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.