Draft of Downtown Master Plan envisions shift to ‘experience-based’ businesses

photo by: Jackson Barton

The Douglas County Courthouse and downtown Lawrence are pictured in an aerial photo Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Within the next 20 years in downtown Lawrence, residents might not shop at a row of retail stores — instead, they might go “play with gadgets, meet with personal stylists” and visit a variety of “experience-based businesses” that offer unique services that you can’t buy online.

That’s the vision outlined in a newly released draft of the first sections of Lawrence’s new Downtown Master Plan, and some city leaders say it’s a reality that Lawrence needs to face in order to adapt to changing retail trends.

“I know that it’s heartbreaking to think about our retail not being the main anchor of that area, but we have to accommodate the reality,” Mayor Jennifer Ananda said. “And if that can also help us maintain having some of that retail down there, then I would definitely be supportive of looking at expanding our offerings downtown.”

But a shift in the types of businesses in downtown is only one of the major changes envisioned in the draft, which was recently released by consulting firm Houseal Lavigne Associates.

When the master plan is complete, it will cover downtown land use and development for the next 20 years, and it will touch on areas as diverse as building heights, parking, transportation, infrastructure, beautification and streetscapes. So far, the draft includes the vision and goals for downtown, as well as economic data and summaries of community input. Specific policy recommendations will be drafted at a later date.

One big issue the draft addresses is affordable housing. The draft envisions downtown as a place where residents can find apartments and condominiums “at a variety of price points,” and it includes economic data that suggests that the downtown housing built in recent years is not affordable for many residents.

In addition, the plan points to a few spaces where new developments could take shape — city-owned surface parking lots.

Houseal Lavigne was hired by the city in August 2018, and since then has conducted a series of workshops to get community input — not only from the general public, but also from specialized groups of stakeholders such as downtown business owners.

The consultants will present the draft to the Downtown Master Plan Steering Committee on Monday and to the City Commission on Tuesday.

Experience-based businesses

One of the central ideas of the plan, as laid out in the vision statement, is for the downtown to adapt to the rise of e-commerce — which has more people making purchases from online retailers such as Amazon — by shifting away from traditional retail.

To do so, the plan envisions a transition to businesses that focus more on giving customers unique or personalized experiences than just selling them a physical product.

The plan’s vision statement describes a future downtown Lawrence in which these experience-based businesses coexist with restaurants, bars and a few traditional retail stores:

“Long ago, you could stroll along Massachusetts Street and buy a pair of shoes and a shirt. While traditional retail still exists, today you can play with gadgets, meet with personal stylists, and so much more. Established niche retailers remain anchors of Downtown and complement new and diverse restaurant, entertainment, and nightlife options.”

Some may contend the rise of e-commerce has already affected downtown. The plan cites data from the city’s 2018 Retail Market Report that indicates a decrease in retail space downtown and an increasing vacancy rate since 2015, as was previously reported by the Journal-World.

Similar to Ananda, Commissioner Lisa Larsen said such a transition will have to happen given the growth of e-commerce. Larsen said the city needs to be able to adapt.

“I think it is going to happen,” Larsen said. “It has to happen given the e-commerce situation, and we’ve got to be able to be flexible enough to adapt to it. So I think that aspect of that vision is just going to be a reality, based on what we’re seeing today.”

Downtown rents

At the public meetings that the consultants held to inform the master plan, high residential and commercial rents were a key concern of many residents. A focus group of developers also expressed that “falsely inflated property values” were a key weakness of the downtown area, according to a summary of that meeting included in the draft plan.

Regarding apartment rental rates, the draft analysis found that the average monthly rent downtown is about $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment, $1,650 for two bedrooms and more than $2,000 for three bedrooms. From 2015 to 2019, monthly rent rates have grown by 21%, to an average of $1.54 per square foot, when examining by square footage. The analysis states that the growth is related to the addition of approximately 250 multifamily units on New Hampshire Street in the last 10 years. Today, New Hampshire Street is home to nearly half of all downtown rental units, the analysis states.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Lawrence’s median household income for 2018 is about $50,400. Bearing that information in mind, even if a family making median income rented a one-bedroom downtown apartment, it would end up paying about 30% of its income on rent and utilities. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says that families who spend more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities are “cost-burdened” and may have trouble affording food, medical care, transportation and other basic necessities as a result.

Larsen said she was surprised at how expensive the downtown rental rates were. She said having that data will help the city as it looks for ways to make living downtown more affordable.

Ananda said she agreed with community concerns that downtown apartments are not affordable for everyone in the community. The plan projects the number of people living downtown will more than double by 2040, and Ananda said that as the city grows, it will need to keep talking about the cost of rent downtown.

At this point, the draft plan doesn’t provide information about commercial rental rates downtown and doesn’t directly speak to any strategies to address that issue. In response to questions from the Journal-World, Assistant Planning and Development Director Amy Miller said via email that the consultants are still looking at that data and plan to incorporate it into the final report.

The Journal-World asked Ananda and Larsen whether it would be appropriate for the city to play a role in commercial rent prices.

Larsen said she was hesitant to make commercial rents a city policy issue, given that the storefronts and other spaces involved are privately owned.

“Those are commercial endeavors and those are private developers, private property owners,” Larsen said. “And I’m not sure what role government has in stabilizing those numbers. That would be a conversation that would require a lot more information, as well as discussions with the property owners downtown.”

But Ananda said she was interested in whether city policy could play a role in managing commercial rents, including through the use of incentives. If rents are too high, she said, operating a downtown business carries a lot more risk.

“I think it could be through the use of incentives, it could be through creating policies, it could just be through community discussion and community pressure,” Ananda said. She added that downtown property owners, potential downtown business owners and residents all have an interest in maintaining downtown as a robust place, so it seems like addressing high commercial rents would be an opportunity for collaboration.

Redeveloping city parking lots

Another component in the plan is redeveloping the downtown surface parking lots. The plan calls for building mixed-use developments on those sites — buildings that could include residential, commercial, office or other uses — with parking decks to make up for the spaces that were in the surface lots. The city owns 17 surface parking lots of various sizes downtown, according to parking maps.

Both Ananda and Larsen said that these city-owned properties are an opportunity for the city to have more control over what types of developments come to downtown in the future. Larsen said she liked the idea of mixed-use developments. She said the parking lots need to be repurposed in a way that enhances density downtown and addresses community needs.

Similarly, Ananda said she hopes to use city-owned developments as an opportunity to address needs that the private sector does not address.

“If we’re going to use those spaces and we contribute something that there’s already plenty of downtown, then we aren’t necessarily optimizing the use of that space,” Ananda said.

The plan’s vision statement also lays out various other features for the future of downtown, including a grocery store, an outdoor event space that could also house the Lawrence Farmers’ Market, and a grant program to restore historic storefronts. The 130-page draft of the first sections of the Downtown Master Plan is available on the project’s website.

The City Commission will receive the current draft of the master plan as part of its meeting Tuesday. The city aims to have the master plan completed and adopted in the spring.


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