal was the right one for Lawrence. There are debates about whether Lawrence has enough income to support more retail. There’s debate about the impact on downtown, and one of the more interesting questions is whether Lawrence is at risk of having too much of its retail space concentrated in one geographic area.
I thought that last one may be the question that ended up causing commissioners to reject the plan. I thought commissioners might say that they are worried south Iowa retail is going to grow at the expense of all other retail areas in the community, and Lawrence would end up like Topeka where the vast majority of shopping is along one street. In particular, I think some city commissioners are worried that the south Iowa Street shopping center would make it difficult for the commercially zoned area around Rock Chalk Park in northwest Lawrence to develop. That area is shovel-ready for retail development, but thus far hasn’t had any takers for several years.
But, you know what, it is kind of politically difficult right now to say that you want to reject a shopping center on south Iowa Street — which was asking for no financial incentives — so that you can give more time for the Rock Chalk Park project to develop. So, commissioners didn’t exactly say that on Tuesday. Instead, they sent an odd signal that they aren’t sure they are ready to develop south of the SLT, even though the city limits already extend south of the SLT. Listen, city commissioners have tough jobs, and they work hard at them. I don’t aim to be too critical here. But people who want to invest money in our community watch for signals from the City Commission. You have to wonder what those people are thinking now.
I’m left wondering how the city ended up in this position. Think about this: The South Lawrence Trafficway project has been underway for more than 20 years. For that entire time it has been known there would be a major intersection at south Iowa Street. It has been easy to predict that when the state decided to invest more than $190 million to finish the disputed SLT project that it would create development pressure in the area. Indeed, the entire south Iowa corridor is under development pressure today, and now the City Commission says it isn’t sure what type of development should happen there. How did that happen?
Surely, no one will suggest the SLT has sneaked up on us.
Like I said, the intersection is a confusing one. Soon, at least, the bridge will make more sense.
The Lawrence argument that won’t end: To build more retail or to not build more retail; commissioners prepare to hear SLT shopping center proposal on Tuesday
Get your pointing finger limber, and your vocal chords warm. We’re set to engage in a great Lawrence tradition this week: arguing over whether Lawrence should build a shopping center.
City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are scheduled to vote on some rezoning and planning issues for the KTen Crossing shopping center project, which would add about 250,000 square feet of new retail and commercial space at the southeast corner of the SLT and Iowa Street interchange.
The development group has said it has Academy Sports, Old Navy, HomeGoods, Fresh Market and either Designer Shoe Warehouse or Off Broadway Shoes ready to become anchor tenants for the project.
The line already has been drawn, and various groups firmly have planted themselves for or against the project. That is what we tend to do in Lawrence. Every few years Lawrence has battles about whether to build a new retail project. The Super Target center, the now defunct Borders bookstore downtown, the Home Depot project at 31st and Iowa, a proposed Lowe’s near Sixth Street and Follks Road and the Wal-Mart near Sixth and Wakarusa are a few that easily come to mind.
On the side pushing for approval of this project are, of course, the developers, a group based out of North Carolina that builds shopping centers in a host of communities across the country. The city also has received a number of letters from residents supporting the project, including several from people who are associated with the pro-business group called Cadre Lawrence.
On the side pushing to deny the project there are several groups including the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, and KU urban planning professor Kirk McClure, who has become the thought-leader for the Association of Neighborhoods on many issues related to economic growth in Lawrence.
Also worth noting is that both the city’s professional planning staff and the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission are recommending approval of the project. That is different from in 2014 when the project was proposed to be about 500,000 square feet. At that size, the project didn’t win a positive recommendation, but the Planning Commission rethought the proposal when the development group decided to cut the size of the project in half.
City commissioners have held their cards close to their vest. Commissioner Matthew Herbert during the campaign made statements indicating he would support the project, especially since it has not asked for any tax breaks or other public incentives. Commissioner Leslie Soden made statements during the campaign indicating she had concerns with the proposal. The other three commissioners have been tough to read, but I’ve seen signs they are each open to the idea of approving the project. Whichever side can get two of the three to come to their side of the line will win the day.
The arguments in this matter basically will be twofold. Supporters will argue the community has too many Lawrence residents leaving town to shop due to a lack of retailers. They’ll also argue that we could get a few out-of-town shoppers — think Baldwin City, Eudora, rural Douglas County and Franklin County — if we offered some big box retailers that were more convenient than what is offered in Johnson County.
Opponents will argue that Lawrence already has too many retailers, that our incomes aren’t high enough to support more retail spending, that additional retail development will hurt downtown and other existing retailers, and that Lawrence can’t really compete with the retail offerings of Johnson County and Topeka.
Here’s my prediction: We’ll still be arguing about all those issues well after Tuesday night’s meeting is complete. I’ve covered the city’s business scene since 1992, and this basic argument has never gone away. And, when you think about it, why should it? What has the city ever done to try to end the argument? For the most part, the same groups of people come to a city commission lectern every few years and talk about how the other side is wrong and how they are right.
Nothing I’m about to write should be construed as arguing for a delay on this project — the KTen Crossing proposal already has dragged on for a long time — but, could the community benefit from an objective third party that could provide some guidance on retail issues?
Here’s a look at just two points that could perhaps benefit from a trusted third-party:
• McClure, as he often does, has written a letter to city commissioners detailing why the project ought to be rejected. Let me say this up front: I respect McClure. Unlike some people who step to the lectern of a public meeting, he does spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the issues. But his findings often are not universally accepted. There is one statement in his recent letter that I suspect will be a lighting rod for debate: “More stores do not create more spending. Rather, only more income in the community can drive growth in the economy. As a result, more stores do not create more spending, more sales taxes, more retail jobs or more value of retails buildings.” That’s written as a fact, but is it?
What if everybody’s income stays the same, but a new store opens in town that causes people to buy their goods in Lawrence rather than drive somewhere else to buy them? Wouldn’t that cause the amount of sales taxes collected in Lawrence to increase, even though incomes haven’t? I think some folks will argue that is what has happened recently with the opening of Dick’s Sporting Goods in Lawrence. Ask parents with school-age children whether they have bought any items at the Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Lawrence that they normally would have traveled out of town to purchase.
I called McClure to talk with him about the letter and that statement. He acknowledged that it is possible for a community’s sales tax collections to grow by reducing the number of shoppers who leave town. But he just doesn’t think that happens very often.
“It can happen, but the odds are pretty slim,” he said, adding that it usually take a super magnet store, like a Costco, to really move the needle.
McClure thinks proponents of new shopping centers overestimate the number of residents who are leaving Lawrence to shop and the number of residents who can be persuaded to keep their dollars at home.
“A very few shoppers from Lawrence will drive to KTen Crossing rather than Johnson County or Topeka,” McClure writes. “This will probably be a number too small to measure.”
Is that what an unbiased expert in the retail field believes? I don’t know. I don’t think the city does either.
• As developers often do, they commissioned a study from an expert they have hired. The retail market report by the developer’s expert talks about how the additional retail space will be well received in the community. The developers have used the findings of that study to make a specific statement: 40 percent of all Lawrence retail dollars spent on apparel are being spent outside of Lawrence.
That number is either accurate or inaccurate. I have no idea which. It would be nice to simply assume that it is true since it came from a professional in the field, but experts hired by developers are going to do nothing to ease the minds of skeptics. But could the city at some point hire an unbiased party to look at that number and others? Hire somebody to paint a picture of Lawrence’s retail scene, and more importantly help us understand what is reasonable? If Lawrence is losing 40 percent of its apparel dollars, how much do other communities lose? What is reasonable for Lawrence to expect, given that it is so close to Topeka and Kansas City?
There are people out there who could provide reasonable answers to those questions and others. Somebody, for example, needs to figure out what is a reasonable expectation for downtown Lawrence’s retail future. Recently, the number of retail outlets in downtown has fallen. Should that be alarming, or will the amount of new residential construction underway in downtown change that trend?
And what about the area near Rock Chalk Park? It is zoned for more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space, but none has been built yet despite it being on the market for years. Why not? There may well be a sentiment on the City Commission to deny the KTen Crossing because it will further delay the development of the Rock Chalk Park area. City commissioners are right to consider ways to create retail districts throughout the community, but if the city denies KTen Crossing in order to spur development at Rock Chalk Park, are they doing anything more than keeping their fingers crossed?
There won’t be any unbiased third party that comes to the rescue prior to Tuesday’s meeting. Commissioners will have to decide this issue the old-fashioned way: wade through argument after argument.
I’m not sure there ever will be a third party that can help us out with our retail argument. McClure and I agreed on a key point when we chatted recently: Any attempt to hire a third-party consultant to help City Hall understand the retail market would spark a massive argument. One side would argue Consulting Firm A is a shill for the development industry. The other side would argue Consulting Firm B is a pawn of the no-growth crowd.
Meanwhile, one point that isn’t argued: The city budget relies a lot on sales tax dollars. At least this argument isn’t a petty one.