Downtown Lawrence again proves its resilience, as the area prepares to welcome new retail, office and housing projects.
It looks like downtown could get the last laugh.
Just when it appeared that the relentless retail development booming on South Iowa Street would land a knockout blow on downtown business, four big new retail and office projects popped up to fight back. Together, they'll add hundreds of thousands of feet of space.
Whatever happened to worries that the city had reached a saturation point, with no more room for more retailers?
Forget about it, developers and others said.
"Lawrence has reached critical mass. We're on a list of places to be," Jeff Shmalberg, a partner in the biggest downtown project, said earlier this year.
And it's not the big-box, discount-store and chain-restaurant neighborhood that South Iowa is quickly becoming. Downtown is attracting higher-end retailers and specialty shops of the type that have long called the area home.
The downtown niche
"The reason downtown has appeal is that it's found a niche, a specialty niche that it fulfills really well," said David Longhurst, past president of Downtown Lawrence Inc. "Whether they're national or local, they're unique. They're specialty kinds of retailers. They don't appeal to the mass market the way, say, J.C. Penney does."
Joe Flannery, president of Weavers Department Store Inc., put it this way: "Downtown has a different customer than South Iowa. What downtown offers is more unique."
Uniqueness is the goal of the three major projects set to get started this year. They are:
- Downtown 2000, a project that would include buildings on both sides of the 900 block of New Hampshire Street. It would include 63,000 square feet of retail area, about 40,000 square feet of office space, 24 loft-style apartments and a four-level parking garage. The site also could include a $6.6 million Lawrence Arts Center, relocated from the other side of downtown.
The $17.9 million retail, office and apartment project would aim to fit in with the feel of Massachusetts Street,
See Downtown, page 3A
with individual storefronts and complimentary architecture.
- Gene Fritzel Construction Co. Inc. is planning redevelopment in the 600 block of Massachusetts Street, on the site of a former Mercantile Bank drive-through branch. The three-level building's first level would include about 17,000 square feet of retail space. The upper two levels would provide 30,000 square feet of office space, including Fritzel's new company headquarters.
The $6 million project would result in a tile-roofed brick structure with large, awning-covered storefronts and a clock tower.
- Kansas Seed House LLC is redeveloping the former Quantrill's Flea Market to include about 10,000 square feet of retail space on a lower level, and about 30,000 square feet of office space on upper levels. That project was begun late last year, and the first office tenants were to begin moving in by the first of April.
- Winter Inc. is planning to develop vacant ground at the northeast corner of Eighth and New Hampshire streets, the south end of an area known as the "Winter block." The 38,000-square-foot building would include 20,000 square feet of retail space on the first level, with offices and apartments upstairs.
It's not yet clear who will take all the space, but there apparently are lots of chains eyeing Lawrence's downtown area.
"At any one time, we've had 40 or 50 companies walking downtown and not being able to find a place," said Art Cromer of American Real Estate and Investments Inc. in Lawrence. "We'll have a place to put them now."
Though most of the interested companies are what he called "major" chains, Cromer says most also fit into downtown's niche of specialty retailing.
Leisa Lowry, of JP Weigand and Sons Inc. real estate in Wichita, says having a big inventory of new space available will certainly attract more chain retailers of all types.
"All these nationals like to cluster, so if you can get five or six to go at once, that helps," said Lowry, who is working on securing tenants for two of the projects.
That prospect raised some concerns for Sarah Fayman, president of Downtown Lawrence Inc. and owner of Sarah's Fabrics, a downtown fixture for 26 years.
"If you start to build spaces that are going to be filled by large stores ... I think it has the possibility of destroying -- or changing -- our appearance downtown to where it looks like an Oak Park Mall," she said, referring to the popular Overland Park shopping center. "If chain stores come, the question is: Who would drive here for stores that they already have in their back yard? That's a lot of the fear."
Then there are concerns redevelopment -- while perhaps saving downtown from the South Iowa onslaught -- might be turning the gun of progress on itself.
"People's first choice is always going to be Mass. Street," Lowry said of the chain retailers eyeing locations in Lawrence. But new space being added on New Hampshire Street could lead some retailers and other users to move to the newer space -- leaving holes on Lawrence's main drag.
Flannery doesn't think so.
"I think it's probably going to raise the property values on Mass. Street," he said.
He also discounted the notion that more national retailers would harm downtown's nature. "Personally, I think the mix of local and national attracts more people," Flannery said. "The national people that locate here are specialty retailers. They're not mass merchants. Gap's a specialty retailer, so are Abercrombie and Borders. They all have a special niche."
And just as new space attracts outside tenants, it could also entice local firms to relocate to downtown from elsewhere -- especially office users.
"A lot of people already doing business in Lawrence would like to be downtown," Flannery said. "It's an exciting place to be."
-- Richard Brack's phone message number is 832-7194. His e-mail address is email@example.com.