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City’s planning staff recommends approval of major SLT retail development

If you are a fan of Old Navy, feel free to blow your fog horn and do your best Popeye impersonation. A development that is proposing to bring Old Navy, Academy Sports, Designer Shoe Warehouse and a host of other retailers to south Iowa Street has cleared its first hurdle to approval.

The city's planning staff is recommending approval of the necessary rezoning requests and other such items needed to build the project at the southeast corner of Iowa Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. But hold on there, sailor. Before you order a gross of skinny jeans and midriff T's, remember that a recommendation from the city's planning staff is kind of like a bitcoin: It is worth something if you can get somebody to take it.

This proposed retail development still must win approval from the Planning Commission, the City Commission, and the Douglas County Commission will even have to vote on a portion of it. So, the project is a long way from a done deal, but developments that receive a negative recommendation from the planning staff have a decidedly uphill battle.

Based on the conversations I've heard, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that this project would receive a positive recommendation from planning staff. It is almost certain that the project is going to receive some opposition at the City Commission level. Commissioner Bob Schumm already has indicated he thinks the proposal would throw the city's retail market out of geographic balance. That's a debate that likely will emerge in the coming weeks, but the planning staff did not find the threat of creating a geographic imbalance enough to recommend denial.

Here are some key findings from the planning staff's reports:

• The project would add 460,000 square feet of new retail space, plus 80,000 square feet of hotel space.

• There are three fairly large areas in town that already have been zoned for retail uses but haven't really developed yet. The largest is the Mercato area near the Rock Chalk Park sports complex near Sixth and the SLT. The other two are the area near Johnny's Tavern in North Lawrence, which has been proposed for a riverside type of retail and entertainment area, and the area near Tractor Supply near 23rd and O'Connell.

The report notes if this proposed development is approved, it very well could increase the amount of time that those already-approved areas sit undeveloped. But the planning staff did not find that possibility a good reason to recommend denial.

• The report found the area is suitable for retail development. The city's comprehensive plan calls for the area to develop with a mix of apartments and commercial development that is of an "auto-oriented" nature. Think either a car lot or even a truck stop. The planning staff's report said the comprehensive plan does need to be changed to allow this development because the retail uses would be different than the auto-oriented uses envisioned in Horizon 2020. But the report recommends approval, saying that the proposed development would be a natural extension of the south Iowa Street commercial corridor.

• The report did not find a likelihood that the new retail development would substantially increase the retail vacancy rate in the city. The report said it was highly unlikely that the developer would build any part of the project without first having signed leases for the space. The report does note that it is likely up to three existing retailers in town — no names given — will relocate to the site. But the report noted that in recent years vacated store fronts in Lawrence have successfully redeveloped in a reasonable period of time. Think the formers Sears building which now houses Dick's Sporting Goods, and the former Food-4-Less, which now houses Discovery Furniture.

• Data suggests the city's retail market is now attracting more spending than it is losing. In 1999, the city had per capita retail spending that was 1 percent below the statewide average. In 2013, it had grown to 7 percent above the statewide average. Developers of the project, however, note that Lawrence still trails several other cities in that regard. Lenexa's per capita spending is 59 percent above the statewide average, Salina's 45 percent, Leawood's 42 percent, Topeka's, 33 percent, and Manhattan's 31 percent. The developers also note that Lawrence still well below 2001 totals, when per capita spending was 18 percent above the statewide average. The staff report didn't weigh in on how Lawrence compares to other communities, but said that the recent improvement in the per capita spending numbers was a sign that the retail market was healthy and could absorb more space.

You can read the full reports here and here.

Activity on the project will start heating up quickly. The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission will hold a hearing on the proposal Monday evening. It could take votes on the necessary rezoning and comprehensive plan amendments needed for the project. If action is taken by the Planning Commission, the item could be before the City Commission in a couple of weeks.

Then, I think it will get pretty interesting. Based on talk I've heard, I think there are some conflicted city commissioners on this one. Here are some questions I think commissioners likely are mulling:

• Can they do anything to steer retail development toward northwest Lawrence and the new Rock Chalk Park sports complex? Thus far several retailers have taken a pass on that area — think Menards, Dick's Sporting Goods and PetSmart. Clearly there are commissioners who want development to go in that direction. They would like to see more retail options in western Lawrence, but retailers have said they like synergy that is created with the south Iowa corridor. But I've heard commissioners say they don't want Lawrence's retail market to develop like Topeka's, where most of it is located in one area of town.

• Can the city financially afford to say no? This is an interesting time to bring forward a large project at City Hall. The city is proposing a 1.85 mill property tax increase, and a larger tax increase likely soon will be proposed for a police headquarters building. The developers have estimated the project will add $1.1 million a year to the city's sales tax coffers by 2017, and the amount will grow to $2.1 million by 2020. Those are numbers put together by the development group, so you can take them for whatever you think they're worth. The city's planning staff didn't try to verify or refute those numbers.

But there's another set of numbers yet to come. Those will be estimates on how much the development will pay in property taxes. As we reported recently, the developers have said they don't intend to seek any tax rebates from the city on this project. That means the city not only will get to keep all the sales tax revenue generated by the project, but also all the property tax revenue. The property taxes will be significant. For example, the Walmart at 33rd and Iowa streets paid $390,000 in property taxes in 2013. This proposed development will be newer and will have about three times as much square footage as Walmart.

Will commissioners feel comfortable rejecting this proposal and its tax dollars, and then turning around and asking the public for another tax increase to pay for a police headquarters building?

It looks like it will be a summer of interesting questions and answers at City Hall.

Reply 5 comments from Merrill Kingfisher Brad Hightower Floyd Craig

Haskell Avenue may reopen earlier than expected; Dick’s Sporting Goods expected to announce opening date soon

The Haskell Hassle may be over sooner than we expected. If you aren't familiar with the Haskell Hassle, that's the phrase I've coined to describe the traffic mess that has resulted from the closure of a key portion of Haskell Avenue south of 23rd Street. (I thought for sure the Haskell Hassle T-shirts were going to fund my kids' college education. I guess I should have set the T-shirt stand up on a part of the road that wasn't closed.)

Regardless, the word at City Hall these days is that the closed part of Haskell Avenue is scheduled to reopen in July. That's different than what has been reported previously. The city's official infrastructure report warns motorists that the road may be closed until the spring of 2015.

But City Engineer David Cronin has told city commissioners that the latest information he has from the Kansas Department of Transportation is that the road likely will open in July. Even though Haskell is a city street, KDOT is the boss on this project because the closure is part of the South Lawrence Trafficway construction.

This may mean our little trips in the country may be coming to an end. Perhaps those of you on the western side of the city aren't familiar with this, but motorists on the eastern edge of the city have been taking some pretty creative routes to get to the 31st and Haskell area. A popular one has been to take O'Connell Road and then hook up with a gravel road that is officially known as North 1250. Unofficially it is known as the Retirement Plan for Every Shock and Alignment Shop in Town. The road has become a bit bumpy. As traffic congestion has grown at 23rd and Louisiana, this route has become particularly popular for some people in my house looking for a short cut to get to the shopping shrine known as South Iowa Street. (There are also some other routes. Through the cow pasture, cut the barbed wire, hit the ramp at 30 miles an hour to get over the creek . . . wait, I'm probably not supposed to talk about this.)

But don't worry, once Haskell Avenue opens, you'll still have opportunities to take some circuitous routes through Lawrence. That's because, as we've previously reported, the eastern part of 31st Street is set to close once Haskell reopens. Perhaps you are confused: 31st Street is being closed because it is being relocated to the south as part of the SLT project. When it reopens — perhaps in mid 2015 — it will be in its new location, and it won't end at Haskell Avenue. The new 31st Street will stretch all the way to O'Connell Road.

But there will be closures in the meantime. If you suffer from low blood pressure, look at the map below to get a sense of what closures will be in place for probably about a year. Or click on this link to get a larger view.

The takeaway from that map is that my wife is shopping for a four-wheeler with a U-Haul trailer to get back and forth from the South Iowa Shopping district. Cronin said his understanding is that 31st Street between Louisiana and Ousdahl will close sometime in June. The rest of 31st Street between Louisiana and Haskell will close in July, after Haskell Avenue has been reopened. So, you'll be able to travel on Haskell, but you won't be able to turn onto 31st Street. You'll also be able to travel on Louisiana, but you won't be able to turn onto 31st Street.

If you are on the eastern side of the city, you could drive down 23rd Street and turn at Iowa, but you may want to remember that 23rd and Iowa is the site of a major reconstruction project into November. But city officials are still going to encourage motorists to take that route. Cronin said it may not be as bad as you think. During much of the project — but not all — westbound 23rd Street will have two lanes of traffic and one left-hand turn lane open.

Another option Cronin has suggest is to take Haskell Avenue extended to County Route 458 just south of Lawrence. Then take County Route 458 over to U.S. Highway 59, which leads right into the South Iowa Street shopping district.

So, maybe our drives in the country aren't over yet, but I wouldn't count on it. When city commissioners were being briefed on the situation, Commissioner Terry Riordan interjected. He pointed out that 27th Street will still be open. Indeed, 27th Street between Louisiana and Iowa Street will be open. But City Manager David Corliss jumped in and said city officials wouldn't want to do anything to encourage that as a detour. The area along 27th Street is residential, and homeowners there probably wouldn't appreciate the thousands of extra cars per day.

But whether city officials encourage it or not, I suspect residents along 27th Street ought to brace themselves for what could be heavier than normal traffic for the next several months. But don't worry, I'll do my part: I'll ask my wife to put a better muffler on the four-wheeler.

In other news and notes from around town:

• I don't yet have an opening date for Dick's Sporting Goods at 27th and Iowa street, but I'm getting a certain tingling in my cleats that suggests news on that front is coming soon. (I hope that is what the tingling is.)

Actually, I got a note from a Dick's Sporting Goods representative that said they expect to announce the grand opening date for the store next week. That doesn't mean the store is opening next week, but it is probably a good indication that we're only a few weeks away. Company officials have said they'll have a big three-day grand opening celebration that will include a "variety of giveaways and special appearances in-store." I will let you know when I hear the date.

Courtesy: City of Lawrence

Courtesy: City of Lawrence by Chad Lawhorn

Reply 5 comments from Jay Reynolds Littlefuzzy Chad Lawhorn Eric Ryan Russell Fryberger

Retail sales in the city up 3 percent for the year; SLT opponents organizing “occupation” event at the wetlands

There must have been a lot of families with back-to-school shopping lists this season much like mine: pencils, erasers, notebooks, diamond earrings. (What's that? I was told it is a necessity that mothers looks stylish at PTO meetings.)

Regardless, the latest sales tax report from Lawrence City Hall shows that something caused a spike in sales during that back-to-school season. The city's September sales tax report — which actually includes sales data from the mid-July to mid-August time period — shows taxable sales in the city were up a whopping 17 percent from September 2012.

I never make too much of one month's worth of data because statistical anomalies can pop up, but the bigger picture also is looking more positive than it did for the city just a few months ago. With nine months of sales tax checks in the bank, retail sales in the city are up 3 percent from the same period a year ago.

Bottomline: Retail sales are growing at a decent clip in Lawrence, but not nearly as fast as they did in 2012. At this time last year, retail sales were up 6 percent. But I can tell you that City Hall officials who rely on sales tax collections for a big part of their budgets are breathing a little easier now. At the midway point of 2013, retail sales were up just 1.7 percent for the year, and it was uncertain whether the city's sales tax collection would meet budget for the year.

It appears more likely that the city will make its budget at this point. With just three more checks to collect in 2013, collections in the city's largest sales tax fund are about 1 percent over budget projections. So, the fourth quarter still will be key, but City Hall budget-makers feel better about their chances than they did a few months ago.

As for how Lawrence stacks up with other cities, it is a mixed bag. The data indicates Lawrence's retail sales growth may be a little bit behind the statewide average. For all jurisdictions that collect a local sales tax, the average growth rate thus far for 2013 has been 3.7 percent compared to 3.0 percent for Lawrence. Here's a look at how some of the larger retail markets in the state have fared year-to-date:

• Emporia: up 3.6 percent

• Hays: down 8.3 percent

• Kansas City: up 5.7 percent

• Manhattan: down 0.1 percent

• Olathe: up 4.5 percent

• Overland Park: up 3.2 percent

• Salina: up 2.9 percent

• Shawnee: up 5.1 percent

• Topeka: up 1.7 percent

Here's a look at some of the smaller markets around Lawrence. The sales totals in these communities are much smaller, so wilder swings are possible. But with nine months in the books, most are having a strong year:

• Baldwin City: up 1.4 percent

• Basehor: up 16 percent

• Eudora: up 14.2 percent

• Ottawa: up 6.9 percent

• Tonganoxie: up 10.0 percent

And finally, here's a look at how Lawrence's retail sales totals year-to-date compare to the same period in past years, and how they have been growing once adjusted for inflation. The number in parenthesis is the inflation-adjusted total for the year:

2013: $1.03 billion 2012: $1.00 billion ($1.02B) 2011: $947.9 million ($985.5M) 2010: $916.5 million ($983.0M) 2009: $930.7 million ($1.01B) 2008: $966.2 million ($1.04B)

So, once adjusted for inflation, Lawrence's retail sales are up about 1 percent for the year, and we're still lagging behind where we were before the economic downturn that hit in late 2008. But don't worry, we'll catch up. I think there is another PTO meeting coming up.

In other news and notes from around town:

• From PTO to WPO — the Wetlands Preservation Organization. As I've been telling you, get ready for some protests out at the Baker Wetlands as roadwork on the South Lawrence Trafficway likely will begin in the wetlands next month. Well, the WPO — which includes a lot of students from Haskell Indian Nations University — is beginning to show its hand in that regard. The organization's Facebook page is advertising an "Occupy the Wakarusa Wetlands" event on Oct. 25 and Oct. 26. According to a flier on the site, the group is encouraging people to camp at the wetlands and "help us protest this atrocity." The website also says the group is trying to "organize resistance and awareness in any way possible," and it even makes reference to the large protests that have gripped the Arab world. "There is an Indian Summer coming this fall," an organizer wrote on the page. "It looks a lot like an Arab Spring."

It will be interesting to watch the changing of the seasons at the wetlands in the coming weeks.

• In the category of notable commercial sales: It looks like one of Lawrence's more renowned music venues has taken a step to secure its future in downtown Lawrence. According to a filing at the Douglas County Register of Deeds, a company led by Brett Mosiman, owner of The Bottleneck, has purchased the building at 737 New Hampshire, which houses the The Bottleneck. The building was owned by a trust in the name of longtime Lawrence attorney Lance Burr.

Reply 6 comments from Snap_pop_no_crackle Merrill Lesblevins Ruthhb Kevin Groenhagen Keith Richards Samo