A Lawrence Chamber of Commerce task force's proposal for downtown development has drawn a mixture of reactions from the community, ranging from enthusiasm to concern to anger.
Predictably, how people view the multifaceted plan reflects their perceptions of how the proposal would affect them most directly.
Generally, the proposal, drafted over the past 18 months by the chamber's Downtown Development Task Force, calls for expanding the boundaries of downtown, improving traffic access and parking, and increasing the mix of offerings in the central business district. Details of the proposal were first reported in the Journal-World on Saturday.
Downtown Lawrence Inc. has endorsed the proposal. Its board is scheduled to meet Thursday with chamber representatives to form a coalition of neighborhood groups and other community interests to advance the proposal to city hall.
SEVERAL downtown business owners say they favor the proposal.
Jack Arensberg, owner of Arensberg Shoes and a member of the chamber's Downtown Development Task Force, said he was glad to see the chamber produce the proposal.
"The good thing about it is that the chamber is backing the concept that the downtown is where they ought to have their emphasis as the main commercial center," he said.
Joe Flannery, president of Weaver's Inc. and a member of the chamber's task force, agreed.
"I think this focuses on a lot of the needs of downtown in general, including retail. But it goes beyond retail and covers arts and service businesses and residential. I think it's broader," he said.
Under this proposal, he said, retail development would be intensified on New Hampshire and Vermont streets and expanded on Ninth Street just east and west of the downtown boundaries.
The proposal is concerned with keeping the character of downtown, Flannery said, while allowing for expansion into some areas that already have some commercial business.
ARENSBERG AND Flannery both said that neighborhood organizations must be consulted before the process moves forward.
"I think we need to take the neighborhoods into consideration," Arensberg said. "I don't think it will work if you don't."
Robert Lester, manager of The Etc Shop, 928 Mass., said he welcomed the recommendations and their focus on adding more parking, a constant problem for local merchants.
"Downtown can't expand without more parking," he said. "One of the biggest problems is that employees need a place to park. They end up taking places reserved for customers."
Lester also said he applauded the task force's goal of keeping downtown Lawrence competitive with other shopping areas.
"I think all the merchants downtown know where their paychecks come from. People come downtown from Topeka and Kansas City to shop, because the atmosphere is different here. It's a small-town atmosphere. There's no big suburban mall," he said.
SPOKESMEN FOR some neighborhood organizations contacted by the Journal-World were less enthusiastic. Several organization leaders said their groups haven't had time to form a position on the proposal but were likely to discuss it at their next meeting.
Deitre Weismiller, president of the East Lawrence Improvement Assn., said she is apprehensive about the chamber's plan but emphasized that she was speaking as an East Lawrence resident and not stating the group's position.
"My initial reaction is fear and anger," she said.
"I'm afraid that they're basically talking about inundating this neighborhood with commercial and retail construction."
Weismiller said that any commercial construction in East Lawrence could threaten historic homes that are not yet listed on historic registers and reduce the city's supply of low-income housing.
"We live in a poor neighborhood," she said. "There isn't any other neighborhood for us to move to."
WEISMILLER also said she was concerned that the neighborhood groups had not been invited to participate in the drafting of the proposal.
"I'm angry that there's been no public input up to this point. In fact, it seems they're working to prevent it," she said.
"It's my feeling that the neighborhoods that would be most directly impacted should have been involved from the beginning."
Arthur Anderson, chairman of the Hillcrest Neighborhood Assn. and the new president of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, said he expected the neighborhood groups to monitor the proposal closely.
"We'd be, I'm sure, concerned at the possibility of neighborhood encroachment but we agree that it's important to keep downtown as the cultural and civic center that unifies the community in a way that a mall wouldn't," he said.
He noted that one point in the proposal calls for expanding Ninth Street to four lanes from Iowa to Emery Road, an issue that Hillcrest residents successfully opposed in the fall of 1990. Instead, the group struck a compromise with the city, which allowed for improvements at several dangerous intersections.
IN FACT, Anderson said that issue, which neighbors believed would have threatened property along Ninth Street, was the catalyst for formation of the Hillcrest Neighborhood Assn.
"I'd be really disappointed if we had to go through that particular argument again," Anderson said.
Jennifer Brown, coordinator of Oread Neighborhood Assn., said she was taking a wait-and-see attitude about the proposal until she had more specific information.
However, Brown said she was wary of the recommendation to expand the downtown business district.
"It leaves me wondering where the expansion will go," she said. "They said that any expansion wouldn't encroach on the neighborhoods, but where else is there to go?
"As far as the part of Oread that borders on downtown, it's all built up with good housing and churches, lots of churches."
SO FAR, said City Manager Mike Wildgen, the city has been on the sidelines regarding the plan. The most appropriate course of action for the city commission to take now is to study it before taking any action, he said.
He noted that several of the task force recommendations are not new to city officials, such as the proposal to widen Ninth Street. The commission also declined last summer to add a center turn lane on Sixth Street between Maine and Tennessee Streets, another task force suggestion.
Wildgen said he would expect resistance from neighborhood groups if any residential areas had to be encroached upon for a downtown expansion. The city probably would have to seriously consider expanding up instead of out, he said.
"We might have to look at more vertical growth," he said. "I don't think you can keep going east or west too far. That's one reason you might want to have decked parking."
The first step for the commission in considering the task force recommendations would be to accept the report officially during an upcoming meeting, Wildgen said.
"IT WOULD not be unusual for them to then schedule a study session on the report with the task force members and discuss the proposals."
Diane Mullens, city planner and chair of the task force's access subcommittee, said there's always room for downtown to grow, but the question is what concessions neighborhoods would have to make.
"We know that we can't go north," she said, alluding to the Kansas River. The options then are in the other directions.
"It's a question of whether there will be an opportunity to assimilate enough land on the outskirts of downtown," she said.
Lawrence City Commissioner Bob Schulte said that he was excited about the task force's report.
"It recommends everything that I was thinking would be good for the community and making downtown even more of a gathering place," he said.
The most logical area for expansion of the downtown would be between New Hampshire and Rhode Island Streets between Seventh and 11th streets, where many businesses are abandoned or may be going up for sale, he said.
"I'm not saying mow everything down there and build back up, but it seems logical to do something with that area," he said.