Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2007

Working to improve gateway

Despite progress, residents say more needed to make N. Lawrence entrance welcoming

A welcome sign greets drivers entering Lawrence along North Second Street in North Lawrence. Many in North Lawrence say the entryway into the city is better than it used to be but admit that there's room for improvement.

A welcome sign greets drivers entering Lawrence along North Second Street in North Lawrence. Many in North Lawrence say the entryway into the city is better than it used to be but admit that there's room for improvement.

April 29, 2007


North Lawrence business owners

North Lawrence business owners discuss the need for more businesses to fill the empty lots north of the river and improvements that are already in the works for the area. Enlarge video

Stand at the "Welcome to Lawrence" sign in the north entrance of town and turn 360 degrees.

The view: a gasoline station, a fenced-in lot scattered with debris, a used car lot, an aging motel, a Sonic restaurant, another used car lot, an almost vacant office building and a strip club. Trees about to bloom line the street, blocking some of the debris and empty windows from those passing by on North Second Street.

Closer to downtown, the vacancies start to disappear. Riverfront Harley-Davidson recently opened its doors in what used to be a furniture shop and before that a grocery store. Across the street is the JGladman Studio in a renovated stone building that once housed a radiator repair shop.

North Second and Third streets is one of six major gateways into Lawrence. While it takes just a few minutes to drive the stretch of road before crossing the bridge and heading into downtown, the memories can leave a lasting impression.

A slow grind is how North Lawrence Improvement Association President Ted Boyle describes progress along the city's north entrance.

"To be an entrance to the city - even if it is the agricultural entrance - it needs to be better," Boyle said.

Most people quickly assert that Lawrence's north gateway is far better than it was a decade ago. In the same breath, they say there is room for improvement.

The city has pumped millions into the stretch of road, widening streets, planting trees and upgrading the storm water drainage system.

Importance of gateways

In the early 1980s, Stephen Grabow, a professor of architecture and urban design at Kansas University, was hired by a consulting firm looking at what to do with the north entrance. His recommendation: plant trees.

"If you have to come, (the gateway) doesn't really matter, you just put up with it," Grabow said. "But, if you are thinking about investing or moving or are coming for a job interview either for the university or business, it might be your first impression of the town.

"As you know, first impressions are pretty important."

Some of Lawrence's most high-profile visitors - former presidents, chief executive officers of international corporations, congressmen and famous athletes - fly into the city's municipal airport. Their first glimpse of the city is North Third Street.

Jeff Weinberg, assistant to KU's chancellor, said that he doesn't think visitors to KU are "deflected by what they see in the first minute or two."

"What they see is what Lawrence is all about," Weinberg said. "There is a charm in North Lawrence that west Lawrence doesn't have, and the same is true to the south and the east. Each is different."

The city's comprehensive plan - Horizon 2020 - has clear goals for North Second and Third streets, which the document calls an important entryway into Lawrence.

Horizon 2020 envisions an auto-related commercial center at the intersection of North Third Street and Interstate 70. It also calls for heavy industrial uses to be redeveloped to commercial or service uses.

The gateways to downtown Lawrence should be "emphasized and enhanced," the plan states.

North Town

The section of town faces its challenges.

Much of the area is in a floodplain, which increases the cost of construction. It also adds to insurance prices.

Many of the vacant buildings are for office space, a use that hasn't been in high demand in Lawrence for the past few years, property owners said.

In 2005, North Town went up on North Second Street. The 58,000-square-foot building intended for business condos replaced an asphalt plant.

Steve Glass, a partner in the project, said that about 75 percent of the building remains vacant.

"It hasn't moved as quickly as we hoped," Glass said of the project.

Among the reasons, Glass said, was overestimating the demand for condominium-type business space. But another factor is the image of North Lawrence.

"In some people's mind, there is a perception that it is not the best entrance into town," Glass said.

However, he quickly noted that could change.

"I am convinced, over time, it is going to be a great entrance into the city," he said. "But most things move slowly."

Glass said he expects to close soon on another unit at North Town and has other interested parties.

"It's one of those things, the more units you sell, the easier it is to sell," he said.

I-70 Business Center

He is not the only developer along the strip struggling to reach the tipping point of commercial activity.

When drivers exit the turnpike, their first glimpse of Lawrence will most likely be a head-on view of the I-70 Business Center. Roughly 50 percent of the 88,000-square-foot outlet mall turned business park is full.

"We'd hoped to be a little ahead of that, but we're not extremely disappointed by it," said Bo Harris, who helps manage the business center.

In 1993, the Tanger Factory Outlet Center opened with 22 stores. Although the shopping center saw a few years of success, most stores had failed by the time a group of local investors purchased the center in 2000.

Renaming the complex to the I-70 Business Center, the owners revised the concept to one that included office space and government businesses.

Today, it is home to Protection One, the only publicly traded company that has its headquarters in Lawrence. It also houses the Department of Motor Vehicles, a branch of the Kansas Highway Patrol and Home Oxygen 2-U.

But still half of the storefronts in the center have the signs of old businesses plastered to the windows. Inside are the skeletal remains of stores. Even on a workday, the expansive parking lot looks barren.

One challenge had been changing people's perception of the building from a retail center to a business center, Harris said.

The market hasn't been easy either.

"Frankly, one of the most difficult things is a general lack of activity in the community. I don't think it's North Lawrence, I don't think it is the center," Harris said. "There's a lull in the market."

The center does have some advantages, Harris said, such as great visibility from I-70 and easy access on and off the turnpike. Not to mention it is a short drive from downtown and has an abundance of parking.

The investment group has recently agreed to do exterior improvements, Harris said, including removing signs from old storefronts and improving landscaping. With those upgrades will come a renewed effort to market the center, Harris said.

Taking a chance

On the other end of the commercial strip, two new businesses recently took a chance on North Lawrence: Riverfront Harley-Davidson and JGladman Studio.

The cost of rent pushed John Gladman's photography studio from the 1400 block of Massachusetts Street to North Lawrence.

Gladman, who wanted to own the building that housed his studio, said the property on the north side of the bridge was cheaper.

The transition wasn't exactly smooth. He got stuck in some red tape when a change in the city's zoning laws almost meant that the lot had to stay as industrial use, meaning a photography studio wouldn't be a allowed.

Compared to other parts of the city, Gladman said much of the development cropping up along North Second Street is done by those with relatively shallow pockets.

"The city needs to be willing to work with small businesses and not just big business owners," he said.

Mike Patterson, owner of Riverfront Harley-Davidson, said when he scouted for a place for his motorcycle shop, he wanted to be close to downtown, but not in it. He also liked the fact that the store was along one of the city's main gateways.

Patterson would like to see other investments follow.

"It's obviously started. We are a part of that, a small part of that," Patterson said.


Patterson and Gladman are among those who believe that something as simple as a name change would help push the tide toward a better entrance.

Both said the idea has been floating to rename North Second Street to North Massachusetts Street, tying the area to Lawrence's downtown.

Many Lawrence residents don't know where North Second Street is and it doesn't fit into the city's street grid pattern, Patterson said.

Lavern Squier, president and CEO of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, said he has heard requests for more signs in the area pointing toward downtown.

As a North Lawrence resident, Boyle is on a campaign to get what he calls more "user-friendly businesses," such as a grocery store, coin laundry and hardware store.

Grabow likes the idea.

"I think it would help stabilize the area and spur more investment in it," he said.

As he did more than two decades ago, Grabow also said more landscaping would help.

"You can't lose by putting parks and greenery in areas that are vacant," he said.


Steve Jacob 11 years ago

You have to hit Mass. street to hit the vacancies.

oldgoof 11 years ago

So, Right-thinker sees nothing wrong here. . Just another factoid for the rest of us to measure his underlying cerebral dysfunction

KsTwister 11 years ago

Working to improve Gateway. REPEAT!!! and they never do. If I lived in North Lawrence I would start my own city (secede from the union) at least to get something better than they get now from this city. But at least I will thank those who do live there for the support from the money they pay in taxes and I believe that is more than the city will ever do.

OnlyTheOne 11 years ago

Typical Lawrence - the appearance of the gateway is of much more importance than balancing the budget!

chucknoblet 11 years ago

No offense to whoever designed those big cement blocks that spell out LAWRENCE, but those aren't very attractive. Seems like a historic city like Lawrence would use some kind of historically appropriate signage. It's not hard to come up with attractive designs; just do a google image search for "welcome sign" or "neighborhood sign" and you see all kinds of attractive designs.

And again, no offense to whoever designed those giant concrete bulkheads as you enter downtown from the bridge, but the concrete planters or retaining walls or whatever they are have a way of sort of walling off the view of downtown; why would they do that?

I've always thought Lawrence has such a beautiful asset in the river, but instead, we have to drive over a bridge with concrete barriers so we can't see the beautiful river. Then, we're met by giant concrete bulkheads or whatever at around Waxman Candles and trees walling off the view of downtown. Don't get me wrong--I love trees, but maybe thin out the lower branches and knock down the hideous concrete. For such a wonderful and historic downtown, there should be something like wrought iron greeting you as you come into dowtown.

And, to me, City Hall is such an eyesore. I know, I know, maybe it was some kind of innovative Paul Rudolph-inspired "Brutalism" style architecture from the 70s or 80s or whatever and we should appreciate that it's not some kind of generic box building, but it's just not attractive. That whole area could be gorgeous, if we could just somehow enhance the views of the river, maybe with metal rails instead of concrete. It's such a wasted asset, in my opinion. Whatever the design style is called, or whatever the concept, it just seems congested-looking or boxed-in around there; of course, it IS congested because of the traffic and roadways, but surely some steps could be taken to lighten it up visually and have it appear less congested and walled-up visually.

Raiden 11 years ago

Like it or not seems irrelevant at this point. Before the city allocates any funds to improve this or any other gateway I would at least like to have streets that don't total my car. Whatever impressions a visitor may have of the gateway will quickly become distant memories when they have to have the front end realigned or a rim replaced or new shocks. I don't get it though....the Romans built roads that have lasted for 2000 years....why does Iowa street need to be resurfaced every year...where's the graft there? Follow the money........

number3of5 11 years ago

I do not like the new design. It is confusing as to where to go to find the current news articles. I liked the old one much better. All I had to do was scroll down and choose the stories and articles that I wanted to read. The only thing this design has over the last one is that it is so confusing that the ads seem to disappear. I am too busy trying to figure this concept out that I just miss the ads.

Christine Pennewell Davis 11 years ago

with as much as this city needs to work on they are worried about this? Prioroties people

lunacydetector 11 years ago

the REAL problem with north lawrence is the river.

north lawrence doesn't have enough rooftops to justify a lot of businesses. it's a floodplain, it's separated from the rest of us by a river, and it's major northern access is a toll road.

it ain't too cheap to live there or put in a business, either. less restrictions, more convenience and more economical would help.

come up with new zoning, keep the planning dept out of north lawrence (have a pro-growth community advisory panel instead) - goes for the planning commission as well. experiment. i bet it would get much, much better over there.

LogicMan 11 years ago

I definitely support renaming the main drag to something more memorable. But probably not "North Massachusetts Street"; just "Massachusetts Street" makes sense, but the numbering system is a problem. From the map in the AT&T phone book, it looks like there is a small road, behind Johnny's (?), that is already Mass Street, and would need to be renamed with either.

Or, any of the unused State names make sense? Texas Avenue?

Just wondering, was North Lawrence ever a different town? The road naming convention used is different from the remainder of Lawrence.

Miles Nease 11 years ago

If the city of Lawrence would allow a business to put up a sign on the Turnpike, there would be much more interest. Didn't Cracker Barrel pull out because the city refused to allow them a big sign directed at Turnpike traffic? That I-70 sign is an eysore. Half of the time, one side is missing.

Finally, the massive grain elevator needs to go. It is the first thing that people see when they get off the Turnpike. I don't think it is even in business anyway. No one will develop the riverfront on either side of the river until that monstrosity is gone. For years, Manhattan had an elevator when you crossed the bridge coming into town. It is gone and that whole area has taken off and is now a nice entryway to the city. If they are not going to tear the elevator down, at least, paint the damn thing a funky color. Lawrence is the so-called city of art. Why not commission someone to jazz it up?

JSDAD 11 years ago

Although I will admit that the Gateway in North Lawrence aint great, take a look at th next gateway. The first six blocks arent bad then come the motels,car lots, empty gas stations, much like the first. looks like Lawrence just arent very good at first impressions.

Richard Heckler 11 years ago

The sign is just fine. Lawrence needs high wages not ugly shopping malls at our gateways. People don't give a damn about welcome signs. Fix the sidewalks and forget welcome signs. People probably know they are in Lawrence.

Actually that North Lawrence sign is good looking...leave it alone.

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