Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Downtown’s future looking up

Leaders may consider guidelines for vertical redevelopment

June 12, 2007


City leaders face new issues with downtown Lawrence

Nightlife safety and rising property taxes top City Commissioners' list of concerns for downtown Lawrence - and they say the best way to solve some of these issues is to get more people downtown. Enlarge video

Mayor Hack discusses the future of Lawrence

Mayor Sue Hack discusses whether city leaders need a vision statement for Lawrence and what the top issues facing the community are today. Enlarge video

Taller downtown buildings could mean steep decisions for Lawrence city commissioners.

That was a major point that came out of Day 1 of a two-day goal-setting session by Lawrence city commissioners on Monday.

"I see downtown at a crossroads about how it will grow up," City Manager David Corliss told commissioners. "And I don't mean chronologically. I actually mean vertically."

Corliss told commissioners that he expects developers to begin discussing redevelopment plans with the city that would place a lot of emphasis on expanding downtown Lawrence upward.

"We don't have a lot of values picked out about how that would look and feel," Corliss said. "That is something I think we're going to need to talk about."

Commissioners agreed, and several said they see a need to take action in some way to draw more people to downtown.

"Absent some movement to re-energize, I think we really are on the precipice," Mayor Sue Hack said. "I think a lot of us have had conversations with small-business owners who are concerned about the times we're in."

But more development - and particularly more dense, urban-style development - will create several questions commissioners need to answer. Corliss said the city should start thinking about whether it wants to financially partner with the private sector to redevelop portions of downtown.

Commissioners didn't reach a consensus, but there was some caution sounded.

"We need to be actively participating, but that doesn't necessarily mean monetarily," City Commissioner Mike Dever said. "The private sector is the one that needs to step up to the plate."

Commissioners also said the community needs to think about how new development - such as redeveloping major portions of Vermont or New Hampshire streets - would change the overall character of downtown.

Commissioner Rob Chestnut said there certainly would be "unintended consequences," such as rising property values, that might make it more difficult for independent retailers to afford downtown rents.

"Significant redevelopment will have some impact on the character of downtown, no matter how we do it," Chestnut said. "I wonder if there needs to be a fairly broad discussion about the downtown corridor."

Commissioner Boog Highberger said he thought the city's downtown efforts should be focused on encouraging more residential development there. He said if enough residents are added to downtown, new retail establishments naturally will follow.

Commissioner Mike Amyx, who owns a downtown barbershop, said whatever direction the city takes on downtown, it ought to take it cautiously.

While economic times are difficult now, he said, downtown still is performing relatively well compared with other parts of the city.

"It seems like we are doing something pretty right currently," Amyx said. "I think what a lot of people believe is that if we can make it better, fine. But don't screw it up."

Commissioners will continue their goal-setting session from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. today at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.


Wilbur_Nether 8 years, 5 months ago

No place left to build in Lawrence but up!

Godot 8 years, 5 months ago

Highberger said that if enough residents are added to the mix, more retail will follow.

Funny how that is expected to work for downtown, but is not allowed to work in other areas of town.

revshackleford 8 years, 5 months ago

As a former downtown business owner, I can offer an informed opinion to our elected leaders who really want to maintain a vital downtown that emphasizes locally owned businesses: we need some sort of rent controls. It can be offered in the form of tax incentives or rebates, but downtown retail rental costs are beyond the reach of many "regular folks" who could have stable downtown retail establishments. Costs are only going up. Until you can offer some way to make rental rates affordable, local businesses that do not serve alcohol or coffee or are not propped up from an external source will continue to go bust, and that is the bottom line. I've never heard a viable city commission candidate even propose this.

pelliott 8 years, 5 months ago

make a historical and beautiful downtown look like a giant multistory high rise walmart, boy that will bring people. -

Sigmund 8 years, 5 months ago

Rent control, yeah there is an idea that has failed everywhere it has been tried. Good luck with that.

Richard Heckler 8 years, 5 months ago

New retail stores in existing downtwown space that would encourage walk-by traffic throughout downtown not solely on the north end would create new economic growth without the load of NEW infrastructure expenses. Rehab store fronts and inusulate to keep over head down. How can the powers that be stimulate new business throughout downtown including the south end.

A new Italian cafe is now open where Mass Street Deli was located. Thank you Bob for selling out to people who are making wise use of existing space and not letting sit empty:hats off to Bob and the new building owners on this one.

Thanks David Millstein for bringing in a downtown grocery store rather than allow space to remain empty for any length of time:Yes to the Milstein family and friends. And to The Merc who will be contributing some used equipment to the endeavor that will encourage success. A community village can make things work:.aka team.

North Lawrence has requested a grocery store,laundromat and a hardware store. How can the powers that be make Tanger Mall pay for itself and remove itself as beast of burden on the taxpayer? The same goes for the Riverfront Mall which has ton of empty space:that which cost the taxpayer money.

Godot 8 years, 5 months ago

Forget rent control, how about tax control?

Centrist 8 years, 5 months ago

Why is rent control such a bad idea? Rent costs downtown are horrendous - and IMHO, way over-priced.

Oh, I see - that's too "socialistic" for you guys.

Pathetic idealogues.

Centrist 8 years, 5 months ago

Has it 'destroyed' them? Last I heard, those cities were thriving. Have you been to any of them lately? There's no shortage of activity.

Would you rather move there and pay $2,000 or more a month in rent?

Look, the free market is great, but sometimes (only sometimes), a little government assistance isn't a bad thing.

Centrist 8 years, 5 months ago

Put it this way, if something isn't done about spiralling costs downtown, then no merchant will be able to stay there unless they run a pub.

Market forces will keep consumers coming back - but not if merchants have to pass on their escalating costs.

Godot 8 years, 5 months ago

Costs didn't start spiralling downtown until the tax valuations of all the buildings were doubled or tripled. A few buildings sold for way more than they were worth; as a result, the appraiser bumped up the values on all the existing buildings.

Centrist 8 years, 5 months ago

Ok, fine. How about rent control paired with tax incentives to the property owners to keep up maintenance and protect profits. The whole purpose is to keep downtown thriving, isn't it? Products must be affordable to the consumer and business owner alike.

perkins 8 years, 5 months ago

It is difficult for me to place confidence in the city manager when he talks so evasively. "We don't have a lot of values picked out about how that would look and feel.." What the eff does that mean? Try some plain English man, unless you've got something to hide.

Godot 8 years, 5 months ago

Back to the topic of the article, this sounds like the the other $100,000 part of the the library project is being considered again (or, more likely, has never really been off the table.) They have just re-named it.

Get ready to be educated in the positive benefits of tax increment financing, and to be told that it really won't cost the taxpayers a dime.

Godot 8 years, 5 months ago

The TIF will be in additional to the 1 cent sales tax, which will be used to fund the $30,000,000 library and the soon to be $3,000,000 per year T.

Sigmund 8 years, 5 months ago

Rent control: Forcing downtown Landlords to accept less than what they could get from other alternate tenants is disastrous idea and although I have no love of them (as anyone who has read my posts must surely know by now) I would never wish that kind of harm on them or downtown Lawrence. People from Richard Nixon to V. Breshnev have tried price and wage controls and at best have been ineffective in their stated goal or at worst have been disastrous.

While we are at it though let go whole hog and let the City Commission get to decide how much you can charge for your labor? Why not??

Sigmund 8 years, 5 months ago

"Commissioner Boog Highberger said he thought the city's downtown efforts should be focused on encouraging more residential development there. He said if enough residents are added to downtown, new retail establishments naturally will follow."Boog is pretty close on this one (when I last even partially agreed with him I cant remember and I am reevaluating my position as I type).

Residential development around downtown is a good idea, but where is there enough vacant land to make a difference? In any event, if it is economically viable no "encouragement" will be needed. Just don't DISCOURAGE it with unnecessary rules and red tape.

overthemoon 8 years, 5 months ago

"We don't have a lot of values picked out about how that would look and feel"

like perkins, I wondered what does this mean?

revshackleford 8 years, 5 months ago

Just out of curiosity: are any of the people so vocally opposed to any sort of rent control current or former downtown business owners? And, honestly, do you have an alternate, workable suggestion? I'm telling you, from 15+ years of experience, high rents are a big problem if you want to encourage nonalcoholic/decaffeinated local business. While there are not,as one person pointed out, boarded up storefronts downtown, there are several places that have been vacant for a long time and others that have seen a lot of turnover.

"That's subsidized land ownership."

Ever checked out how many extremely wealthy people, e.g. Ted Turner, receive subsidies for land that they own? Not saying it's good, just saying it's common practice.

Sigmund 8 years, 5 months ago

When high rents get to be a big problem for too many tenants, the rational Landlord will lower rents or face paying taxes, insurance, and upkeep on empty buildings without any income. Just because your business can't make enough profit to pay downtown rents doesn't mean the City should force the Landlord to forgo their profits to subsidize your failing business. If you can't afford the rents downtown move or change your business so you can afford it. That makes room for businesses who can make a profit and pay the rent. Is that too simplistic for you?

Sigmund 8 years, 5 months ago

Marion, I don't disagree with you. My understanding is that many downtown landlords were encouraged to refinance those buildings at very high values. They cashed equity and the City was able to access them at those higher values for tax purposes and everyone was a winner, right? Little problem, existing .local merchants were unable to pay rents necessary support those landlord inflated prices and the lender is really insistent that those loans be repaid. Enter the non-local corporate retailers, the horror!

Whether or not this back story is a complete one or not, it's obvious downtown landlords are hurting and many downtown local merchants are being squeezed. The exception to this rule seems to be merchants who own their own building (ie their own landlords) don't seem to be under similar pressures.

I guess this is a long way of saying rent controls in this situation would be devastating. Landlords need more income not less to work this out. That is why all the subsidies for downtown and $30 million libraries to attempt to drive traffic downtown and the nexus of Walmart opposition is "save downtown." Godot probably has this nailed, we are headed now for a TIF scheme. I hope he is wrong and Mayor Sue and the Commission don't buy into this nonsense, but I fear he is correct.

Godot 8 years, 5 months ago

Marion wrote: 'The problem is that the taxes imposed on the properties are approaching the same figure that can be generated by rent. "

Close, but not quite. The average turn of the 20th century building in downtown Lawrence is 24x50, some with a cellar, some without. Taxes would be about $8K. Rent would be about double that.

How many Mom and Pop shops can afford to pay $24K in rent and taxes, plus insurance and upkeep, plus paying a living wage, and benefits, and employer match for social security and medicare, just for the privilege of having a shop downtown? Downtown had better generate a big chunk of sales to justify such an expense.

Sigmund 8 years, 5 months ago

Lawrence will never have that kind of density, the no-growth take me back to the 60's (1860's) crowd would never let our quaint little college town get that large. In fact, I doubt it will ever have the density or growth needed to support the current transportation "system."

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