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.
KDOT interested in expanding western leg of SLT to four lanes; update on Ninth and N.H. and possible downtown drug store
It is like my wife always says: You have to strike while the iron is hot. (This is one of the reasons why I always hide when my wife has a hot iron in her hand.) However you interpret that saying, it appears the Kansas Department of Transportation is taking it to heart when it comes to the South Lawrence Trafficway.
State officials are beginning the process to hire a consulting firm that will study the feasibility of expanding the western leg of the South Lawrence Traffiway to four lanes. A consultant could be hired this summer, and the study could be completed about 18 months later.
The trafficway always has been planned to be a four-lane highway, but when the western leg of the trafficway was built in the 1990s, traffic demand only called for two lanes at the time.
After a couple of decades of lawsuits and protests, the eastern leg of the trafficway is now under construction. When it is completed in 2016, it will be a four-lane freeway. So, for that reason alone, it makes sense that KDOT is interested in planning for four lanes on the western portion of the bypass.
But it also makes sense for another reason: The South Lawrence Trafficway is on a roll. Ever since the project won a key federal ruling at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in July 2012, the project has had a lot of blue skies. The Legislature easily included the needed funding for the project in the state's transportation plan. Then bids for the $130 million project came in about $20 million lower than what engineers had estimated.
Perhaps the most surprising development, though, is that within the last several weeks, roadwork has begun in the Wakarusa Wetlands, and environmentalists, American Indian groups and others haven't done anything to disrupt it. If you would have told me five years ago that there would be bulldozers in the wetlands and there wouldn't be a mass protest on the site, I wouldn't have believed you. But that hasn't materialized. (I am worried, however, that a group of KDOT engineers now wants to pummel me with slide rules for tempting fate.)
As for the proposed study, the Metropolitan Planning Organization — a city-county board that oversees transportation planning — has been asked by KDOT to put the study on its list of future transportation projects. By putting the study on the list, it becomes eligible to receive state and federal funding. The MPO is scheduled to take action on the request at its April 17 meeting. In the meantime, the MPO is taking public comment on the request and the entire list of projects on its Transportation Improvement Plan through April 13. Click here for more details on how to submit comments.
If placed on the plan, the state will fund the full cost of the study, KDOT officials have indicated. But Kim Qualls, a spokeswoman with KDOT, notes that there is no state money to actually fund the construction of the two additional lanes. Such funding likely would have to come from a future state comprehensive transportation plan. The current plan expires in 2020.
This study, though, will get the process moving. Local leaders ought to be particularly interested in one part of the study: possible modifications to existing intersections. The western leg of the trafficway has two at-grade intersections: one at basically Kasold extended and the other near the YSI sports complex and Lawrence Rotary Arboretum. The one near YSI and the arboretum has been particularly dangerous. Last summer, a bicyclist trying to cross the freeway at the intersection was killed when struck by a motorist. Other serious accidents have occurred at the site as well.
But whenever the idea of making an improvement to the intersection comes up at City Hall, cost issues seem to squash the discussion before it ever really gets started. An intersection improvement as part of a four-lane expansion likely would be largely funded by the state, and may represent the best hope for the intersection. Of course, it also will take a number of years for any such project to materialize.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Believe your eyes, not the calendar. That big wooden thing you ran into at Ninth and New Hampshire streets today was a barricade. The northbound lane of New Hampshire Street from Ninth Street to the Lawrence Arts Center is still closed.
Back in January, city commissioners agreed to close the portion of New Hampshire Street until March 31 to accommodate work on the new multistory Marriott hotel at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
Well, March 31 is several days in our rear view mirror, and the barricades are still up. City officials recently have received a request from the hotel development group, which is led by Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Mike Treanor, to allow the barricades to remain up through Dec. 31 or the end of the project, whichever comes first.
The request doesn't really get into any details about why the extra time is needed, although the project clearly has suffered some weather delays. The southbound lane of traffic would remain open, and the northbound lane could occasionally be opened to traffic to accommodate some events at the Arts Center.
We'll see how commissioners react to the request. If the closure is still in place by September, it could affect bus traffic related to the city's downtown bus shuttle for Kansas University football games. The commission's agenda for Tuesday hasn't yet been released, but I've been told the issue will be on Tuesday's agenda.
• The same development group also has plans for a new multistory apartment and office building at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hamsphire streets. Work on that building is expected to begin later this year as work on the hotel project begins to wind down.
But the building project that I've been most interested in hearing an update on is a proposal to build a seven-story apartment building that would have a drugstore on the ground floor. As we reported in October, Compton wants to build that project at 11th and Massachusetts — just north of the Douglas County Courthouse — on what is known as the Allen Press property.
Back in October, Compton believed he was just a few weeks away from having a signed contract with a national drug store retailer. (He's never confirmed the company, but CVS and Walgreens are the two most frequently mentioned, and I would bet on CVS.) But those few weeks have come and gone, and an announcement still hasn't been made.
I talked with Compton a couple of weeks ago, and he said he was still waiting to hear word from the company. What has caused the delay isn't quite clear, although national retailers can be a fickle bunch, and I'm sure CVS is monitoring how its two existing stores in Lawrence have been performing.
If the idea of a national chain doesn't pan out for the location, it will be interesting to see what happens to the project. I've heard some credible talk that the idea of a locally run drug store at the site is feasible. The concept worked for a long time, with Round Corner Drug being the last to close in 2009. Since that time, downtown has added quite a few new living units that could use drug store services.
The momentum to add more apartments in downtown continues to be strong. When I briefly talked to Compton, he seemed as committed as ever to building the project at 11th and Mass.
It just sounded like something that would happen to the South Lawrence Trafficway. After about two decades of delay and litigation, the bypass project finally has all the necessary permits and funding to begin construction. Then . . . the federal government shuts down.
I was curious about whether the federal shutdown would have any impact on the start of construction, especially since the first piece of construction is expected to involve work in the Baker Wetlands, which are regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (If you have been out to Clinton Lake lately, you perhaps have noticed the shutdown has reduced the agency to more like the Corps of Engineer, singular, these days.)
But Kim Qualls, a spokeswoman with KDOT, told me recently that the shutdown is not expected to impact any of KDOT's road construction projects, including the SLT.
So, now we can all get back to wondering when the bulldozers will enter the Baker Wetlands, which have been at the center of the environmental and cultural debate that has surrounded the SLT for so long.
Well, no exact date has been set yet, but it likely won't be until November, Qualls said. She said the state has approved the $129.8 million bid from Columbia, Mo.-based Emery Sapp & Sons. (The largest construction project in recent memory in Lawrence, and it goes to a Columbia company. The SLT is going to be good for a twist until the very last drop.)
Qualls said work won't begin until the state has a pre-construction meeting with the contractor, which is set for late October. KDOT also plans to have a public meeting about the project before work begins. A date hasn't been set for the project. Actually, that meeting will cover a trio of state projects, all of them sort of related to the SLT.
The state will provide information about the SLT work itself, including the plans for moving portions of Louisiana Street to the west and Haskell Avenue to the east. And don't forget, they'll also tear out 31st Street and move it a bit to the south.
Maybe we also will get a peek at where the contractor will get the thousands upon thousands of cubic yards of dirt the SLT project will require for fill. That could be interesting because the project will create a large new pond or mini-lake somewhere in the region. I know that one contractor, who did not get the bid, was planning to take fill dirt from the property near the ski lake along Kansas Highway 10 east of town. Leaders with the ski lake were excited about that possibility because there were plans to connect the existing lake with the new lake to create a water skiing complex that perhaps could host more advanced competitions. I haven't received any word yet on whether Emery Sapp & Sons has any plans like those.
In addition to the SLT plans, the KDOT meeting also will go over the plans for a new interchange at Bob Billings Parkway and the SLT, and for new traffic signals at the interchange of Sixth Street and the SLT.
After years of lawyers, journalists and others droning on about this project, it is starting to get very real. While the legal arguments are over, I still predict that when the bulldozers move into the wetlands, we'll all be reminded that there is still plenty of passion surrounding the project.
Other news and notes from around town:
• No, the large number of circus-like tents in downtown's Watson Park is not a sign that the Columbia construction crew has started to arrive in town. (I'm like 70 percent certain that they'll stay in hotels, although big RVs with Missouri spelled with a couple of 'z's" are possible too. By the way, for $129 million, they had better be able to take a few jokes.) The Watson Park tents are part of the large Mother Earth News Fair that will descend upon Lawrence this weekend. As we reported last week, the sustainable living fair is expected to draw 10,000 people during the course of Saturday and Sunday.
I wanted to remind you of that, but also let you know there will be another twist for travelers in downtown this weekend. Massachusetts Street will be closed for a bit on Sunday morning. The portion of Massachusetts Street from 11th Street to 13th Street will be closed from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Sunday to accommodate the Lawrence Bicycle Club and its Octoginta ride.
The Octoginta, now in its 44th year, will have lots of bicyclists in town both Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, according to the club's Web site, many of them will gather at Broken Arrow Park near 31st and Louisiana to depart on a 30-mile ride throughout the county.
That, however, is just a warm-up for Sunday. Riders will gather at South Park on Sunday morning for an 80-mile ride throughout northeast Kansas.
It will be a big weekend for visitors in Lawrence. Keep an eye out for bicyclists and confused drivers. As a reminder, the portion of Seventh Street that runs through Watson Park will be closed Saturday and Sunday to accommodate the Mother Earth News Fair, and the 600 block of Tennessee Street will be closed from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday to accommodate the event. In addition, the portion of New Hampshire Street just south of Ninth Street will be open only to southbound traffic during the weekend as construction on the adjacent hotel site has temporarily extended into the street.
• You know what would be good to keep an eye on all the confusion and excitement that will happen in town this weekend? A falcon. (Well, I suppose it would be better if the falcon could talk and thus report back on what he sees.) Regardless, I have news about falcons.
A Lawrence attorney has made a request to make it legal for licensed falconers to have their birds in the city limits. Lawrence attorney Terrence Campbell is making a request, actually on behalf of his father-in-law, to change the city law that currently makes Peregrine Falcons a prohibited pet in the city.
Campbell's father-in-law is one of the top falconers in the state. He lives in a rural area but is planning to move to the city and wants to bring his falcon with him. Campbell proposes that people who have a state license to work with the birds of prey be allowed to keep them in the city limits. That licensing process includes a state inspection on the facilities that house the falcons.
City commissioners will receive the request at their Tuesday evening meeting, and are expected to refer the issue to staff for further study.
More LJWorld City Coverage
City seeking grant money to improve 23rd and Haskell intersection in preparation for increased traffic from SLT
If there is a special set of scissors out there that have been put aside to cut the ribbon on the completed South Lawrence Trafficway, it may be time to get them out and limber them up. You’ll probably have to knock the rust off of them too. After all, they’ve been sitting unused for more than 20 years.
Obviously, a ribbon cutting for the final leg of the SLT isn’t imminent, but there are more and more signs all the time that people now understand the day is coming. Construction is set to begin this fall, and the road could be open by the Fall of 2016.
The latest signs of preparations for the project are coming out of Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners at their meeting tonight will have three items on their agenda related to the SLT.
The largest is an item to begin the planning of significant upgrades to the 23rd Street and Haskell Avenue intersection.
Commissioners are being asked to submit a grant application to the Kansas Department of Transportation for $1.2 million worth of improvements to the intersection.
The project would include rebuilding the entire intersection with concrete and adding right-turn lanes on 23rd street to accommodate traffic turning both north and south onto Haskell. New traffic signals, storm sewer improvements and sidewalk ramps also would be installed.
The project also would include a widening of Haskell Avenue for the first several feet south of 23rd Street. That widening would make it easier for all of Haskell Avenue to be widened in the future, if traffic demand calls for it. Haskell likely will become a busier road once the trafficway is completed. The SLT plans call for an interchange to be built where Haskell and the SLT intersect. It will be one of the few places for motorists in eastern Lawrence to get onto the trafficway. The only other two interchanges for the SLT will be at Iowa Street and at the ending point for the SLT, which will be near Noria Road on the far eastern edge of the city.
The city is seeking $900,000 in state grant funding for the project. The city at-large would pay the other $300,000 for the improvements. The city should find out this summer whether it has been awarded the grant. Construction likely would occur in the summer or fall of 2015.
The second project is just a simple repaving of 23rd Street from Iowa to Ousdahl. At first glance, that may not seem to have much to do with the South Lawrence Trafficway, but it does. City officials are trying to get as much work done on 23rd Street as possible because currently 23rd Street also is designated as Kansas Highway 10. That designation means it is eligible for state funding for repaving or other similar work.
But once the South Lawrence Trafficway is completed in 2016, 23rd Street no longer will be designated as Kansas Highway 10, and the full cost of maintaining 23rd Street will fall on the city. At their meeting tonight, commissioners will apply for $200,000 in state funds to help repave the section of 23rd Street. If approved, construction work would take place in the summer of 2014.
That would tie in well with a larger project that already has been approved. A major rebuilding of the 23rd and Iowa street intersection is scheduled for 2014.
The third SLT project on tonight’s agenda is a wetland project. That perked up some ears in this town. One part of the SLT project that some people may have forgotten about is that a whole new east-west city street will be constructed at the same time the SLT is being built.
As most people know, 31st Street will move to the south a bit and become a new four-lane city street. But it no longer will stop at Haskell Avenue. Local officials will build the new 31st Street (it actually may be called 32nd Street) eastward all the way to O’Connell Road.
As part of that project, it is estimated about 4 acres of wetlands on the east side of Haskell Avenue will be disturbed by the construction. If you have followed the history of the SLT, perhaps you have heard that if you disturb wetlands you have to create new wetlands to mitigate the effects.
At tonight’s meeting, city commissioners are set to approve an approximately $25,000 contract with Wilson & Co. to begin creating the plan to mitigate the wetland damage. The working plan is that the city will buy 4 acres of excess property in the area from KDOT and turn the land over to Baker University to create new wetlands. But Wilson & Co. will hold a series of public meetings to get feedback on the issue.
Tonight’s City Commission meeting is set for 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.
Business prepares to move to make way for South Lawrence Trafficway; details and speculation about what else the SLT may bring
Construction on the South Lawrence Trafficway is still at least six months away from getting started, but signs of the coming changes already are starting to show up.
The one known business that will have to relocate due to the SLT recently has signed a deal for a new southeast Lawrence location. The business formerly known as RSC Equipment Rental will move to 930 E. 30th St., which is the space that used to be the parking lot and maintenance facility for the city’s public transit buses.
RSC Equipment Rental now goes by the name of United Rentals, after the RSC chain of stores was purchased by United recently. The company rents aerial lifts and other types of construction equipment.
The company plans to use the existing 5,000-square-foot building on the site, but it will undergo about $250,000 worth of remodeling, according to plans filed at City Hall. An employee at United told me the move is likely to happen in the next month.
The business now is at the southeast corner of 31st and Haskell. But soon enough, a new road will run through that location. No, the new road won’t be the South Lawrence Trafficway. It will be the new road called 32nd Street, which will be the local road that will run just north of the SLT. It will replace the thinly paved joy of driving that we currently know as 31st Street.
If you have forgotten about that new street, you probably have forgotten about several others. The South Lawrence Trafficway project likely will produce the most change in the city’s street network of any project in decades. Take a look at the map on this page to see the details. Here’s a reminder of what you are looking at:
• A portion of Haskell Avenue will move about 1,000 feet east of where it is today. Haskell will start making its shift to the east at about the point where it intersects with 29th Street today. In other words, right near where Hiper Technologies is located, or — if you are an old timer — where the Honeywell avionics plant used to be. Haskell will shift back to its current alignment before it reaches the Wakarusa River bridge. (At that point the road is actually called County Route 1055 because it is outside the city limits, for all you geography sticklers.)
• The existing portion of Haskell Avenue between 29th Street and the current 31st Street will remain in place to serve as a frontage road for the businesses — such as the new United Rentals building — that are just west of the existing Haskell Avenue.
• The existing 31st Street between Haskell and Louisiana will be removed and the property will be converted back to wetlands. The new 32nd Street — which will be four lanes — will be the local route through the wetlands.
• Louisiana Street south of 31st Street will undergo major changes. The road will be moved a half-mile to the west, in order to get the road farther away from the Baker Wetlands. In other words, if you are driving on Louisiana Street north of 31st Street and want to continue south, you are going to have to turn west onto the new 32nd Street. You’ll take that new road — which turns into the existing portion of 31st Street in the city — for a half-mile. Then you can turn back south onto the new Louisiana Street. The new Louisiana Street eventually will curve back to the east and connect with the existing Louisiana Street (technically E 1400 Road outside the city limits) before it crosses the Wakarusa River. If you are trying to picture where the new Louisiana Street will intersect with 31st Street, it will be just east of the large apartment complex at 31st and Ousdahl.
The state plans to accept bids on the SLT project in September, and construction in the wetlands could be begin this fall. Work on the Haskell and Louisiana parts of the project wouldn’t begin until 2014.
All of these new roads — with the largest, of course, being the new four-lane SLT — will create a lot of question both in the business community and at City Hall. The best way to get a feel for some of them is to go to Google Maps and type in the area of 31st and Louisiana. Zoom in several clicks, and the map will show you the route of the SLT and of the new 32nd, Haskell and Louisiana streets. That map does a good job of highlighting several pieces of property that seemingly will have a lot more development pressure in the near future.
Some properties and questions that jumped out at me include:
• The former Gaslight Mobile Home Park just east of Home Depot. As we have reported, Menards has filed a plan to build a new store on the property, plus have lots for several smaller retailers or restaurants. This is going to be an issue very soon. The Planning Commission is tentatively scheduled to review the plans in April. In order for the project to be approved, the city is going to have to change its planning documents. The city’s planning documents call for the property to be developed as apartments.
Here’s the question: Will the city stick to those plans when a major retailer clearly wants to be on the site? Now that a new 32nd Street is going to be built just east of the site, the property will be on one of the most highly improved roads in the city. That’s generally where most cities want their retail.
The more political question is whether the City Commission will do everything it can to steer all new retail development to Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway in northwest Lawrence? After all, that is where the city will be investing $25 million for a new recreation center. But Menards has had plenty of opportunities to sign a deal to locate in the existing — and vacant — Mercato development at Sixth and the SLT. Company officials have told the city the site doesn’t meet their current needs. Will the city hold its ground on steering development to Sixth and the SLT, or will it blink?
• The former E&E Display building at 29th and Haskell. That’s a decent size manufacturing/warehouse building with some vacant/underutilized ground near it. When the SLT is built, it really will only be about a minute away from the freeway. I’ll keep my eyes open for some sort of jobs producing deal for that location. If one doesn’t materialize, given its location, economic developers should be asking what’s wrong with our community?
• The vacant ground directly behind Wal-Mart at 33rd and Iowa streets. Until you look on the Google Maps, it is easy to forget about that piece of property. But the map makes it clear that it is one to remember. The ground stretches all the way from the Walmart/Crown Toyota area on the west to the former Printing Solutions building at 31st and Louisiana on the east. The entire piece of property will have great visibility from the South Lawrence Trafficway. As a bonus, the new Louisiana Street will cut through the property as well.
City commissioners talk about the need for planning, but what is the plan for that area? I’m sure there is something in a plan somewhere about that area, but it is an area that hasn’t been talked about by city commissioners for awhile. It would seem — given its location next to major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and others — that the market may have an interest in putting some retail there. Will the city share that interest?
It will be interesting to watch, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only one watching. In fact, if you see a tent staked up on that vacant property, that’s my wife. She wants to make sure she doesn’t miss out on any early-bird specials.
City to consider approval of proposed housing development southeast of Sixth and SLT, near Langston Hughes Elementary
City commissioners tonight will debate a somewhat controversial development project near the corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway, and this one doesn’t involve a recreation center.
Commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting today will consider plans for a new housing and apartment development on about 27.5 acres of ground southeast of the Sixth Street and SLT interchange.
More specifically, the project is just west of the area commonly known as the Diamondhead subdivision. On the off chance that you are not a planner or a taxicab driver, and therefore don’t know the names of subdivisions (yes, taxicab drivers know that and much more) the area is on the east edge of the South Lawrence Trafficway. It is just a bit northwest of Langston Hughes Elementary.
The project proposes 52 single-family homes, 22 duplexes and 86 apartment units on the 27.5 acres. This project has definitely gone through the sausage making process, as neighbors objected to the amount of duplex zoning that was proposed in the project late last year. Developers responded by cutting the number of duplexes by more than 50 percent, but they were replaced by 23 single-family homes that will be built on smaller-than-average 5,000-square-foot lots.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on a 6-3 vote recommended approval of the project. City commissioners will have the final say on it tonight.
The project is interesting enough in itself, but the more interesting issue is how this entire area near Sixth and the SLT may take off in the near future. There is obviously the $75 million worth of improvements being contemplated across the street at Rock Chalk Park. That tends to wake up developers and land speculators.
But perhaps an even larger factor is the pending completion of not only the South Lawrence Trafficway but a new Bob Billings Parkway interchange on the SLT. The Bob Billings interchange is south of this property.
Below is a picture from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Office that shows the land between Sixth Street and Bob Billings Parkway, bordered by the South Lawrence Trafficway on the west. Look at how much undeveloped land is out there.
The chart to the left of the drawing shows what the land is currently zoned for, and then lists — theoretically — how many housing units could be built in that zoning category. If you total it all up, there is theoretically zoning in place for about 1,300 new homes or apartments in the area.
Plus, that includes two pieces of land that aren’t zoned for anything. Two development groups — Alvamar Inc. and the Diamondhead group — own about 50 acres that are zoned as urban reserve, meaning it will get some sort of residential or commercial zoning in the future.
Commercial zoning certainly is a possibility in the area. Diamondhead owns 31 acres immediately south of Sixth Street at the Sixth and SLT interchange. It will be interesting to see if that property ever gets into the discussion about locations to build more retail to serve the proposed Rock Chalk Park development.
Alavamar also has about 12 acres zoned for commercial uses at the northeast corner of where the Bob Billings and SLT interchange will be built. That also will be an interesting piece of property to keep an eye on.
But perhaps the most interesting land owner in the area is the Lawrence school district. In addition to the property it owns for Langston Hughes Elementary, it also owns about 35 acres surrounding the school. The property is zoned for residential development. The school district, of course, may want to hang onto it for school expansion. But if it decides it isn’t need for such, I’m sure it won’t have a problem finding a buyer for the property.
Anyway, commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. today to discuss the Langston Heights development. Here’s guessing that it will be the first of many discussions about development for the area in the coming months and years.
Knology set to drop WGN, RFD TV and other networks from cable lineup; Baker files plans for $1.2 million wetland education center; study finds Lawrence has among the lowest development fees in the region
News and notes from around town:
• Oh my. Fans of Cubs baseball and country music are in for a shock. Lawrence’s Knology cable television system is set to drop several channels, including the Cubs’ WGN network and RFD TV, a network that shows country music and programming aimed at a rural audience.
Knology’s top Lawrence official confirmed to me that the company is in the process of dropping WGN from its cable lineup effective Dec. 31.
But there are other changes coming before then. Beginning tomorrow, Knology will drop RFD TV, Family Net and the TV Guide Channel, which shouldn’t be confused with the guide button that is on your cable remote. That on-screen guide will continue to be in place.
Debra Schmidt, system manager for Knology Kansas, told me the decisions have been difficult but are part of a much bigger picture of what is going on in the cable industry.
The big players in the cable industry — think ESPN and Food Network and such — are gaining more and more leverage over cable companies all the time. The big programming companies bundle their popular networks together with their less popular networks and require cable providers to take the whole bunch or none at all. As a result, fees that the cable companies must pay to the big-time programmers have been increasing.
Schmidt said in order to control costs, Knology has had to make some tough decisions about dropping some smaller cable networks that don’t have such leverage.
The folks at RFD TV are not taking the decision sitting down. An executive with RFD TV recently flew into Lawrence to discuss the issue with Lawrence city commissioners, and the mayor did send a letter to Knology asking it to reconsider its decision to drop RFD TV. But Schmidt said the change will continue as planned.
Two other channels also will be dropped from the system beginning tomorrow: Blue Highways, a network that features older music and tends to lean towards the Americana side of things; and Family Net TV.
It looks like some of the shows on the networks are available for viewing on the Web sites of the networks.
• Here’s another sign that the South Lawrence Trafficway actually is going to get built, and no this one doesn’t involve icicles in Hades. (Don’t worry, though, that still applies to the Cubs and the World Series.)
Baker University has filed plans at the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department to build a $1.2 million wetland education center near the wetlands that the university is creating as part of the mitigation efforts for the South Lawrence Trafficway project.
The plans call for a 10,000-square-foot wetland education center that will have a large display area, two classrooms, a kitchen, a gift shop and office space. The project also calls for a 3,000-square-foot maintenance building for the property. The project is set to be built near the main entrance of the wetlands area, which is at 1365 North 1250 Road.
Roger Boyd, Baker’s director of the wetlands, told me he expects the new building can accommodate up to 170 people at a time for presentations and other related activities. Baker is betting that the education center will draw interest from the general community, but particularly will be a popular place for school field trips.
“The display area will have a lot of exhibits about what to look for when you are out here, and about why wetlands are important,” Boyd said.
Baker already has moved a new house to the site, which will provide a place for the resident manager of the wetlands to live. I believe the house came from just east of Haskell Avenue and was one of the handful of houses that are in the path of the trafficway.
The wetland center and the restoration or creation of about 300 acres of new wetlands are being funded by the Kansas Department of Transportation to compensate for the loss of about 60 acres of wetlands that will be lost to the SLT project. As part of the mitigation plan, Baker will receive about $9 million as an endowment to manage the wetland property.
Baker, Boyd said, hasn’t yet received that money, but is expected to in fall 2013. Boyd said the university wants to begin the planning and approval process now so construction on the center could begin in March 2014 with an opening in fall 2014.
“I’m still pinching myself,” said Boyd, who has been officially overseeing the care of the wetlands since 1982 and has been wrapped up in all the legal wrangling of the SLT project. “I’m still having a hard time believing that it actually is going to happen.”
• While we’re talking about projects that have taken a long time to develop in Lawrence, there is a new study out that refutes some perceptions about Lawrence’s business-unfriendly environment.
A group of business students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Society for Industrial Office Realtors have released a new report that looks at the amount of fees cities in the area charge for commercial and industrial development projects.
Lawrence ended up being one of the clear-cut bargains in the area. Lawrence had the third lowest fee total in the office building category and the second lowest total in the industrial building category.
In both cases, the fees charged in Lawrence were more than $200,000 less than what were charged in the most expensive communities. Interestingly, the highest fees charged were in two communities often touted as being more business-friendly than Lawrence: Overland Park and Lenexa.
The authors of the study submitted actual architectural site plans to the planning department of each city, and asked the department to provide a fake invoice for fees that would be due on the project. The first project was for a $9.6 million, 60,000-square-foot office building on a 10-acre site. Here’s a look at the total development fees for each community:
— Blue Springs, Mo.: $98,092 l — Columbia, Mo.: $46,801 — Gardner: $145,428 — Grandview, Mo.: $92,479 — Independence, Mo.: $79,179 — Kansas City, Mo.: $130,751 — Lawrence: $48,057 — Leawood: $98,181 — Lee’s Summit, Mo.: $130,991 — Lenexa: $261,318 — Liberty, Mo.: $117,091 — North Kansas City, Mo.: $122,411 — Olathe: $188,972 — Overland Park: $248,773 — Riverside, Mo.: $37,760
The second project was for a $10 million, 100,000-square-foot warehouse industrial building on about 15 acres of property. Here’s a look at those fees:
— Blue Springs, Mo.: $100,919 — Columbia, Mo.: $71,894 — Gardner: $199,423 — Grandview: $86,091 — Independence, Mo.: $185,869 — Kansas City, Mo.: $134,650 — Lawrence: $48,768 — Leawood: $110,962 — Lee’s Summit, Mo.: $115,729 — Lenexa: $334,873 — Liberty, Mo.: $160,887 — North Kansas City, Mo.: $169,282 — Olathe: $267,881 — Overland Park: $337,482 — Riverside, Mo.: $44,360
This group did the same study in 2010, and the results were much the same: Lawrence was near the bottom in terms of fees charged.
The findings could be spun a couple of different ways in Lawrence. One is that leaders could tout how aggressive Lawrence is in trying to attract business to the community. But another viewpoint might be whether Lawrence is charging too little for development fees, causing general taxpayers to subsidize a service that is supposed to be supported by fees. The city has done some studying on that question and doesn't believe it is the case. Many of the fees — especially in Johnson County — are impact fees for roads, parks and even art that Lawrence simply doesn't charge.
The entire study raises an interesting question: How much do development fees play into the decision making of developers? I haven’t done all the math, but I suspect many of these communities with higher fees have had higher job growth rates than Lawrence has. I know many of them have a greater percentage of business and industry as a part of their tax base than Lawrence does.
So, how does this play into the mantra that Lawrence is unfriendly to business? Well, if you hear people saying that Lawrence charges outrageous fees — and I hear that sometimes — you might want to take those comments with a grain of salt.
But it also is worth remembering there are a couple of different types of development processes in Lawrence. The one studied here is for a developer that is proposing to build on a shovel-ready site. There are a few shovel-ready commercial and industrial sites in Lawrence, but it would be interesting to see how our inventory stacks up against other communities. My guess is we have less.
Often, development of any size in Lawrence requires a developer to rezone a piece of property to fit his or her needs. When people think of some of the more high profile business squabbles or rejections in Lawrence — such as Wal-mart of several years ago, Lowe’s more recently or plans for an industrial park near the Lawrence Municipal Airport — those often had zoning issues attached to them.
So, what I’m saying here, is I don’t think this study is going to end the debate about whether Lawrence is adequately business-friendly enough. Imagine that — a debate in Lawrence continuing on.
• Town Talk is taking a day off tomorrow, and I plan on debating no one. (Although that will require me hiding from my family all day in my basement, but I’m willing to give it a try.) Town Talk will return on Monday.