Downtown Lawrence no longer is one of the few place in the area to take a nice stroll surrounded by shops, restaurants and art.
New developments that attempt to replicate the downtown feel have been popping up like blue light specials in recent years.
The Legends, a megaretail center just 30 minutes away in western Wyandotte County, is the latest. But there have been plenty of others in the Kansas City metropolitan area, which long has been an important base of customers for downtown Lawrence.
So surely that new trend must be the biggest challenge facing Lawrence's downtown.
"No," says Martin Moore, a Lawrence developer who is heavily invested in downtown. "Apathy is the biggest threat to downtown. We have to realize it will take continued investment to keep downtown vibrant."
Downtown merchants also are singing that tune. Downtown Lawrence Inc., the nonprofit group that represents merchants and other businesses, is beginning to beat the drum for a new planning effort that will attempt to map out the vision of downtown Lawrence for decades to come.
"My perception is that today, downtown Lawrence is still the place to be," said Dan Hughes, an owner of Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop, 802-804 Mass. "But if you don't figure out how to make it better, somebody else will build another Legends or something else.
"One thing that is certain is that if you are not growing, you are stagnant, and stagnant is dead."
Planning to plan
Rick Marquez, the new DLI director, said his group is preparing to ask the downtown community to engage in creating a long-range plan that addresses how the business district will look, feel and function.
The effort, which likely won't start until merchants are done with the busy holiday shopping season, could involve a committee of five to seven stakeholders and a series of public meetings to get input.
Exactly what issues the plan would address won't be determined until the process begins. But Marquez said there are several obvious issues, including:
¢ The optimal mix of retail, entertainment and residential uses in downtown.
¢ The role that large special events should play in attracting people to downtown.
¢ Where and what type of new parking structures should be placed in the area.
¢ Perceptions that public safety in the area is on the decline.
¢ Whether the actual footprint of downtown needs to be expanded.
Whatever plan the DLI effort comes up with won't be an official city plan. Marquez said his group recognizes it doesn't have the authority to create a definitive plan for downtown.
"We understand we're just a private organization, but whatever plan we come up with, we would like for the city to take a look at it and consider it," Marquez said.
Moore, the developer - who hasn't been involved with DLI's efforts - said he's fine with the group trying to plan, though he's not sure it will produce a definitive outline for the area.
But he said there have been questions lingering about downtown for a while now. The "age-old" question, Moore said, is whether downtown Lawrence is destined to become an entertainment district populated primarily by bars and restaurants.
"I think the big question really should be, 'How are we all going to get along?'" Moore said. "There are bar owner and shop owner conflicts, especially when a shop owner is picking up trash and washing off their sidewalk on Saturday morning. But we also have to remember that those entertainment businesses bring a lot of people to downtown. They really help keep us on the map.
"I don't think we want to give up on retail, but I don't think we want to give up on entertainment either."
Marquez said his group wouldn't go into the process with any preconceived notions that, for example, there need to be fewer entertainment businesses.
"We really do want to hear what people think is needed to keep downtown viable," Marquez said. "We would come into this with our eyes wide open."
But there are questions whether additional efforts are needed to attract traditional retail businesses to downtown. The Downtown 2000 project in the 900 block of New Hampshire Street, which is being led by a group that includes Moore, has not attracted the type of retail development that it envisioned. Much of the property in the block remains undeveloped, and the group has shifted its focus to convincing the city to build a new downtown library on the site.
There also are numerous vacancies downtown, with some storefronts sitting empty for more than a year, especially when the owners of the property are seeking tenants other than a restaurant.
A city-sponsored study last year found that the retail vacancy rate in downtown was about 10 percent, which the city-hired consultant said was nearing the point of concern.
A survey in July by the Lawrence commercial real estate firm of Grubb & Ellis/The Winbury Group found the vacancy rate was 7.5 percent, which was higher than the city's average vacancy rate of about 5.5 percent.
Marquez said he hoped a long-range plan would produce a list of business types that people want to see in the downtown area.
"We could go out and try to recruit particular types of businesses," Marquez said. "I think that is what people would like this group to do. I know personally that is what I would like to do."
Evolution in downtown
Some retail watchers, though, said they hoped that any efforts by DLI would not enter the realm of trying to micromanage the market.
"It gets to be pretty tricky to manipulate the market rather than let it go where it wants to go," said Kelvin Heck, a broker with Grubb & Ellis/The Winbury Group, 805 N.H.
Heck said it was important to recognize that downtown retail had evolved largely into specialty stores and boutiques.
"You're not going to see any of the mainline stores, like a J.C. Penney, come back to downtown," he said. "You can't get them a big enough footprint, they can't park it the way they want, the big trucks can't easily deliver to them. You have to look for stores that sell something that isn't provided in the big stores."
Boutique and specialty stores, though, face their own set of challenges, with Internet shopping being perhaps the biggest. That's why Moore said any look at the future of retail in downtown should be a broad-based examination.
"I think the factors that are affecting retail sales are probably national in nature," Moore said. "It probably is not something specific to our downtown."
But merchants said it also would be important to examine local issues that make it more difficult for downtown to remain the "focus of the city."
"The No. 1 thing is always getting people downtown," said Hughes of Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop. "Lawrence has grown in a number of ways. I don't want to say it has sprawled, but there is a whole group of people who don't come downtown.
"Sometimes it is a perception that there is no parking. Sometimes it is a perception that every store down here is overpriced. There are a whole lot of image issues that we can try to address."