By Candice Davis
Lawrence city planning must be guided by a vision that protects the interests and welfare of all residents and safeguards the quality of life we have come to enjoy. Our comprehensive planning document for growth and development, Horizon 2020, provides such a vision and needs to be used as a valued reference tool to evaluate the impact of development projects.
A group of North Carolina developers, Collett Associates, have been working with our city planning department for 18 months in planning a large retail development on south Iowa Street, called Southpoint. Many concerns have arisen about the timing and feasibility of this project. The development will require both rezoning and annexation of land as it does not conform to Horizon 2020. It will also require infrastructure to reach the site.
This proposed retail project is located at the southern most entrance to our city and in part of the floodplain next to the Wakarusa Wetlands. Building in a floodplain is a costly and risky proposition.
Last week, the city-county planning commission wisely voted against this proposal, but it will likely be revisited. Residents need to be informed as there are already existing city commitments to retail developments in other Lawrence locations. The success of the new regional recreation center may be aided by the development of retail shopping and hotels in the northwest portion of the city. Given that our tax dollars have been invested in the recreation center, it does not make sense to support retail development to the south.
The North Carolina retail project is large, nearly half the size of our downtown. How many new retail businesses can Lawrence absorb without harming other established citywide businesses? City data shows that retail sales, adjusting for inflation, have not increased substantially since 1995. The success of this retail proposal is dependent on drawing out-of-town shoppers. This is very speculative as there are many large regional malls within easy driving distances from Lawrence and the surrounding communities.
Thoughtful and careful consideration must be made about the need to expand retail development. We must preserve what makes Lawrence a unique destination. The welfare of our downtown is a priority, and city planning practices and decisions are critical in protecting and preserving this jewel. Retail shopping is an important component to the overall experience of being downtown.
Downtown Lawrence provides a sense of identity and place that a shopping mall or strip mall never will. Our downtown has survived because of the past efforts of citizens who fought for years to keep out a regional shopping mall. Without their efforts our downtown would look like Topeka, Wichita, Atchison, or Kansas City, Kan. None of these cities have been able to restore their once vibrant downtowns.
There is not another downtown city center in the Midwest that compares with the charm and vitality of downtown Lawrence: We offer cultural experiences, shopping, art, history, music, entertainment, food, gorgeous parks, the river, parades, sporting events, gathering places and leisurely strolls for family and friends. Our downtown is an enjoyable destination for our residents as well as those outside the city. We cannot risk losing it.
Thoughtful and effective city planning is critical. Developers and out-of-town investors are not city planners. They may have wonderful ideas, but it is our city planning staff that must decide the potential benefit to the community for each project. The residents of Lawrence as well as developers both risk investment dollars in new development. Our tax dollars help support city services, local businesses and infrastructure costs. We deserve city planning that will protect our investments and the community we love. “Free market” ideas without good planning are reckless and destructive. They threaten the vitality of our city, especially our downtown.
City planning should always consider the overall health and welfare of the entire community, follow appropriate city planning protocol and use established urban planning principles and data that bring credible facts to the table.
The North Carolina proposal does not meet the vision of our long-range plan and is not good for Lawrence. A beautiful park with walkways, bike paths and access to the Wakarusa Wetlands would be a more welcome project for this location.