As the city of Lawrence prepares to update its downtown master plan, city commissioners need to think big, not about what downtown Lawrence has been but about what it can become and the role the city can play in getting it there.
It certainly is time for an updated plan. The downtown master plan has not been updated since the 1990s, when planners were dealing with a host of different issues, mostly the negative impact that suburban big box and residential development had on city centers including Lawrence.
That was before the Internet disrupted everything, including retail. Now, with shopping increasingly shifting online, retailers are more likely to close their existing big box store than to open a new one. And millennials, a generation larger than the baby boomers, are driving a re-urbanization of American cities, creating new demand for the amenities downtowns can offer.
Last week, city commissioners authorized staff to solicit proposals from consultants to develop the new downtown plan. Assistant Director of Planning Amy Miller said that the desire is to hire a consultant to help create a plan that recognizes the existing sustainable nature of downtown and also incorporates input from stakeholders and the community.
City Commissioner Leslie Soden said she wants consultants to examine how the city can specifically encourage small businesses and local ownership downtown and make sure that mom-and-pop businesses don’t get priced out.
“I don’t want to see downtown just become a long strip of chain stores,” Soden said. “I think that Lawrence has its own unique vibe and that the different kinds of stores that we have downtown contribute to that.”
But the mix of downtown stores and who owns them is but a small part of what commissioners need to think about as they look to shape downtown policy. Yes, it will be important to establish policies that address issues such as parking, affordable housing and public spaces.
But it’s equally important that the city thoughtfully consider what its role should be in spurring the right kind of downtown revitalization.
How can the city work with existing proposals that would benefit downtown — the proposed grocery store and the hotel and conference center come to mind — to ensure they happen? A big trend in development is higher-education partnerships to bring satellite campuses into downtown buildings. Are there partnerships with the University of Kansas that make sense?
How can the city encourage the kind of office space in demand by high-tech entrepreneurs? And what can the city do to bring high-speed Internet and free Wi-Fi to the downtown area?
An upheaval in the way people live, work, shop and play has created the greatest opportunity for downtown revitalization in perhaps a century. The city is right to update its master plan and take public input during the process, but commissioners also must recognize that the future largely rests on the leadership they demonstrate. Let’s hope they spend as much time thinking about how to encourage downtown change as they do about how to restrict it.