Lawrence's downtown should be protected, but that doesn't mean the city's long-range plan should ignore reality.
In many ways, Lawrence's downtown is the heart of the city. It is the cultural and social core of the city where people gather for many formal and informal reasons.
But Lawrence's downtown no longer is the city's primary commercial center.
That's why members of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission are looking at a new planning designation that would reflect the city's retail realities while protecting the unique qualities of Lawrence's downtown.
Fifty years ago, there was no question where Lawrence's commercial center was. Downtown was the home of all the car dealerships, as well as several major grocery stores. Downtown held the city's only movie theaters and department stores. Churches, government offices, major parks and business offices all were concentrated in the downtown area.
Downtown still is a gem. No one who visits Lawrence goes away unimpressed by our downtown. It is one of the major features that distinguishes us from almost any other city in the region. In many other cities, outlying shopping areas have drained the vitality out of downtown, leaving only empty storefronts and marginal businesses behind.
Lawrence has escaped that fate largely, many people would argue, because the designation of downtown as "the primary commercial center" allowed the city to block efforts to build a large shopping mall at the edge of the city.
There is no mall on South Iowa Street, but the concentration of major retailers and smaller stores in that area has shifted Lawrence's retail climate. The reality is that much of the city's major retail activity has moved out of downtown. Both in terms of square footage and sales tax revenue, downtown no longer is the city's retail center.
Changing the wording in Horizon 2020, the city's long-range plan, probably is a sensible approach. It does no good to have such a plan if it doesn't accurately represent such factors as shifting land-use and population growth.
On the other hand, it's important that downtown have a designation that will continue to protect its unique contribution to Lawrence. To allow outlying developments to sap the energy of downtown would be a tragedy that would be felt far beyond the pocketbooks of downtown merchants; it would diminish our community in many ways. People come downtown to see a performance and eat dinner. They come downtown to visit the library or go to a park. They come downtown to shop and visit a professional office.
But they don't come downtown to visit big box store. The confined footprint of downtown would never accommodate such stores. For that reason, downtown may have more to fear from the direct competition of an outlying development that tried to create a new city "center," complete with restaurants and entertainment, than it does from the retail developments on South Iowa Street.
Downtown Lawrence is something special and there seems to be little dispute in the city that it should be protected and preserved. It's wrong for the comprehensive plan to inaccurately represent downtown as the city's retail center, but it would be equally wrong to change that plan so that it threatens the future vitality of downtown. Hopefully wording can be found that both reflects the city's current retail reality and continues to support Lawrence's active and attractive downtown.