Is a downtown grocery store still going to happen? Key players talk through the issues, including a new plan for parking

photo by: Nick Krug

The former Borders building located at the southeast corner of Seventh and New Hampshire streets is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.

My health insurance underwriters and elastic waistband makers have been preparing for the day that a Price Chopper grocery store — including its smorgasbord of food bars and sheet cakes — comes to downtown Lawrence. But it has been nearly a year since we reported that Queen’s Price Chopper signed a letter of intent to locate at the former Border’s bookstore site at Seventh and New Hampshire streets. Yet, still, there is no downtown grocery store or any real signs of progress on the project.

Is this deal dead? Is it as hopeless as a cookie jar with a broken lid? It is worth asking, so I checked in with a representative of the development, and importantly, with City Manager Tom Markus. Here are my takeaways:

• There’s been a theory that maybe City Hall had cooled to the idea of a downtown grocery store. Sure, they would love to have one, but maybe it isn’t worth everything that has to be done. I did not, however, get that impression from Markus.

“One thing that is not an issue between the city and the developer is a belief that a grocery in downtown is a very positive thing,” Markus said. “My experience is it would really help the downtown and the adjoining neighborhoods. I think we see it as a project that is in our mutual interests.”

Importantly, he said the project may have some benefits that don’t clearly show up in the typical cost-benefit analysis the city does for such projects. He said the city will need to figure out how to account for those benefits.

photo by: Nick Krug

The former Borders building located at the southeast corner of Seventh and New Hampshire streets is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.

• So, what issues do the city and the developer have? There are at least a couple. Issue No. 1: The request for an approximately $2.5 million city loan to help the grocer equip its store. I asked Markus whether he thought the project could go forward with that request. He was pessimistic that it could.

“I think it does have to go away, and I think it will,” Markus said. “It is an awkward request.”

Indeed, it sounds like plans are already in the works to scrap the loan request. I talked with Bill Fleming, an attorney with Treanor Architects, which is part of the development group.

“We’ve come back to the city and said we’re willing to take the idea of a loan off the table,” Fleming told me. “That hasn’t been a very popular idea.”

So, perhaps, that is one issue that can be wiped away. However, there is at least one remaining, and it comes with its own price tag.

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• Parking. It is pretty clear this is one of the major hurdles the project is facing. As a reminder, the plans call for an approximately 40,000 square feet Price Chopper grocery store on the ground floor and about 70 apartments on floors above the grocery. Plans call for an underground parking garage beneath the building. Originally, developers proposed 160 spaces. As we’ve reported, the city has said 340 spaces would be a better number.

The underground parking garage is one of the most expensive parts of the project. That has been a stumbling block. It sounds like developers are poised to present a new proposal: A city-owned parking garage across the street from the grocery store. There is a two-hour city parking lot there today. That lot could accommodate an above-ground parking garage similar to the one on New Hampshire Street between Ninth and 10th streets. Fleming said it is an idea they’ve preliminarily discussed with City Hall officials. The project likely would have some underground parking beneath the building, but it could be smaller in scale, and thus less expensive.

Fleming said the project would continue to need tax increment financing, which is just basically a rebate program that returns new property and sales taxes generated by the development back to the developer. In this case, the rebated taxes would be used to pay for the underground parking and a portion of the city-owned garage across the street.

“Portion” is a key word though. Because it would be a city-owned garage, the development group anticipates the city using some general tax dollars to pay for part of the garage. That is different than the original plan. When the project was contemplating a single, underground garage, all the funding came from tax rebates that were generated by the new development. This new plan would require getting into the city’s general budget.

But, it should be noted that the city would be getting parking that it owns outright. Anybody could use the new garage, regardless of whether you ever shop at the new grocery store.

I don’t have a good sense of how City Hall feels about this proposal. But Markus did make it clear that he thinks parking issues are critical for downtown, and he also noted many downtowns of Lawrence’s size have five or six parking garages. Lawrence has three, currently.

The new proposal does make use of an idea that developers have long had for downtown: Building parking garages on city-owned surface parking lots.

“If Lawrence is going to grow downtown, there are going to be parking garages on almost all of those lots, at some point,” Fleming said.

It is an interesting thought. It raises another one: Should they just be parking garages or should they be mixed-used buildings? The latter is more complicated, but it would help maximize the limited space of downtown.

Pictured is a rendering of the northwest side of a proposed downtown grocery store at 700 New Hampshire St.

• Bottom line, I asked Markus whether he felt optimistic about the project’s chances of becoming reality. He probably wasn’t as much of a cheerleader as some would like, but he said enough that it would be unwise to write the project off.

“I feel very strongly that a grocery would benefit the downtown area,” he said. “But I don’t get anything out of speculating. We have to work through the process. There is a lot more public process to work through. But it is a project that adds value to the downtown and the adjoining neighborhoods, and that means it is something we have to give serious consideration to.”