Archive for Monday, January 22, 2001

Going downtown

January 22, 2001

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Denser retail development and perhaps new national retailers in the 700 block of Massachusetts will affect downtown in a variety of ways.

The news that two property owners in the 700 block of Massachusetts are making plans to build new retail space and hopefully attract additional national retailers raises some questions and concerns.

Dale L. Miller and his father, Ed Miller, who own the open space just south of the Eldridge Hotel want to replace the pocket park with a three-story, 18,000-square-foot building. The first floor would be reserved for retail businesses and the upper floors would be used for office space.

Just down the street, Bob Schumm, owner of Schumm Foods, plans to demolish the building that formerly housed Alley Cat Records and Discs, 717 Mass., and replace it with a two-story building with at least 5,000 square feet. His initial plan is to use both levels for retail to respond to what he called the "red hot" market for retail shopping space downtown.

The two developers hope to capitalize on the influx of national retail chains in downtown Lawrence. A number of those chains Eddie Bauer, Gap, Abercrombie and Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters clustered in the 600 block of Massachusetts. Borders Bookstore is just a block to the east; a new Talbot's store is just a block to the west. As the local developers noted, their properties are well-positioned to encourage national retailers to extend south on Massachusetts.

And if they do, it will have significant impacts on downtown in a number of ways. Not the least of those is parking. Many observers have assumed that a new parking garage under construction at Ninth and New Hampshire will be the answer to the downtown parking dilemma. It clearly will be a significant boon for people who are coming downtown to jobs as well as shopping and entertainment venues. But, especially if more development clusters in the 600 and 700 block of Massachusetts, the parking problem may not be solved.

The main problem with downtown parking now is that people either shoppers or downtown employees are unwilling to park their cars and walk two or more blocks to their destination. Businesses on Massachusetts Street aren't required to provide parking, so they depend on public parking, which already is tight in the north end of downtown. Additional businesses and offices will only increase that demand. Another parking structure may be needed or the city may need to get more creative in promoting a park-and-ride system or some other method to reduce the number of vehicles looking for parking downtown.

There's also reason to wonder what impact new national retailers in the 700 block of Massachusetts will have on the ability of the Downtown 2000 developers to attract new tenants to their project. Will the clustering of national retailers on the north end of Massachusetts make space in the 900 block of New Hampshire less attractive to tenants?

The new developments also are likely to provide an interesting test of downtown design guidelines currently being considered by Lawrence city commissioners. The guidelines are intended to insure that new and remodeled buildings downtown have designs that are in line with the desired historical appearance of the area. The new projects presumably would be subject to review under the guidelines, if they are approved. It will be the first opportunity to see whether downtown property owners will find those guidelines reasonable or too restrictive.

Lawrence's downtown is an ever-evolving creature. That's not necessarily bad, but it creates challenges to the city as it seeks to maintain it as an attractive and accessible center of activity.

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