Simons: Strengthening downtown more vital than ‘protecting’ it

“Protecting downtown” has been the motto and rallying cry for people in Lawrence who oppose major retail development outside or inside the limited downtown, the so-called central business district, of the city.

This opposition to major retail facilities located on the edges of the city blossomed years ago when one of the nation’s most successful shopping center developers wanted to build a center on the east side of Iowa Street, between 31st and 35th streets.

Such development would severely damage downtown Lawrence, opponents claimed. When plans for the south Lawrence development were scuttled by city officials, the developers suggested placing two major retailers in the downtown area as anchors for a shopping center that would extend along the east side of Massachusetts Street between Seventh and Ninth streets.

Opponents then said such a plan would destroy the historical ambiance of the stores fronting Massachusetts Street. Next, the developers suggested moving the development farther east in the same area to preserve the historic facades. Critics then complained the plan would add too much traffic in East Lawrence.

Another tool used to oppose development was seeking designation downtown of national historic sites to restrict anything in the surrounding area that would impact negatively on those buildings.

The message was clear: Nothing should be allowed that, in the minds of some, would weaken the downtown area. Or was it to protect downtown businesses from added competition?

Somehow or another, even with this kind of thinking, there now is more retail development on and near South Iowa Street than would have been included in a so-called “cornfield mall” project.

In the meantime, with all the efforts to “protect” the area, what has happened to downtown Lawrence? According to some surveys, it has the highest vacancy rate of any commercial area in the city.

According to other surveys, Lawrence is capturing far fewer retail dollars than a city its size should: 59 percent, the lowest rate among 13 Midwestern university communities.

Lawrence does, indeed, have an attractive downtown with pretty flowers and plantings at intersections, a tree-lined main street and some pieces of sculpture that are art in the eyes of some.

It’s certainly the entertainment area of the city, but it is wrong to suggest it is the business center. Bars and restaurants dominate the downtown landscape, with smaller boutique-type stores filling in between the drinking establishments and eateries. There are only a few sizable retailers, most of which, over the years, have been able to ride out the business challenges.

Now, some in the city want to have another restriction on retail development in Lawrence. They want to force any company or developer who proposes a facility larger than 50,000 square feet to undergo a retail analysis to see whether Lawrence’s economy and real estate market can support the new development. The analysis also would determine whether the city already has enough of a certain category of stores or services and whether additional stores in those categories are needed.

If this attitude continues to grow in Lawrence, one has to wonder what the downtown will look like 5, 10 or 20 years from now. It is almost impossible for a store of any significant size to move into the downtown area. Consequently there will be more restaurants and more specialty shops but fewer and fewer stores that draw major retail traffic downtown and generate significant tax dollars for the city.

City officials seem consumed with trying to limit the size of retail development, fighting Wal-mart with every possible argument and worrying about the height of proposed buildings.

A handsome condominium project has been built at the northeast corner of Eighth and New Hampshire streets, and other developers are talking about condo projects in the downtown area. There is much to be said for such living units, and one of the nicest is that stores and services are supposed to be within walking distance. However, where is a grocery store, a full-service delicatessen or many other stores that provide the merchandise normally desired by those living in the pricey condominiums? There certainly are a sufficient number of bars to quench the thirst of those who are being urged to live downtown, and enough restaurants.

Rather than spending so much time trying to figure out ways to deny or discourage retail stores of 50,000 square feet or more, why not spend an equal amount of time trying to figure out how to make downtown Lawrence a stronger, better, more attractive, more convenient place? How about extending the boundaries of downtown so sizable retail stores could move into the area, thereby attracting more customer traffic for other businesses?

Lawrence enjoyed many highly successful years of growth, but, according to numerous yardsticks, this growth has slowed, or maybe even declined. Just because Lawrence has a proud history is no guarantee this always will be the case.

There is no justification for a sense of cockiness among Lawrence residents. The competition is getting tougher every year.

“Protecting downtown” or “defending downtown” may sound good, but it is far more important to strengthen downtown. Whether in sports, business or any other competitive endeavor, it is far better and far more productive to operate with a positive offensive strategy than to sit back in a defensive mode.

Lawrence’s downtown is nice, but the vacancy rate and retail sales figures should send a message. Currently, city officials are preparing to hire a new city manager. What kind of person are they looking for? Will he or she be allowed to show vision and leadership or is this person to be a “yes man” for the “protect downtown” fraternity?

This is a critical time for Lawrence, and the city is sure to fall far short of its potential if the defensive, “protect downtown” mentality prevails and permeates the thinking concerning retail needs, roads, city services, job opportunities, housing, the excellence of public schools and our quality of life.

Lawrence currently is lacking in aggressive leadership, with too many residents unwilling or hesitant to get involved in important city matters. A small minority has been able to impose its ideas due to the majority of citizens being afraid to speak up and make their thoughts known.