Turnover higher than usual for downtown vacancies

The Casbah, 803 Mass., closed in January and will be the site of a grocery store. Mark Buhler, senior broker with Stephens Real Estate, said there seems to be a somewhat higher vacancy level downtown than at this time last year, and certainly more turnover.

Take a drive down Massachusetts Street, and you can see a new or vacant business on practically each block of the downtown area.

In the 700 block, the Fields Gallery – a longtime fixture downtown – has closed. In the 800 block, renovations are under way at the location of the Casbah, which will soon become a small grocery store. In the 900 block, Qdoba has closed. Some vacant storefronts have been occupied, while others remain the way they were some years ago, like the old antique store near Harbour Lights.

Mark Buhler, senior broker with Stephens Real Estate, said there seems to be a somewhat higher vacancy level downtown than at this time last year, and certainly more turnover.

“Any time you deal with small business, they’re the barometers of the economy,” Buhler said. “We’ve had a long, hard winter, and we really haven’t had one of those in a long time. It’s been very difficult for retailers downtown.”

Buhler said he doubted that location affected turnover. Instead, he said, when most businesses downtown close, it’s simply because they can’t survive the current market. There’s competition from the Internet, discount retailers and other places.

“Some things need to happen with parking to help all those businesses compete,” Buhler said.

Rick Marquez, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said the biggest problem with parking is all the talk of a parking problem. Marquez said his group would take time in the next few months to help educate customers about parking options.

Marquez said the last few months have been fairly good for downtown, with his group seeing some growth.

“Our membership is up from the year before,” he said. “When I walk up and down the street, though I see vacancies, they’re the same ones I saw when I came here” in October 2005.

Another particular challenge in Lawrence is the collection of retail stores, entertainment venues and office space, which provide for a mix of uses and abuses.

“It’s been evolving over time into what it’s become,” Buhler said. “It’s a destination. I try to go downtown on purpose.”

Safety issues

The past year also has seen more high-profile instances of crime in the downtown area. A man was shot and killed outside the Granada, 1020 Mass., in February 2006, and gunshots rang out inside Last Call that May. The block that is home to Last Call – the 700 block of New Hampshire Street – also has seen at least 16 guns, including an AK-47, seized from cars during the night and early-morning hours, according to court records.

More recently, police responded to a gun-pointing incident that occurred shortly after 2 a.m. March 25 in the 700 block of Massachusetts Street.

Kansas University cornerback Aqib M. Talib was riding in a truck driven by former KU football player Mark F. Simmons when it was backed out of a parking space and then was surrounded by a crowd. Aubrey E. Gilbert, 23, of Lawrence, allegedly pointed a gun at Talib. Gilbert was struck and run over by the truck, according to police accounts.

Police later found Gilbert sitting in a nearby vehicle, and he told them he didn’t want medical treatment. He allegedly became uncooperative with officers and was arrested and booked into the Douglas County Jail. He was charged with felony aggravated assault and freed on $10,000 bond.

Buhler and Marquez both dismissed the idea that instances of crime would have any noticeable effect on businesses choosing to leave downtown or customers choosing to patronize the businesses.

“I don’t know if it has anything to do with downtown doing well or not,” Marquez said. “It seems to be concentrated in one area.”

Protecting a tradition

Marquez said city government seems to have a handle on those problems and is preparing to address them, and that he didn’t want to see any regulations that could adversely affect Lawrence’s live music scene.

“It’s the best live music scene in the Midwest,” he said. “We’ve got something for somebody all the time.”

Buhler said the biggest hurdle to the market also is its biggest strength. The high rents and property taxes are a direct effect of the high – and stable – real estate prices in the area.

“What should we put in to be profitable? That’s the $64,000 question,” Buhler said.