Long vacant lot set to get pharmacy, health care building; plus, will Lawrence have a drive-thru boom?

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Plans have been filed that would allow Lawrence-based Sigler Pharmacy to build a new health care building on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Folks Road. The site is shown in November 2020 as crews were moving dirt on the property, which is part of the Bauer Farms residential and commercial development area in northwest Lawrence.

Properties, of course, can’t catch COVID, but one prominent piece of vacant ground along Sixth Street got sick from the pandemic nonetheless.

I’m talking about the vacant commercial lot at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Folks Road. As other pieces of property in growing northwest Lawrence developed, it continued to sit empty. That may change as plans have been filed for a new pharmacy and health care building on the corner.

But before I get to the details on that, the backstory is worth noting as a sign of how the pandemic touches aspects of life that you may never think about.

The property is part of the Bauer Farm mixed-use development that includes apartments, restaurants, small retail and Theatre Lawrence, among others. The city-approved plan for that development got pretty specific, and through a series of twists and turns, the only type of development approved for that corner ended up being a bank without a drive-thru.

It was a tough enough task to find such a tenant in normal times, but once the pandemic struck, you had to wonder whether such a tenant would ever step forward. If you find the banker who wants to build a brand new bank building without a drive-thru, you also may want to check whether he’s also adopted the business strategy of handing out free samples. Both strategies would be equally odd.

Now, it appears to be a moot point. Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioners recently unanimously approved a zoning request that will allow for a doctor’s office and a pharmacy to locate on the site. And in perhaps a sign of the times, it approved with hardly any discussion a drive-thru for the pharmacy portion of the building.

Don’t take any of that, though, to mean that a big, new chain drugstore is coming to the market. Instead, Lawrence-based Sigler Pharmacy is the lead developer on the project. Sigler already operates a pharmacy across the street at 4525 W. Sixth St., which is in the same building as LMH Health-owned doctor’s office Internal Medicine Group.

Owner and pharmacist Jeff Sigler told me he planned to move his pharmacy from that leased location into the new building, which he will own. There is a bit of a game of musical chairs in the Lawrence medical world, as LMH has opened its new 100,000-square-foot LMH West campus near Rock Chalk Park. While Sigler said he was not aware of any plans for LMH to move the Internal Medicine Group to LMH West or elsewhere, he said he liked the idea of being in a building that he owns.

“If the hospital decided to move those doctors, we would be in a big building without any doctors,” Sigler said. “That is something we have to look at too.”

Sigler said he’s reached a preliminary deal with a specialty doctor’s office — he didn’t provide the name — to take about half of the approximately 10,000-square-foot building he plans to construct on the site. That will leave about 2,500 additional square feet for another tenant, hopefully a medical office, he said. The pharmacy will occupy the remaining 2,500 square feet, which is a big increase from the roughly 800-square-foot facility Sigler currently has on Sixth Street.

Sigler said part of that space would be used to expand the pharmacy’s drug-compounding business. That is a program where pharmacists modify off-the-shelf drugs to make them more effective for patients. That could be removing the lactose from a drug for patients who are lactose-intolerant, or creating a solution for patients to drink because they can’t tolerate capsules, for instance.

Sigler said he hoped to make that service a more prominent part of his offerings, and the new building will allow him to build a new compounding lab that will provide the latest in technology.

Sigler hopes to get started on construction in the coming months, but the project still must win one more round of approval before it can begin in earnest. The action by the Planning Commission at its December meeting recommended approval of the CN2 Neighborhood Shopping Center zoning designation for the approximately 1.3 acre site, but city commissioners must also approve the rezoning before it can be finalized. That approval should come in the next few weeks.

So, look for signs of that development. But back to drive-thrus for a moment. (Can you tell that I’m hungry as I write this column?) I do wonder how much the pandemic will change development patterns in ways we hadn’t thought of. The drive-thru is an example. There certainly has been a period where some neighbors and planners have turned sour on drive-thrus because of noise and traffic issues that can come with them. I’m mainly talking restaurants here, although I’ve seen other types of drive-thrus opposed as well. Less reliance on vehicles in general has been a trend some people have pushed in Lawrence. But will those types of concerns carry the day in the future, or will drive-thrus be seen as a public health benefit? That would be sweet revenge for the buckets of grief that I’ve been given from my doctor about buckets of drive-thru chicken. (I don’t know what his problem was. I offered to share.) Cholesterol aside, drive-thru may have some health benefits by keeping customers separated better than a dining room.

Plus, is it possible that drive-thrus will become deal breakers for new business development? If the city won’t approve them, will some projects not move forward? Will a restaurant entrepreneur construct a new building that doesn’t have one? An August article in the restaurant trade magazine QSR noted that Chipotle, for example, expects to go from about 100 restaurants with drive-thru windows to 1,000 by 2025, while Noodles and Company expects 70% of its new restaurants to have drive-thru windows. Other types of business may want one too. Hopefully by spring the virus is fading and we don’t have another pandemic for at least another 100 years. Regardless, the pandemic likely already has scarred one generation of entrepreneurs. It will be interesting to watch how much those bad memories change future development in this city and others.

Yes, I know, big questions to ponder — especially on an empty stomach.

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