Creating a vision for the future of downtown Lawrence won’t be an easy task. Implementing that vision will be even harder.
On Tuesday’s agenda for the Lawrence City Commission is an item asking for discussion and direction on downtown issues including regulations on panhandling, downtown planning and possible incentives for new retail businesses. The agenda item comes on the heels of a recent meeting between commissioners and about 40 members of Downtown Lawrence Inc. and a couple of months after Commissioner Lance Johnson floated various downtown ideas, including the possibility of closing some streets to create a pedestrian mall.
Before looking at the big ideas, merchants wanted to deal with some nuts and bolts issues, such as what many see as an increase in the vagrant population on downtown sidewalks. Although the city already has an ordinance against “aggressive panhandling,” merchants say stronger measures are needed.
Even this narrow issue isn’t without complications. One commissioner, for instance, suggested a panhandling-free zone for downtown but wanted to figure out a way to allow street musicians. Any law that deals with vagrants runs into First Amendment issues, but trying to create a loophole for “legitimate” musicians is even tougher.
The influx of restaurants into former retail space downtown also is a major concern. A story in the Oct. 2 Journal-World updated progress on three new eateries in the 700 block of Massachusetts Street alone. A couple of weeks later, a local chef announced plans to put a restaurant in the former Round Corner Drug Store building. A long-time downtown business owner expressed the valid concern that “We’re on the precipice of sliding into Aggieville,” the Manhattan bar district.
That certainly wouldn’t be most people’s preferred future for downtown Lawrence, but figuring out ways to attract and preserve more retail in that area won’t be easy.
Mayor Rob Chestnut is right to say that Lawrence needs to look to the future of its downtown rather than dwelling on the past. “… it really needs to be about what we want to be five to 10 years from now, not what we once had or what we don’t want,” he said. Having been raised in Lawrence, Chestnut knows what downtown used to look like, but he knows it never will look like that again.
Doing nothing and letting the marketplace determine downtown’s future certainly would be an option for city officials, but the experience of similar-sized cities in Kansas and elsewhere makes that a risky strategy. Lawrence has worked hard to maintain the vitality of its downtown, which is considered a rare gem by many other cities whose downtown areas now are filled with vacant buildings and marginal businesses.
Experience tells us that getting a critical mass of Lawrence residents to agree on a “vision” for the future of downtown will be next to impossible. Turning that vision into a reality will be even harder. Nonetheless, we applaud commissioners’ commitment to this important task and urge Lawrence residents to join their discussion and effort.