Major development along South Lawrence Trafficway faces tougher path after failing to earn rezoning approvals from Planning Commission

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

An area just southeast of U.S. Highway 59 and the South Lawrence Trafficway, far right, is shown on Sept. 15, 2023. The area is proposed for a new mixed-use housing and retail development.

The majority of rezoning requests for a massive development project along the South Lawrence Trafficway have failed to earn a key recommendation from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, setting the stage for a much more difficult path to final approval.

Six of the eight plots that were up for rezoning consideration at the request of the Wichita-based development group behind the New Boston Crossing project earned a 4-4 vote from the Planning Commission in late January, which effectively amounts to a recommendation for denial by the Lawrence City Commission, the body with the final say in the process.

The principal issue, according to some planning commissioners and sustainability advocates, is the developer’s plans to locate most of the sprawling project, which, as the Journal-World has reported, would add hundreds of homes and tens of thousands of square feet of retail and hotel space, across 177 acres of agricultural land, with the majority of plots located in the floodplain of the Wakarusa River.

Floodplains are generally flat areas of land next to a river or stream that are particularly susceptible to flooding as a result. The project is generally located at the southeast corner of the U.S. Highway 59 and SLT interchange, on a property that currently is a bean field and vacant agricultural land.

“Honestly, I cannot get past growing into a floodplain,” Planning Commissioner Sharon Ashworth said at the meeting. “I don’t think we should be growing into the floodplain. That’s not where our development should go. We are bounded by that, and I think we have to respect the floodplain.”

In total, the denied rezoning requests account for more than 113 acres of the 177-acre project area. The Sustainability Action Network, a local nonprofit focused in part on advocating for sustainable development and policies, said in a news release sent to the Journal-World earlier this week that nearly 71 acres of floodplain are included in the overall project area.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission screenshot

Just two of the eight plots on this map — marked here as “Item 5” and “Item 6” — earned a recommendation for rezoning approval from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission at the end of January. The other six plots all include portions of the Wakarusa River’s floodplain and did not earn a recommendation for approval.

The other two requests did ultimately earn a recommendation for approval, both on a 7-1 vote. One of them, a roughly 24.69-acre chunk along the Kansas Highway 10 right-of-way, isn’t located in the floodplain. The other, a 70.84-acre space north of the Wakarusa River between U.S. Highway 50 and East 1350 Road, is aiming to be rezoned for open space use rather than for any development.

Beyond the project’s environmental impacts, planning commissioners also discussed its housing elements and whether it would draw customers and businesses away from downtown Lawrence.

Plans for the development call for “multipurpose recreational facilities” — amenities that Phil Struble, the president of Landplan Engineering, previously told the Journal-World would likely include projects catering to youth in the community — on the largest lots on the site. There are also sites for sit-down and fast food restaurants and a 20,000-square-foot shopping plaza.

“I have not heard anything of substance about our plan — about our mixed uses, about our commercial districts, about our housing districts — that would give me any indication of anything I would design differently,” Struble told the Planning Commission. “I don’t see anything in our commercial uses that compete with downtown.”

The Planning Commission’s decisions don’t necessarily mean the New Boston Crossing project is dead in the water, though. The eight rezoning requests will all advance to the City Commission for final consideration, regardless of whether they were recommended for approval or not. The key distinction between the two groups is that the six requests that weren’t recommended for approval will have to earn a supermajority of four votes from the five-member City Commission to be approved.

As of Thursday, it’s not clear when those requests could appear on a City Commission agenda. The group’s next meeting is on Tuesday, with the agenda yet to be released.


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