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.
New multimillion dollar medical building set for west Lawrence; future of Clinton Parkway interchange may spark a battle
I don’t know what you west Lawrence residents are doing, but the medical community sure thinks you need its help. The area around the west Lawrence intersection of Sixth and Folks Road is becoming quite the medical hub, and a new million dollar-plus project aims to add to it.
Plans have been filed at City Hall for a $2.5 million building that will be the new home for a pediatric dental practice, plus have space for two other medical offices. Growing Smiles Pediatric Dentistry will be the primary tenant for the new building, which will be constructed on a vacant lot just east of the Central Bank of the Midwest building that is on the northeast corner of Sixth and Folks Road.
Lawrence dentist Kelli Henderson operates Growing Smiles Dentistry and the practice is located in office space near Bob Billings and Wakarusa. Henderson’s husband, Jake Stoetzner, is leading the development of the new building. Stoetzner said the new location will about double the space Growing Smiles has for patients and staff.
“It will allow us more space and serve our patients better,” Stoetzner said. “It will allow for faster turnaround times so we can see more patients. We would like to add additional dentists down the road, but we would still be focused on pediatric dentistry.”
Growing Smiles will take about half of the approximately 14,000 square-foot building. The other half is designed to accommodate two more tenants. Stoetzner said deals have not been struck with any tenants yet, but he’s hoping the building will be able to attract other medical-oriented businesses.
If so, it would continue a bit of a trend for the intersection. As we’ve previously reported, Topeka Ear Nose and Throat has located in a new building at the southwest corner of the intersection, and plans have been filed for Xpress Wellness Urgent Care at the northwest corner of the intersection. The trend has been underway for a couple of years. Peterson Krische Van Horn Family Dentistry was one of the first to build at the intersection, with a nice medical building that is just to the north of the Growing Smiles site. (For some reason, anytime two dentists are located next to each other, I get a mental picture of dueling dentists with water picks in the parking lot. But I’m sure that doesn’t happen — in the light of day.)
Sigler Pharmacy also is located right near the intersection, and CVS is just a block away at Sixth and Wakarusa. If you want to expand the area just a bit, construction work is underway near Sixth and Kasold on another new urgent care facility. MedExpress is going in where Spangles previously was located. Wow, it is almost like the health care industry is a major driver of the U.S. economy.
Anyway, keep your eyes open for construction work on the Growing Smiles site. Stoetzner said he expects to start work in late October and have the building completed by next summer.
In other news and notes from around town:
• It may not be as fierce as a water pick battle, but I do expect some opposition to the idea of closing the Clinton Parkway interchange on the South Lawrence Trafficway.
As we reported earlier this week, KDOT officials briefed local leaders on the idea of permanently closing the Clinton Parkway interchange as part of a future project to make the western leg of the SLT four lanes. KDOT has to find funding to do the massive project, so a timeline isn’t known. But it is a good bet that it will happen. The state is spending nearly $200 million to build the eastern leg of the SLT as a four-lane. To not make the western leg of the SLT a four-lane would be like my wife buying a new purse without buying the shoes to match. Or me buying a new set of golf clubs without purchasing liability insurance. (I’m trying to be equal opportunity here, and I’m also trying to lay the groundwork for a new set of golf clubs.)
By the end of the year, KDOT hopes to have a concept plan approved for the four-lane project. One alternative keeps the Clinton Parkway interchange, but another one eliminates the interchange. Motorists who currently use the interchange would have to take a new access road that would be built along the west side of the SLT and would run from Clinton Parkway to Bob Billings. In case you have forgotten, a new SLT interchange is being constructed at Bob Billings and should be completed before the end of the year.
I’ve already started to hear from folks who don’t like the possibility of the Clinton Parkway interchange being eliminated. Greg DiVilbiss is a local developer, and his family owns five acres of commercially zoned property at Lake Pointe Drive and Clinton Parkway. The property is currently vacant, and Divilbiss said removing the nearby interchange would devastate the property’s value and potential for commercial development.
“We’re 1,000 percent against the idea,” DiVilbiss said.
KDOT has expressed interest in removing the interchange because it says traffic volumes at the interchange are relatively low and are predicted to be relatively light in the future. The interchange also is at the site of a large curve on the road, and engineers have noted that is not ideal for safety purposes.
But removing the interchange will have a big impact on people who have invested in the area. DiVilbiss noted that his family already has paid about $250,000 in special assessments on the property, and it did so with the the belief that the existing interchange was going to be there to serve the commercial property.
Although the property is vacant currently, he thinks there is good potential for commercial development in the future. He said one concept plan includes about a 15,000 square-foot neighborhood shopping center, a small hotel, and a nice restaurant with a rooftop deck that could provide views of nearby Clinton Lake.
“It could be one of the best views in the city,” DiVilbiss said.
There is a developing neighborhood in the area as well. Having easy access to the SLT —which will make commuting to KC or Topeka much easier — probably was a selling point to some homeowners in the area.
Some of those homes could be at risk of being relocated, as well. KDOT has said it wants to improve the geometrics of the SLT’s large curve in the area. That could involve moving the road closer to the homes. Here's a map that we ran from a previous article about possible KDOT options to change the curve to better accommodate a 70 mph speed limit.
But a bigger issue for the community in general may be what type of access we think Clinton Lake deserves. State officials note that people still will be able to access Clinton Lake via Clinton Parkway, just as they do today. But if you are coming in from outside the community, it is nice to access the lake via the trafficway. That could continue, but folks would have to travel to the Bob Billings interchange and then take a new access road. The distance is probably around 10 blocks, so I guess it is a matter of opinion how significant that is.
I do wonder, though, whether KDOT officials have had a conversation with their fellow state workers in the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism. The current leaders of that agency have had hopes of locating a significant resort in the Clinton Lake State Park. That idea has struggled to gain momentum in the hospitality industry. If the interchange for Clinton Lake disappears, I would think that would further cripple any momentum for the resort idea.
Clinton Lake is one of the most expensive infrastructure projects ever constructed in Douglas County. It seems the community never has figured out how much it really wants to capitalize off of the lake. The time to get it figured out probably is drawing near.
Keep your eyes open for a date for an open house in mid-to-late October where you'll be able to express opinions to KDOT leaders.
SLT project would create major changes for west Lawrence traffic; city auditor urges more protection of certain City Hall files
I already have enough arguments with my GPS when I’m in west Lawrence. But if the Kansas Department of Transportation expands the western leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway to four lanes, I may have even more.
KDOT leaders will be in Lawrence on Tuesday to brief city officials on several alternatives they’re studying to expand the western portion of the SLT to four lanes. The project — if it ever receives funding — would involve several major changes that would take a bit of getting used to for motorists. Here are some examples:
— There is currently an interchange on the Kansas Turnpike that is commonly referred to as the Lecompton interchange. But under one plan being considered, there would be an entirely new interchange that would serve Lecompton. The proposal calls for a new interchange to be built about 2 miles west of the existing Lecompton interchange. The new interchange would allow you to access Lecompton Road — also known as County Route 1029 — the Farmer’s Turnpike — also known as County Route 438 — and the Kansas Turnpike — also known as Interstate 70. (There are more aliases in that area than at a prison yard barbecue.) But motorists would not be able to use the new interchange to access the South Lawrence Trafficway.
If you want to exit the Kansas Turnpike and directly access the SLT, you would need to do that at the existing interchange, which would need to quit being called the Lecompton interchange. That existing interchange would be rebuilt in a manner so motorists could no longer access Lecompton Road or the Farmer’s Turnpike.
If you are having a hard time following this, don’t feel bad. I’ve already thrown three GPS units against the wall just trying to figure out how to write it. But here’s one way to picture it: If you are coming from Lecompton and want to get on the SLT to go shopping in south Lawrence, your most direct route will involve getting on the Kansas Turnpike, driving two miles to the redesigned SLT interchange and paying your fare of a quarter or so. (I don’t have information on what the rate will be. I’m assuming it is in that range based on current fares.) Motorists who don’t want to pay the fare would have a couple of other options. They could stay on County Route 1029 until it intersects with U.S. Highway 40 west of Lawrence, and then take Highway 40 to the SLT. Or, they could take the Farmer's Turnpike until it intersects with Queens Road — also known as E 1000 Road — and use Queens to connect with Sixth Street and then take Sixth Street to the SLT.
— There is also an interchange on the current South Lawrence Trafficway known as the Clinton Parkway interchange. Under one scenario, it would be eliminated. That may cause you a bit of a problem — or at least a really big tow truck bill — if you try to tow your boat to nearby Clinton Lake via the SLT. Currently, the Clinton Parkway interchange serves as a gateway to Clinton Lake State Park.
KDOT engineers, however, are proposing a new access road be built from Clinton Parkway to the Bob Billings Parkway/SLT interchange that currently is under construction. Lake visitors then could exit off the SLT at Bob Billings Parkway and take the access road over to the Clinton Lake entrance. The new access road would be on the west side of the SLT. Motorists on Clinton Parkway also would continue to be able to get to the lake just as they do today.
• Getting to the city’s YSI sports complex near Wakarusa Drive and the SLT also would be different under the proposed plans. Engineers are hoping it will be significantly safer. Plans call for either an overpass or an underpass that would allow motorists on Wakarusa to access the ball fields without having to cross SLT traffic, which is required today.
Motorists who want to exit the SLT and go to the sports complex would do so at a new interchange proposed for a site about a mile east of the current at-grade intersection of Wakarusa and the SLT. A new frontage road would be built that would take motorists to the sports complex and to Wakarusa Drive.
• An existing at-grade intersection where Kasold Drive and the SLT intersect would be eliminated. Engineers say the at-grade crossing is a traffic hazard, and there are not enough motorists using the intersection to warrant building a full interchange.
KDOT officials will brief city and county commissioners on the proposed SLT options at a 4 p.m. study session on Tuesday at City Hall.
KDOT will continue to gather input from various stakeholders and then will announce its recommendations for the project in mid-to-late October.
When work may begin to convert the SLT into a four-lane road, however, is anybody’s guess. KDOT is spending money to create this concept study, but it would take tens of millions of dollars to actually build the project. That will involve winning funding from the Kansas Legislature in the future. No word on when that may happen, but KDOT officials have said they are confident traffic volumes on the western portion of the SLT will dictate four lanes of traffic.
Work is underway to complete the long-stalled eastern portion of the SLT. When it opens in 2016, it will be a four-lane road.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Getting lost in west Lawrence is one thing. (The worst that generally happens is I get the F150 stuck somewhere near the No. 7 green of Alvamar.) Losing your identity is another matter altogether.
A new report by City Auditor Michael Eglinski suggests Lawrence City Hall could be doing a bit more to prevent identity theft through the use of city files.
Eglinski, at Tuesday’s meeting, will present an audit to city commissioners recommending that the city adopt a formal policy for protecting personally identifiable information in city files. The city has lots of personal data in its file cabinets and computer servers. There’s all the standard information about city employees, but there are also files with lots of information about city utility customers, folks who file a police report, or people who have a case in Municipal Court.
Eglinski’s audit found Lawrence City Hall doesn’t have a formal plan for how to deal with an incident that involves the loss of personal data. Eglinski’s audit recommends the city begin working on such a plan, and begin directing the city’s Information Technology Department to “establish a framework for safeguarding personally identifiable information.” Part of that plan should include a strategy for how long the city should keep certain types of records before destroying them.
Eglinski’s report noted there are multiple instances where cities have had bad things happen to personal data in their files. A couple of examples: An employee of the Seattle Municipal Court stole numerous credit card numbers from people in the court’s computer system; Springfield, Mo., lost personal data on more than 2,000 people after a hacker broke into the city’s website.
Eglinski, though, did find that city employees generally understand the importance of protecting the personal data in the city’s files. In a written response to the audit, Interim City Manager Diane Stoddard said she sees the value in creating a more robust system to protect personal data. She said the city’s currently in the process of purchasing and insurance policy that will protect the city financially from a data breech. She said that insurance policy will allow the city to access some information technology security expertise. She said the city also in the process of developing a records retention plan.
Knights of Columbus to close E. 23rd Street events hall; new food cart slated for downtown; SLT project to create long-term lane reductions on K-10
For decades, the Knights of Columbus building on east 23rd Street has been home to bird shows, gun shows (not at the same time), wedding receptions and a host of other events. I even have been known to put on my best Western dancing shirt and head to the Knights of Columbus for its live country dance bands. But all that is changing. (Clarification: I’m keeping the shirt.) The organization is in the process of closing the building and finding a new owner for the large piece of property.
Kevin Oneslager, an officer with the group that owns the building, said the Knights have stopped taking reservations for the use of the building and the fraternal organization is no longer holding its meetings there, either. Some of you may have noticed that all of the Knights of Columbus signs have been removed in recent days.
Oneslager said events that already have been booked would go on as planned. Oneslager said the Knights of Columbus organization also is still very much alive and well. It is holding its meetings at the St. John’s Catholic Church. Members of the Knights, however, decided they were just spending too much time managing the large building.
“We would rather focus our time on the charity. Our main focus is on charity,” Oneslager said.
Plus, now is probably a good time to sell the building. It's on the far eastern edge of Lawrence and is adjacent to the city’s VenturePark property, which is the new business/industrial park on the former Farmland Industries site. The building, which dates to the mid-1960s, sits on about 2 acres of commercial zoned property, and is highly visible from 23rd Street. It also is adjacent to two other pieces of 23rd Street property that could be candidates for redevelopment — the former Don’s Steakhouse building and the former Diamond Everley Roofing building.
Those three properties combined would create a large area for redevelopment on 23rd Street. I haven’t heard of any specific plan to do so, but certainly the idea has come up among some in the commercial real estate business.
Oneslager said the ownership group is in the process of getting an appraisal and expects to start fielding interest in the property later in 2015.
“It is a great location,” Oneslager said. “Obviously sitting right next to VenturePark, we hope that may draw some interest.”
Speaking of interest, I know you want to see the beautiful shirt. So, let the wonderment begin . . .
In other news and notes from around town:
• Speaking of things we would like to torch . . . (Wait a minute, how did my wife get ahold of the keyboard?) Regardless, there is news that involves torches. Torched Goodness, the unique food truck that serves a whole host of Creme Brûlée dishes, has received a city permit for a food cart in downtown Lawrence. The cart will be on the northeast corner of Seventh and Massachusetts street, in front of Liberty Hall. I’m not entirely sure whether the food cart will focus on Creme Brûlée or whether it will be more traditional street food. I’m also not sure how I’m going to sneak Creme Brûlée into a movie at Liberty Hall, but I’m working on answers to both of those questions. I’ve got a call into the Torched Goodness folks and will report back any details I learn.
• What I do know is that traffic on Kansas Highway 10 just east of Lawrence will be a bit different for the rest of 2015. Crews working on the South Lawrence Trafficway project are slated to close one lane in each direction on the busy highway beginning on Monday. The lane closures are expected to last into December.
Information from the state says the lane restrictions will run from a point near the East Hills Business Park entrance and go all the way to the County Route 1057 interchange between Eudora and Lawrence. So, that’s about a 2.5-mile stretch. The speed limit in the area will be reduced to 55 miles per hour.
The lane reductions will give crews room to build a number of bridges over K-10 as part of the SLT project. A lot of the work will be near the area where K-10 curves and previously intersected with Noria Road. That road intersection won’t be part of the new SLT configuration. Instead, Noria road will travel over K-10 via an overpass. Work also will be near the ski lake just south of K-10.
We’ll see how bad traffic becomes on K-10. The Kansas Department of Transportation said motorists should expect “minor delays.” I travel that road a lot, and there have been some temporary lane reductions before. Traffic still moves pretty well even with one lane. Just hope there is not an accident that impacts that one lane. If so, you had better hope you packed an extra Creme Brûlée.
As for the SLT work, it will be interesting to watch the interchange being constructed. It is not your standard interchange with a bridge and a couple of entrance and exit ramps. I’m not sure I have all of it figured out, but look at the map below for some details. It shows the Noria Road overpass, and it looks like there will be a few other overpasses as well. And there’s also an area — the spot where all the green lines are twisted up — that looks a bit like my eyeglasses after a spaghetti dinner with one too many glasses of wine. But I’m sure it all will become clearer in the next few months. And, if for some reason you haven’t driven through that area in awhile, you should. It is changing tremendously.
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.
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.