New reasons to question whether major shopping center at SLT and U.S. 59 will ever get built

photo by: John English

This 2014 aerial photo shows the site near the southeast corner of U.S. Highway 59 and the South Lawrence Trafficway.

Plans to build one of the largest shopping centers in Lawrence are now in doubt after a local judge this week dismissed a lawsuit against the city.

At issue is a proposed shopping center at the interchange of U.S. Highway 59 and the South Lawrence Trafficway in south Lawrence. The shopping center would add about 600,000 square feet — at least eight new stores and that many additional restaurants, plus a hotel — to Lawrence’s shopping scene.

City commissioners already had denied the plan once in 2016, and that sparked the out-of-state development group to sue the city in Douglas County District Court. But now that lawsuit has been dismissed. It is not, however, because a judge found the suit without merit. Rather, the development group simply said it no longer wanted to pursue the case.

Now the question is whether they want to pursue a shopping center project at all in Lawrence.

I have calls in to a representative of the development group and its attorney but have not heard back. City officials have reached out to the group to find out about the status but also are awaiting a response, Scott McCullough, the leader of the city’s planning department, told me Friday.

The dismissal doesn’t necessarily mean the shopping center project is dead, but plenty indicates that it might be. Here is the key thing to remember: The city rejected the plan in 2016, and the development group filed the lawsuit against the city thereafter. But after filing the lawsuit, the development group — Collett out of North Carolina — filed a new plan with the city in the summer of 2017. That plan got a little bit of an endorsement from then City Manager Tom Markus that led people to believe the city could perhaps approve the project with some conditions.

That plan, though, has never even gotten a hearing before the Planning Commission, let alone the City Commission. As we reported in October, though, a lot of that delay appeared to be related to negotiations with the Kansas Department of Transportation. Quite a few issues had to be worked out on how shoppers would exit and enter U.S. 59 as part of the shopping center. But in October, it appeared the two sides were well on the way to working that out.

No visible signs of progress have happened since then, and now this lawsuit has been dismissed. From a strategy standpoint, the lawsuit seemed helpful to the developers. It gave the city something to think about if the commission was considering denying the new plan. It was always possible a court could rule that old plan has to be allowed. The city probably would rather have the new plan. It is impossible to know whether the development group might have won the lawsuit. But, in its favor, was that the professional planning staff of the city had recommended approval of the shopping center project. It was the elected officials who denied it. Those are the types of scenarios that sometimes get overturned by a court.

I’ll let you know if I hear from the parties involved. For what it is worth, there’s talk in development circles that the project might go on with a different development group taking the lead. Collett was the lead developer in the project, but another group out of Oklahoma was marginally involved, I’ve been told. That Oklahoma group may be taking on a lead role in the future. But that is all speculation, so take it with a grain of salt.

As for the project, it has been an interesting one to watch since 2014, when it first was proposed. At one point, the development group said it had letters of intent from Academy Sports and Outdoors, Fresh Market, HomeGoods and Old Navy to locate there. Designer Shoe Warehouse, Off Broadway Shoes and Barnes & Noble also were names mentioned by the development group as retailers that had expressed strong interest.

Developers in 2016 projected the shopping center would add $1.27 million in sales tax revenues to the city, once the center was fully developed.

The other interesting aspect has been that the project was one of the first that was seeking to take advantage of the additional traffic on the South Lawrence Trafficway now that the eastern leg of the bypass has been completed after an approximately two-decade delay. (If you are new to town, we’ll explain that later.) The interchange has long been predicted to be one of the busiest in the county. But now that it is completed — after the state and feds spent hundreds of millions on the SLT and U.S. 59 — the city is still struggling to define what, if anything, should be allowed to develop there.


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