Archive for Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Standing up to a mall

April 25, 2001


To discover why Lawrence doesn't have a giant shopping mall, or to understand why its downtown continues to grow and thrive, Tim Arensberg suggests reading a complicated document tucked inside a three-ring binder on a shelf at City Hall.

Without the explicit protection of downtown included in Plan '95, he said, Lawrence's center for retail, office, governmental and cultural activity today might have a much different look.

"Plan '95 is the only reason we don't have a 'cornfield mall' out there where Wal-Mart is now," said Arensberg, owner of Arensberg's Shoes, 825 Mass. "And if there was a mall, we wouldn't have a successful downtown. It'd be like downtown Topeka, and they're sucking wind."

With its adoption two dozen years ago, Plan '95 gave Lawrence a road map for development through 1995. But within a few years, it became much more than the community's written compilation of concerns, suggestions and desires for the city's growth.

It also would become the city's lightning rod for controversy, its lifeline for downtown revitalization and its ticket to a stronger urban core and tightly monitored growth along Lawrence's fringes.

Community effort

Although Plan '95 produced other lasting effects -- for the first time, it gave established neighborhoods standing in zoning cases -- it is remembered for its strong stand against a Cleveland developer's plans to build a "cornfield mall" at the southern edge of town.

And it all happened because of the efforts of a group of concerned elected officials, a lineup of committed volunteers and dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of dedicated observers and participants.

Together, they worked through the city's first truly public process in forging a path for the community's collective future. Previous plans relied heavily on consultants for expertise and ideas.

"The city commissioners and county commissioners at the time wanted something that would be gospel -- something they could sink their teeth into and something they could use," said Dale Cranston, who owned a TV repair shop in Lawrence and served on the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission while the plan was being formulated. "What we worked on was far more detailed than anything before it.

"It was quite a leap forward. We had a lot of study sessions, a lot of input, a lot of public meetings on it."

Chuck Warner, who served on the planning commission in 1977 when Plan '95 was adopted, said public participation helped mold the kind of document needed in a town seeking direction.

"The plan gave the community a chance to focus on what's really important," said Warner, now president of Firstar Bank in Lawrence.


The plan stood up to its biggest test a few years later, when Jacobs, Visconsi & Jacobs twice sought to build a mall on 61.4 acres at what today is Iowa and 35th streets. Mall supporters argued that Lawrence needed the jobs, shopping opportunities, expansion and revenues generated by an enclosed, regional shopping center.

But city officials denied the mall plan and its later incarnations elsewhere in town. The mall developer took the city to court, with the case ultimately working its way past the Kansas Supreme Court to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The city prevailed in a case that turned largely on the central theme expressed by a single line from Plan '95: "It shall be the general policy to emphasize " the (downtown) as the primary regional commercial center and to analyze closely any proposal for the extension of " commercial development in light of the potential negative impact on the (downtown) area."

A mall, quite simply, would have changed Lawrence forever, said Price Banks, then the city's planning director, in making his case to the planning commission in 1987. Among his dire predictions: Development associated with the mall would sprawl south of the Wakarusa River, trigger traffic snarls in neighborhoods and "rob downtown of its heart-of-the-community status."

Arensberg, whose family shoe store opened in the central business district in 1958, today thanks Banks and those who wrote and defended the plan whenever he thinks about the prospects of competing against a mall.

The hard work, Arensberg said, paid off.

"Your plan is your only defense against too much growth, or the wrong kind of growth," he said. "And it's the only way to win."

Earlier struggles

Ron Short sure wished he had Plan '95.

From 1969 to 1971, Short served as Lawrence's first professional planning director. Working out of a former bank building at 11th and Massachusetts streets, he relied on a patchwork of consultants' reports and a personal anti-sprawl desire to guide the city's growth.

Developers were lining up outside his office to build shopping centers along Iowa Street south of 23rd Street. When he started, the area had less than 13,000 square feet of commercial space.

Today, it has nearly 1.5 million square feet.

"I worked really hard to keep the major shopping centers out of Iowa Street, to keep them from harming downtown," said Short, now planning manager in Glendale, Ariz. "I just remember going through hell, fighting the shopping centers, saying, 'We really need to preserve the downtown. Once we get shopping centers, the downtown will start deteriorating.' "

"Unfortunately, I didn't have the luxury of having a plan that would say that."

While Plan '95 prevented a massive mall development from materializing, it couldn't stifle market forces.

Today, South Iowa Street is the largest commercial district in Lawrence. It includes several large stores that are found in malls elsewhere; several others linger on the drawing board.

"I absolutely didn't want a mall, but we've got one now," said Shirley Martin-Smith, who moved to Lawrence in 1977 and later served as mayor. "It just doesn't have a roof."

Looking ahead

Martin Moore, a Lawrence developer for 20 years, has seen both sides of the downtown issue, and planning in general.

As managing member of 34th Street Investors, his development brought a new J.C. Penney, Pizzeria Uno and Hollywood Theatres to South Iowa Street.

As a member of 9-10 LC, he's turning a downtown block into a retail, office, residential and parking complex.

And, during the past decade, he served as a member of the steering committee that created Horizon 2020, the comprehensive land use guide that picked up where Plan '95 left off.

Even before members of the committee or their task forces had a chance to put pencil to paper, he said, one factor became quite clear.

"There wasn't going to be any deterring from 'we need to protect downtown and we're not going to have a great big enclosed mall,'" Moore said. "It was evident that was going to come out of the Horizon 2020 planning process and carry over from Plan '95. And it did.

"But let's not kid ourselves. There are some things you can't do, shoppingwise, downtown -- and that's all right -- but we all said we weren't going to have a big enclosed mall."

-- Business editor Mark Fagan can be reached at 832-7188.

Coming Thursday: Those who drafted Horizon 2020 knew that the successful Plan '95 would be a tough act to follow.

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