It’s natural and should be the goal for most any community to have its central business district be healthy, attractive and inviting.
Those who have lived in Lawrence for some time are well aware of the extended debate some years ago about a “cornfield mall” proposed for South Iowa Street along with subsequent proposals for a major mall development in downtown Lawrence. Both plans were rejected as a means of protecting downtown.
Today, there are more retail stores on South Iowa Street than were proposed in the rejected blueprint for a cornfield mall. In fact, there is more retail business in that area than in the entire downtown.
This matter has been brought to the forefront by a recent statement by Dean Palos, a former Lawrence city planner who played a role in preserving or protecting Lawrence’s cramped and historic downtown in the 1970s an early ’80s.
In a Topeka news story, Palos, now director of planning for Johnson County, recalled the differing opinions about Lawrence’s downtown. He was in Topeka to discuss the revitalization of that city’s downtown.
Palos said, “There’s no silver bullet. There’s no one thing to do. It’s better to go slow and incrementally. You have to be patient. Lawrence is a testament to people to be patient.”
He added, “There was a lot of dissension in Lawrence. Lawrence went through a long time of fractured relationships. But there was a strong sense of self-preservation.”
Palos said Lawrence decided downtown would remain the core of retail business for the city and Douglas County.
This may have been the goal in the 1970s and ’80s, but it would be wrong today to suggest that downtown is the retail “core” of Lawrence.
In many respects, Lawrence faces the same challenges today that it did 30 or so years ago. It continues to struggle to keep downtown attractive, vibrant, safe and lined with successful retail businesses. There are too many vacancies. Too many once-sound businesses are closing or moving to other locations.
Downtown Lawrence does not have the space or parking to accommodate even one large “box” store, like those located on South Iowa. That being the case, downtown needs to provide a different shopping draw. One way to do that is to attract stores that offer products and services not found in the usual large shopping area, often dominated by retail chains, stores that make shopping in downtown Lawrence fun both for local residents and for people from out of town.
New residential projects may increase downtown’s vitality and boost the need for some businesses that provide basic services. Again, there isn’t room for a major supermarket, but how about a good deli or maybe a Walgreen’s or CVS that offers a broad variety of basic merchandise?
City officials have used various tactics to protect the downtown business district, and Massachusetts Street has been designated by one magazine as one of the nation’s best.
Nevertheless, downtown Lawrence is not posting the retail sales it once enjoyed, and there is no room for complacency. Just how long will it take for Palos’ “patience” to produce the desired results in downtown Lawrence?