Hopes for a new grocery, west Lawrence shopping center are still alive, but a big new apartment complex would help
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
Summer is for catching up, like on that book I never got around to reading or the garage I never got around to cleaning. (In fairness, the book is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” so I’m confused whether I should clean the garage before or after reading the book.) Regardless, now also is a good time to catch up on a development project that has been long talked about but not yet built.
We reported back in 2013 that plans were filed for a shopping center at the interchange of Bob Billings Parkway and the South Lawrence Trafficway. There certainly were hopes that the site, which is on the northeast corner of the interchange, could become the home for a new west Lawrence grocery store.
Today, though, the site is still just an empty hay pasture.
Tim Herndon, a Lawrence-based land planner, has been working with developers on the project since the beginning. I talked with him for an update on another long-stalled project at Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa that I reported on earlier this week. While doing so, I also got an update on the Bob Billings/SLT project.
In short, the lack of activity shouldn’t lead people to believe the idea is dead. Herndon said the project is still very much active, although it hasn’t signed any tenants or begun construction.
“We continue to answer calls and respond to callers,” Herndon said. “We do know of one retailer that is working diligently right now to develop a conceptual site plan.”
Herndon didn’t provide any details on that retailer, and also said talks had not progressed to the point that the retailer had signed a letter of intent. That usually is the first sign that a deal is near.
If you have forgotten, the area could end up housing a decent size shopping center. Approved plans at City Hall would allow for up to 125,000 square feet of commercial space, Herndon said. That’s not nearly as big as the shopping centers on south Iowa Street or what has been proposed for Rock Chalk Park. Instead, think of a development like one of the Hy-Vee stores and the shops that are around it.
Indeed, a grocery store would be at the top of the tenant list for the development group, which includes local businessmen Bob Santee and Doug Raney. Herndon said such developments are tough to land because of the large number of rooftops a grocer requires to be located within a close drive of the store. However, he said the group was open to developing plans that would allow a grocer to develop a smaller neighborhood store and grow into a larger footprint as the area grows.
photo by: Nick Krug
Growth of the area is probably the biggest asset the site has. The same group that has the commercial property also developed houses as part of the larger Langston Commons project, named for its proximity to Langston Hughes Elementary School.
“The residential component just developed as quickly as buyers and home builders could buy and build them,” Herndon said.
The adjacent development had 122 residential lots, with most of them single family and a few duplex units.
One boost the area isn’t likely to get anytime soon, though, is development on the west side of the trafficway.
Back in 2016, a huge apartment complex and residential development was proposed for the farm ground that is just west of the interchange. Plans were filed at City Hall that would have allowed for about 2,000 apartment units and about 600 single family homes on a large tract of land owned by area resident Don Hazlett.
photo by: Nick Krug
The plan, though, never did get a hearing before the City Commission. I checked on its status this week with local attorney Patrick Watkins, who along with Dan Watkins had represented the property owner.
Patrick Watkins said interest in development of the property still remains, but the project never did receive the type of signals from City Hall that led developers to push the project forward.
“It is sort of in waiting,” Patrick Watkins said.
He said development interests continue to monitor the process of creating a new comprehensive plan for the city and county — dubbed the year 2040 update. That plan, which still needs approval, is placing much greater emphasis on infill development rather than opening up large new areas for development.
“We are watching the comprehensive plan and sort of scratching our head on that,” he said. “I don’t think it is looking more positive for that property.”
A shifting of political winds, though, could change that situation. If the city does decide to allow significant expansion of its boundaries, there are some people who think the area just west of the Bob Billing interchange will be the easiest to develop. Unlike the area near Rock Chalk Park, future homes would still be in the Lawrence school district. (The Rock Chalk area has started to grow into Perry-Lecompton’s district.) And unlike the area south of the Wakarusa River, there are fewer rural homes scattered throughout the area, which would have to be built around or torn down to accommodate city-style development.
There are certainly no guarantees, though, that the political winds are going to shift anytime soon.
As for the commercial project across the street, Herndon said there is no timeline for it to develop, but he is encouraged that the site is becoming more valuable to retailers as more vehicles use the South Lawrence Trafficway.
“The traffic dynamic is steadily evolving and increasing,” Herndon said.