Developer files plans to build new single-family neighborhood west of South Lawrence Trafficway

photo by: Courtesy: City of Lawrence/Storm Engineering Group

A concept plan shows a residential neighborhood — in yellow — for the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Traffiway in west Lawrence. The property already is zoned for commercial uses, shown in red. An open space area to help collect stormwater is shown in the green.

As Lawrence real estate agents continue to tell stories of how tight the local housing market is, local developers are getting more aggressive in their efforts to convert land into new neighborhoods.

The latest gambit: Take land that is zoned for a big-box retail center and turn it into a single-family housing development.

A new plan filed at Lawrence City Hall is particularly interesting because it calls for a new neighborhood to be built west of the South Lawrence Trafficway. Thus far, the city has not allowed large-scale development of any kind to jump the SLT.

A plan filed by local developer Steve Schwada, however, proposes rezoning 25 acres at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and the SLT from commercial zoning to single-family residential zoning. If you are having a hard time picturing the location, it is across the trafficway from Rock Chalk Park. Unlike the property to the north of Rock Chalk Park, this land is still in the Lawrence school district. Efforts to develop the land north of Rock Chalk Park with homes has been slow because families in those homes would have to send their kids to the Perry-Lecompton school district, despite being within the Lawrence city limits.

A conceptual plan filed with the rezoning request shows the neighborhood could have about 70 homes, but other details weren’t included in the plans. Schwada did not return a call seeking comment on the potential project.

In the application materials to City Hall, the development group notes that the city is in need of additional residential building lots. Real estate statistics have been pointing to a tight market in Lawrence for more than a year. The median number of days a home sits on the market before selling is less than five days in 2021. Average home prices have been increasing by 10% or more on a fairly regular basis.

But whether that will be enough to convince city commissioners that now is the time for Lawrence to start developing west of the trafficway is an open question. Past efforts to put city-style development west of the SLT have been met with a cool reception from City Hall. Often, planners and commissioners have expressed concern about urban sprawl.

The property in question, however, is already located in what planners call a “tier 1” growth area, meaning it is property suitable for city-style development in the foreseeable future. In fact, the property has enough City Hall approvals that a major retailer — think a Costco, a Sam’s Club or some other big store — could file plans to develop there without requiring any further approvals from city commissioners.

But since developers are now seeking to change the zoning, city commissioners will have to approve any plans for a single-family neighborhood. It creates an interesting situation for commissioners. Normally, commissioners don’t balk at downzoning a piece of property. That’s what this would be. Single-family residential is a less intense use from a traffic, noise, and lighting standpoint than that of a retail development.

But if commissioners approve this rezoning, it might be the thing that actually spurs growth west of the trafficway. The housing development would require a new city sewer line, which is a significant cost to get it under the trafficway. Developers normally are responsible for such costs, but they also have been known to ask for city assistance. I haven’t heard of any such request for city help, but I’ve also not yet had luck in talking with the developer.

Regardless, if either the city or the developer goes to the expense to extend the sewer line to the property, they likely are going to want to use it for more than a 70-house neighborhood. In other words, development pressure will increase.

To be clear, some of that development pressure could continue to be commercial in nature. While the latest plans call for 25 acres to be rezoned for single-family homes, there still would be about 110 acres zoned for commercial development. Those 110 acres could accommodate about 155,000 square feet of retail development, according to planning documents. See the rendering at the top of this article for how the residential and commercial zoning would co-exist.

Who knows, maybe the residential development would go over so well that Schwada’s group would seek to rezone the rest of the property for residential uses. Or, maybe, the high demand for residential lots right now will be the catalyst to get the sewer line to the property, and then the commercial development will follow.

Look for the project to take many months to work its way through the approval process, with hearings required both by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission and the Lawrence City Commission.

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