On the dewy morning of Saturday, April 22, a headline on the front page of the Journal-World screamed: “Another Wal-Mart Coming to Town.”
Yeah, well, not exactly.
There’s still a whole lot of procedure that Wal-Mart has to go through to build a store at Sixth and Wakarusa Streets, and some citizens still hope to stop the corporate behemoth from staking out a second location in west Lawrence. The out-of-court agreement that City Commissioners recently reached with Wal-Mart’s lawyers puts the kibosh on the seven lawsuits that Wally World has leveled against the city, for six months. In that time period, Wal-Mart must submit totally redesigned plans for the site— plans that include a far smaller store and open-air garden center than they’d originally wanted. Those plans have to pass muster with the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, and then get the final stamp of approval from the City Commission, before even the first yard of concrete can be poured. If, however, the City Commission decides to not approve those new plans, the lawsuits are back in effect and more wrangling— from both sides—will be in order.
In the next six months, Matt Toplikar and friends hope to educate residents about Wal-Mart and spread the word that a second store in Lawrence is not an absolute inevitability.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” says Toplikar, “and I’ve known some of the commissioners my whole life. If Lawrence can’t do this, how can we call ourselves a liberal, progressive town?”
Toplikar doesn’t consider himself an activist in any sense of the word. But the Wal-Mart issue is one he says he can’t ignore.
“This is something that’s very immediate and local and feels like I have some say because it’s my community. This seems plausible,” he says.
Toplikar and his friend, Tim Hjersted, are hosting a screening of the film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” in the main theater of Liberty Hall, on Monday, June 5, at 7 p.m. The price to see the film? Just $2. Afterwards, they’re asking that people stay and discuss what can be done to prevent a second Wal-Mart from locating in Lawrence, if, indeed, that is the community’s wish. Toplikar says that what he doesn’t want is for people to come to the film, get angry, and then go home and not do anything constructive with that anger.
Toplikar says that in the last few weeks, he’s spoken with numerous people—including business owners and complete strangers—about the Wal-Mart issue and says that absolutely no one he’s spoken to wants to see a second Wal-Mart come to Lawrence.
Alan Cowles, president of the West Lawrence Neighborhood Association and outspoken critic of a Wal-Mart locating at Sixth and Wakarusa Streets, will also be keeping an eye on the Wal-Mart proceedings.
Cowles says that as far as the West Lawrence Neighborhood Association is concerned, their official objection has not been against Wal-Mart itself, but against the traffic it will bring to the intersection. (Though, he says, he knows that some members of the WLNA would be more than happy to state their specific objections about Wal-Mart.)
When Wal-Mart submits its new plans, Cowles and other members of WLNA will be present at the Planning Commission meeting to put in their two cents about the new plans.
“We’ll see what sort of a stance we’ll want to take on it, if anything,” says Cowles. “It’s always disappointed us to see so much packed on that corner. That includes the northeast corner as well as the northwest.” Like Toplikar, Cowles has spoken to many citizens about the proposed second Wal-Mart, and says that few people he’s met wants to see a Wal-Mart at the corner of Sixth and Wakarusa Streets.
“I’ve met maybe two out of hundreds,” he says. City Commissioner Boog Highberger says that though it “wasn’t a decision he was very pleased to make,” he says that he thinks that the commission got a better result with the agreement, even than if the city had won all seven lawsuits filed against it by Wal-Mart.
“Even if we had won all of our lawsuits, they could still have come in and built an 80,000 square foot store and 74,000 feet of other retail space,” he said.
“That was one of our biggest fears—that they’d come in with a 70,000 square-foot store and build a 40,000 square-foot grocery store right next to it. From a land use prospective, it was hard not to take their offer.”
For those citizens who don’t want to see a second Wal-Mart locate in Lawrence at all, Highberger says that there is something they can do.
“They can involve themselves in the process of the approval of the new site plan that comes through. They (Wal-Mart) still have to abide by our zoning rules. They’re going to have to come up with a site plan that’s dramatically different (than the one they first proposed).”
Mayor Mike Amyx says that the agreement the commission reached with Wal-Mart was, at the time, the best decision for the city of Lawrence. As to whether it was an agreement in good faith with Wal-Mart, Amyx was not willing to go that far.
“I would say it’s one of procedure. I think that this starts the procedure again of the arrangement of the buildings on the pad site and how that facility is going to work.”
Amyx says that it’s important that a Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa not have a detrimental affect on the traffic at that intersection, or the neighborhoods surrounding it.
But Toplikar remains confident that citizens can keep a second Wal-Mart out of Lawrence altogether. “There’s definitely towns that have kept Wal-Mart out. The City Commission just needs a little more encouragement.”