Rethinking downtown: Commissioner’s ideas for Mass. Street go well beyond business as usual

Lawrence city commissioner Lance Johnson is pictured near the corner of Eighth and Massachusetts streets. Johnson would like to see a broad community discussion about the future of downtown and ways to enhance its vitality in a 21st century retail environment.

Imagine a tall slippery-slide in downtown Lawrence. Maybe it is flanked by some fun water fountains for the kids, a sculpture garden for the adults, and a mini-amphitheater for live music.

Now, imagine it all smack-dab in the middle of Massachusetts Street — not along Massachusetts Street but actually in the street.

Yeah, we’re talking about a pedestrian mall — replacing asphalt and parking with outdoor dining, street vendors and new types of attractions.

Those are the kind of imaginative juices City Commissioner Lance Johnson wants Lawrence residents to generate about downtown.

“I really want to challenge the status quo of downtown,” he said.

Johnson — who began his first term on the commission in April — admits that he’s not entirely sure that a pedestrian mall is the right recipe for downtown. But as more high profile vacancies emerge on Massachusetts Street and as shoppers continue to do more buying online, Johnson is sure that downtown can’t afford to insulate itself in some artificial comfort zone.

“I still believe Lawrence has something unique here,” Johnson said of downtown. “But I’m saying, let’s try to think bold and big about how we can make this a lot better. I’m 100 percent confident in saying that now is the time we need to be challenging ourselves.”

A pedestrian mall

Johnson thinks the idea of a pedestrian mall — a controversial subject in Lawrence in the 1980s — may be just the thing to get a serious conversation started.

After making multiple trips to Boulder, Colo. — the hometown of his wife — Johnson has seen how a pedestrian mall can work. In Boulder, the Pearl Street Mall — a four-block stretch of street closed to vehicles — has become one of the better known outdoor malls in the country.

For Lawrence, Johnson isn’t yet offering any specifics on how a pedestrian mall might work. Maybe it would be on Massachusetts Street. Or maybe it would be on one of downtown’s side streets. But he thinks the idea of devoting an area entirely to people instead of cars could accentuate one of downtown’s strengths.

“You hear people all the time talking about when they were thinking about whether to move to Lawrence,” Johnson said. “Invariably, they tell you that downtown is what sold them on the idea. Why? Did they buy a great pair of pants?

“I don’t think that is it. I think people come downtown for the experience. Lawrence is a very unique place, and downtown is the place where you can see it all.”

Johnson — who owns an engineering firm that has its offices in downtown — said a pedestrian mall could be the type of idea to spur a major change in thinking about downtown’s development. He said community leaders too often try to figure out what type of new stores and businesses need to locate in downtown. Instead, he said community leaders should spend more time figuring out how to enhance the “downtown experience.”

That may mean a park in the middle of downtown so mothers could bring their children to the area while they eat lunch at an adjacent outdoor dining area. It may mean a permanent area for outdoor music. It may mean elaborate rain gardens or outdoor art galleries, or just a larger stage for what may be downtown’s most popular pastime — people watching.

Johnson thinks all of it would draw more people downtown, and that in turn would make it easier for businesses to make a living in downtown.

“The key is you drive all this with people, not stores,” said Johnson. “What downtown needs most is a critical mass of people.”

‘Terrible to business’

But there’s a reason Downtown Lawrence doesn’t already have a pedestrian mall. The concept was one of many floated in the 1980s, and ultimately rejected amid a storm of contentious debate.

Many of the same concerns expressed then, remain today. Top among the list is the loss of parking spaces on Massachusetts Street, and forcing shoppers to walk longer distances to stores.

“The short answer is, I don’t think that is a great idea,” said Dan Hughes, an owner of Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop, who is president of Downtown Lawrence Inc. “I think you have to have an über retail mix before you can start making people walk to it.”

City Commissioner Mike Amyx — who owns a downtown barber shop — is a veteran of the debates in the 1980s. He believes the parking issue is too great to overcome.

“I have a lot of respect for Commissioner Johnson’s ideas, but I don’t believe this is a good one. The cost of removing that parking on Mass Street is terrible to business owners downtown.”

Hughes said he would like the city to focus on some fundamental issues, such as more police patrols in downtown, greater enforcement of anti-panhandling laws, and more emphasis on keeping public areas of downtown clean.

He also said Downtown Lawrence Inc. probably needs to do more to help retailers understand how to survive in a world where online shopping has become more prevalent, and help new retailers understand what does and doesn’t work in downtown.

Holding on

But some downtown stakeholders said they do like that Johnson is trying to spur a conversation about downtown. George Paley, a longtime owner of several buildings in downtown, said he’s not sure that converting Mass Street to an outdoor mall will ever work. But he thinks the community might want to consider closing the street for one night each month to do something special.

“I do agree (with Johnson) that we either change and prosper or else we go backwards,” Paley said.

Hughes said he also thinks there is room for discussion. He said maybe talking about turning Eighth Street into a pedestrian mall would be a more palatable place to begin a conversation.

“That may have a lot of hurdles too, but I don’t want to just start quelling people’s grand ideas about how to make things better.”

Johnson said he’s open to other ideas — even ones that don’t have anything to do with a pedestrian mall.

“I’ve just thrown my idea at the white board,” Johnson said. “I want other people to throw theirs up there too.”

Mayor Rob Chestnut said he may work to facilitate that. He said perhaps some sort of meeting of downtown stakeholders would be appropriate.

Johnson said the discussions probably will be difficult. He said they may involve some business owners assessing whether downtown continues to be the best place for their businesses. It likely will involve broader questions about what role downtown plays in Lawrence’s overall retail market too.

“I just feel like maybe this is a moment in time where we have to challenge ourselves about what downtown is and what it really means,” Johnson said. “Are we trying to make it something or hold onto something that is just not anymore in 2009?”