Closure of Massachusetts St. to traffic for big game day has some businesses concerned, but expect ‘pop-up’ sidewalk sales

In this file photo from July 16, 2009, a crowd of shoppers crosses an intersection in downtown Lawrence.

Some local businesses are concerned that the all-day closure of Massachusetts Street will deter shoppers from coming downtown.

The City of Lawrence announced Tuesday that it will close Massachusetts Street from Sixth to 11th streets in advance of Saturday night’s Final Four game in an effort to improve safety. The city will close the street to traffic and parking will be prohibited beginning at 5 a.m. Saturday.

Downtown Lawrence Inc. Executive Director Sally Zogry said she’d hoped the closure would not be all day. She said such a long closure would particularly affect retail and dining, which don’t necessarily benefit from game-day crowds later in the day.

“Everybody downtown understands that safety is the first priority, and we are in line with that,” Zogry said. “It’s just very difficult to have such a huge impact on your business.”

KU basketball games bring thousands of people downtown, with crowds pouring into the streets following major games. The Lawrence Police Department told the Journal-World Tuesday that it believed closing the street to both parking and traffic was the safest option for pedestrians and drivers, as people have been injured in the past when motorists try to navigate crowds.

Joe Flannery, president of Weaver’s department store, said it was the first time he could recall Massachusetts Street being closed for that long and that eliminating the parking and traffic flow on the street would affect business. Flannery said traffic flow downtown had always been essential to enable people to circulate in the way they are used to and that the closure would deter shoppers.

“They’ll avoid coming downtown to shop,” said Flannery, who added that the day before Easter is always a big shopping day. “They’ll still come down late afternoon to get settled in to watch the game at the restaurants and bars, but the morning and afternoon hours that are crucial for retail are a concern.”

Regarding some of the concerns from businesses, Lawrence Police Department spokesman Andrew Fennelly said that the police department recognized that the road closure would cause some difficulties. However, he said the vast majority of parking downtown would still be available and that the department had worked hard to try to find a balance between commerce and safety.

“Ultimately our biggest concern on Saturday is the safety of everyone coming downtown,” Fennelly said in an email. “Given the crowd sizes anticipated, and the danger of mixing vehicles with pedestrians in the street, we are trying to create the safest environment possible for any potential celebrations.”

Fennelly said that by closing the street at 5 a.m., the department was preventing a large number of vehicles from parking on Massachusetts Street prior to the closure taking effect. Additionally, he said the timing allowed the department to address “additional safety concerns,” which he said the department couldn’t discuss prior to the event to maintain operational security.

The closure will eliminate about 320 parking spots on Massachusetts Street, according to information from the city’s Parking Control Office. Those spots represent about 10 percent of 3,200 public parking spaces downtown. Fennelly said that parking in the city lots, parking garages, and on-street parking on New Hampshire and Vermont streets would be free Saturday.

A free shuttle will also be provided during certain hours. The city will provide a shuttle from KU’s Memorial Stadium to the 700 block of Vermont Street from 11 a.m. Saturday until one hour after the game ends. The game is set to begin at 7:49 p.m. Saturday.

Zogry said businesses were planning “pop-up” sidewalk sales for Saturday and that despite the closure, she hoped that people would still come downtown to eat and shop before the game. She said downtown businesses were also trying to make sure the public understood that all shops would still be open even though the street was closed to traffic.

“We really hope (visitors) will support the local business, not just drinking establishments, but the retail and other dining establishments too,” Zogry said.

The city announced Wednesday that it would allow downtown sidewalk sales Saturday without a permit from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sales must be adjacent to the place of business and cannot include alcohol, according to the news release. Street vendors licensed by the city clerk’s office will also be allowed in the downtown area during the same time period.

Fennelly said that should KU win Saturday, Massachusetts Street would be closed to traffic and parking again on Monday, the day of the NCAA championship game.