North Lawrence businesses
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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.
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.