Progress 2007 Retail

City growth raises questions about state of downtown

Megan Dudley, left, and Carrie Snyder chat outside Free State Brewing Co., 636 Mass., on a Friday afternoon in this file photo.

Megan Dudley, left, and Carrie Snyder chat outside Free State Brewing Co., 636 Mass., on a Friday afternoon in this file photo.

April 21, 2007

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Daffodils bloom early this spring in downtown Lawrence, where the scenic atmosphere is part of the area's retail cachet.

Daffodils bloom early this spring in downtown Lawrence, where the scenic atmosphere is part of the area's retail cachet.

Katie Logan, 3, of Lawrence, right, bites into her ice cream cone as she sits inside Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, 818 Mass. Katie was joined by her mother, Angie Logan, and brother Bryan, 5.

Katie Logan, 3, of Lawrence, right, bites into her ice cream cone as she sits inside Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, 818 Mass. Katie was joined by her mother, Angie Logan, and brother Bryan, 5.


Kansas University Students Callie Coco, Downs sophomore, at left, and Jamie Hoover, Olathe senior, chat outside Signs of Life, 722 Mass., in downtown Lawrence. The bookstore and art gallery functions both as a retailer and an entertainment outlet, serving up live music, readings and other events.

Kansas University Students Callie Coco, Downs sophomore, at left, and Jamie Hoover, Olathe senior, chat outside Signs of Life, 722 Mass., in downtown Lawrence. The bookstore and art gallery functions both as a retailer and an entertainment outlet, serving up live music, readings and other events.

It's a perennial hot-button issue in Lawrence: Should we let businesses pop up as the market dictates, or should we control the growth with an eye on broader concerns about quality of life?

In recent years, many of those debates have focused on preserving downtown, with its unique blend of retail shops, restaurants and bars. The past year has been no exception, as a growth-oriented city election, a visit from a team of planning consultants and a variety of retail developments planned for West Sixth Street have kept the spotlight on the question of where in Lawrence people will be spending their dollars in years to come.

Pretty much everyone can agree on one thing: Downtown is a special place, but it's not the only game in town.

"Downtown is just one of several commercial districts. It has obviously become a smaller share of the pie," said Kirk McClure, a Kansas University associate professor of urban planning. "South Iowa now dwarfs downtown not only in terms of square footage but in terms of where we believe the dollars are going... As a retail destination, South Iowa is a bigger, stronger and in many ways healthier district than is downtown."

Philip R. Ernst, owner of Ernst & Son Hardware, 826 Mass., remembers the time when downtown was the place for buyers to meet all their needs.

"Forty years ago if you wanted to shop in Lawrence, you had to come downtown." he said. "There were six hardware stores downtown then."

Today, his type of shop, one supplying everyday necessities, is more the exception than the norm along Massachusetts Street.

Overall, just 18 percent of Lawrence's retail spending happens downtown, according to Rod Stevens, a retail analyst who visited town in February as part of a consulting team that drafted a vision for what the city might look like in years ahead.

The team said a downtown grocery store would help make downtown the type of old-style traditional neighborhood that many people have been longing for, rather than primarily a novelty shopping destination. Days later, a group of entrepreneurs confirmed that they're planning to open an organic market in the former Casbah location at 803 Mass.

"We're looking at something comparable to a New York-style market," Cassy Ainsworth said. "Something quick that you can get in and out of and meet your basic needs."

As downtown evolves, a variety of developments planned for western Lawrence have the potential to add new features to the city's retail landscape. Plans to build a new Wal-Mart at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive have been tied up in the local courts for years, as developers challenge the city's denial of building permits for the store.

Other projects planned for the area:

¢ Northgate: in late March, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission approved the first phase of a development on the southeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. The plan includes 30,000 square feet of retail space in its first phase. Later phases include an additional 165,000 square feet of retail space.

¢ Mercato: In August, developers who own 45 acres of commercially zoned property at the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway filed their most detailed plans yet for a new shopping and office center that will accommodate at least one big-box store and several smaller shops or restaurants.

But in late 2006, the city commission tabled the subject and put it off for six months, in time for the new commission to be seated.

¢ Bauer Farms: A 43-acre site envisioned for the northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa would include 61,350 square feet of retail space that is being billed as a "Village Market," along with homes, aparments and office space. The idea is to recreate the feel of traditional neighborhoods prior to the suburban model that emerged in the 1950s.

To hear McClure tell it, all this means that downtown is at risk.

"Downtown needs to be preserved and protected. We are, unfortunately, taking steps to hurt it," he said. "We are now building stores so rapidly on west Sixth Street that there aren't enough leases for both sides to win... I do think it's probable that the western part of the city will win out over downtown, and I think that is a mistake we could prevent by simply slowing down the pace of growth."

McClure isn't alone with his concern. The city's planning staff has been urging the commission to adopt a plan that would require retail projects of 50,000 square feet or more to go through a "retail market analysis" before being approved by the city.

But that kind of policy is strongly opposed by members of Lawrence's development community, who argue that market forces should shape what businesses go where and say Lawrence is losing out on sales-tax dollars- a key piece of the city's budget - to other communities. They also point out that downtown has remained viable as a destination despite the growth of retail spaces on South Iowa in the past decade.

"Nobody wants to hurt downtown. Everyone realizes it's a jewel for this city," developer Greg DiVilbiss said. "The reality is that markets change. If you've got an idea that works, people are going to go there."

Comments

Richard Heckler 8 years ago

WE are being taxed without an explanation as to why the increases are necessary after 20 plus years of broadening our tax base. Doing a Cost of Community Services Study bi-annually could keep Lawrence pointed in the right direction instead of guessing. This study would determine which area of growth is not paying its' way and Lawrence puts the brakes on then chooses a wiser direction. Lawrence needs answers not higher taxes.

What is a Cost of Community Services study? A Cost of Community Services (COCS) study is a factual way to assess the overall fiscal contribution of current land uses. It is a snapshot of costs versus revenues based on existing land use patterns. Unlike a traditional fiscal impact analysis, it does not predict the future impact of decisions. Instead, COCS studies provide hindsight from past land use decisions. While they do not judge the intrinsic value of one land use over another, they do specifically evaluate the fiscal contribution of privately owned farm, forest and open land. These productive land uses generally are ignored by other types of fiscal analysis. COCS studies are easy to understand. Local budgetary information is allocated to general land use categories, and then revenues and expenditures are compared. The studies rely on recent financial records and interviews with county officials to determine how revenues were generated and how appropriations were spent.

The results of more than 60 COCS studies, conducted by AFT and other organizations across the country, refute the following three misconceptions or "myths" about growth.

Myth #1: Residential development lowers property tax bills by increasing the tax base

Residential development does contribute revenue to the tax base through property taxes, but it also increases the amount of expenditures necessary for public services such as public safety and education. When these costs are taken into account, COCS findings consistently show that overall, residential development does not pay for itself.

Richard Heckler 8 years ago

Growth Costs Us All

Suburban sprawl has been rightly blamed for many things: destroying green space, increasing air and water pollution, fracturing our neighborhoods and forcing us to drive gridlocked roads for every chore. But there is one consequence that usually goes unmentioned - sprawl is draining our pocketbooks and raising our taxes.

Richard Heckler 8 years ago

Myth #3: Open land, including productive agricultural and forest land, is an interim use awaiting conversion to its "highest and best" use Findings prove that keeping farm and forest land productive is a viable economic use of the land. Studies find that farm, forest and open land have modest demands for services, and therefore low costs to the community. In addition, agriculture and forestry provide numerous economic and environmental benefits.

A Cost of Community Services (COCS) study is a factual way to assess the overall fiscal contribution of current land uses.

Richard Heckler 8 years ago

Too much growth in new housing construction becomes an expense to the taxpayer as does too much new construction in retail because neither one in a saturated market generate enough tax revenues to support their infrastructure maintenance costs demands to the city. Homeowners then become the likely target as the most constant source to supply additional user fees, sales and property taxes.

This is why homeowners and local retail owners throughout Lawrence should be quite concerned about a saturated retail market. New retail construction does not necessarily translate into NEW economic growth when the amount of constant area retail dollars does not expand. This only spreads available dollars out thinner thus no additional tax revenue or employment. Each existing source will generate fewer sales,less tax revenue and likely create less demand for current employees thus termination. THIS IS KNOWN AS ECONOMIC DISPLACEMENT rather than economic growth aka negative impact.

NEW or ADDITIONAL Economic Growth does NOT necessarily require new construction. Vacant space cost taxpayers nothing and only when housing or some other structure appears does it become a liability.

The massive new residential developments over the past 20 years is an effort in my eyes to create a shopping public in an effort for the few controlling families and investors of local real estate to increase their wealth at the expense of taxpayers. Thus far and 20 years later this plan has not worked thus higher taxes to cover the Cost of Coummunity Services.

Don't you think after 20 years of supporting the expansion our tax base and tax bills with inflated property taxes Lawrence homeowners should in line for 15 years of tax abatements instead of increases in taxes?

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