The recent experience of retail businesses in downtown Lawrence may raise some warning flags about any proposed downtown project that depends on retail development to be financially viable.
Although almost all of the 32 condominiums in the Hobbs Taylor Lofts at Eighth and New Hampshire have been purchased, the development has had less success in filling its street-level retail space. Capital City Bank is occupying about 7,600 square feet of the space, but Bo Harris and his partners have found no takers for the remaining 10,000 square feet they planned for retail development.
It's disappointing, Harris said recently, but added, "There's other space that we're competing with, and maybe there's a lack of national tenants looking for space."
Judging by other retail development in downtown Lawrence, Harris seems to have hit the nail on the head. After a significant influx of national chains to downtown several years ago, demand has slowed. The last new national retailer to locate in downtown was Chico's, which opened about a year and a half ago in a building that had been vacated by an Eddie Bauer store. For whatever reason, it seems downtown isn't doing as good a job as many expected of attracting national chain retailers.
In fact, it seems that many downtown retailers are struggling. Two businesses have closed their doors in the last two months, including Fields, which operated in downtown Lawrence for 38 years. Another long-time retailer, the Casbah, also is in the process of closing, and other empty storefronts are scattered along Massachusetts Street.
The retail climate may be an issue as the city considers a plan endorsed by the Lawrence Public Library board for a new library tied to a major residential and commercial development centered at Seventh and Vermont streets. The plan calls for 130 new apartment units, 120 condominiums and 150,000 square feet of retail space.
Given the current retail climate downtown, can the developers of this project realistically expect to fill 150,000 square feet of retail space within a reasonable time? The Downtown 2000 plan that proposed residential and retail development to help finance a major project at Ninth and New Hampshire streets has been unable to move forward. A number of Massachusetts Street storefronts also remain empty despite major renovations designed to attract national retailers.
Although parking often is cited as a problem for retailers, it doesn't seem to stop the large crowds that come downtown in the evening to visit restaurants and entertainment venues. Perhaps new downtown residential developments will help increase traffic for retail businesses, but the nature of the businesses may need to change to include fewer specialty shops and more stores that sell everyday necessities for people who live downtown.
Some in Lawrence continue to seek ways to "protect" downtown by limiting competition in others parts of the city, but the answer may be to meet that competition head-on by developing and marketing downtown in a way that makes people want to come downtown to shop. It's not a bad thing for downtown to change. In fact, change probably will be its key to survival.