After ‘slow rollout,’ city plans changes to new downtown layout

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Traffic barriers along Massachusetts Street, pictured on July 10, 2020, are in place to create areas for outdoor seating or sales.

After what one city leader described as a “slow rollout,” the city is preparing to make changes to a temporary downtown layout meant to give businesses more room to operate outdoors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the new layout, currently set to be in place until Oct. 31, the angled parking spots that previously lined Massachusetts Street from Sixth Street to 11th Street were replaced with parallel parking spots, creating space along the sidewalk and at the end of each block for businesses to use for outdoor seating or sales. The parallel parking along Massachusetts Street is designated as 15-minute parking zones. On June 16, the Lawrence City Commission voted 3-2, with commissioners Lisa Larsen and Stuart Boley opposed, to approve the changes, but with the direction that city staff should revert some areas back to angled parking if no businesses applied to use the expansion areas.

The expansion areas have been largely empty since they were opened up about a week ago, and city officials say multiple adjustments to the layout will be made in the coming week, including the restoration of some of the angled parking.

Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said the rollout of the new layout was a lot slower than he anticipated and certainly didn’t highlight the layout’s potential.

“It’s fair to say that the rollout has not been as smooth or as quick as we had hoped,” Finkeldei said. “I certainly thought that there would be more businesses that were going to take advantage of it quicker.”

Though about a dozen businesses have applied to use the expansion areas, the permit process to apply for the license appeared to lag behind the rollout itself. It wasn’t until the layout had been in place about a week that a couple of businesses began to make changes in the expansion areas. Finkeldei said he thinks the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and the subsequent two-week closure of bars also caused fewer businesses to pursue the expansion areas.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The new layout replaced some of the angled parking along Massachusetts Street with 15-minute parallel parking.

Parking concerns

The layout was created by Downtown Lawrence Inc. in partnership with the architecture and design firm Gould Evans and represents a compromise among various businesses. DLI Executive Director Sally Zogry has previously explained that instead of creating pedestrian-only zones as some cities have, the layout elected to keep both traffic lanes open to preserve access for motorists, curbside pickup and emergency vehicles.

One of Larsen’s biggest concerns with the layout was that it reduced parking along Massachusetts Street, and she advocated for the idea of reverting unused expansion areas back to angled parking. She said she was also concerned that the layout didn’t balance the needs of restaurants and retailers.

“Obviously, I’d love to see this work to the maximum extent possible,” Larsen said. “But you have such a mix of business that it’s just not a one size fits all.”

Eleven businesses, all of which were either a restaurant or a bar, had applied to use the new expansion areas as of Friday, according to information provided to the Journal-World by the city permit office. That the list does not include any retail or service shops reflects critiques by some downtown businesses. Though some businesses were supportive of the ability to expand outdoors, where it’s more difficult for the coronavirus to spread, others were concerned that the new layout only benefits restaurants and bars and hurts other businesses by taking away parking.

Parking spots along Massachusetts Street only make up 11% of the available parking downtown, but some worried that there are already perceptions that there is not enough parking downtown and that the new layout would stop some customers from visiting.

Arizona Trading Co. owner Jennifer McKnight was one of the downtown retailers who spoke in opposition to the changes. McKnight said she thought everyone involved with the new layout had the best intentions, but that the decrease in parking and uninviting look of the layout would discourage people from coming downtown. She said her shop would not be using the expansion area.

“It’s not a useable or attractive space,” McKnight said. “I don’t know what we would do in that space that would be worth it. Because we’d have to put staff out there, and I would not ask my staff to be outside in July.”

Others, though, are making plans. Burger Stand co-owner Codi Bates said the restaurant plans to use the expansion area and will be able to add seating for about 18 people. Bates said the restaurant has very limited indoor dining, and the expansion provides customers another option besides carryout.

“It provides a little extra space for people that do want to come downtown and enjoy all that downtown has to offer,” Bates said.

Bates, who is also the president of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said there were a lot of different feelings about the layout and it was hard to build consensus among all the different types of businesses downtown. However, she said the main goal remains health and safety, and the plan was always meant to be adaptable. She said looking at opportunities to regain angled parking where it made sense would be a great pivot for retailers.

As of Friday afternoon, it was not yet clear how many of the unused expansion areas would be reverted back to angled parking or what the other changes might be. Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard said that the city would be making “various adjustments” to the plan in the coming week, including restoring some of the angled parking on the corners and in areas where the city has unanimous concurrence within a quarter block that the expanded area will not be used. Stoddard did not give more details regarding what the other adjustments might be, but said that the city will be sharing more details early in the week, before the adjustments are made.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Louise’s Bar, 1009 Massachusetts St., was in the process of adding wooden platforms to the expansion area on July 10, 2020.

Aesthetic and other changes

The city used new pavement markings, traffic barricades, rubber curbs and traffic cones to create the boundaries of the new layout. Businesses that want to use the expansion areas are responsible for building out their own space. Some residents and downtown businesses have criticized the layout as appearing like a construction zone, and Stoddard said aesthetic adjustments are also in the works.

Bates said that in addition to tables and chairs, the Burger Stand plans to add planters and an umbrella to the expansion area outside the restaurant. As of Friday, a couple of other businesses appeared to also be making improvements to the expansion areas in front of their businesses. Louise’s Bar, 1009 Massachusetts St., had built a wooden platform in the area. Pedestrian Cheese, 845 Massachusetts St., had decorated the traffic barricades in front of its business to match the color scheme of the storefront.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Decorated traffic barriers in front of Pedestrian Cheese, 845 Massachusetts St., are pictured on July 10, 2020.

Stoddard said the city plans some changes to improve the aesthetics of the layout. She said the city will be installing traffic delineators in the coming week, which will replace all of the bright orange traffic cones and the majority of the traffic barricades. She said the delineators will be either yellow or white, with the yellow ones along the parking blocks and white ones along the white lane line.

In addition to the changes that will be announced in the coming week, the City Commission will be discussing the layout again at its meeting Aug. 4. In the meantime, the city put out a second survey to gather feedback from residents since the reconfiguration was put in place. The survey is available on the city’s Lawrence Listens website.

In addition to the parking concerns and the effect on retail and service businesses, Larsen said the biggest concern she is hearing is that the layout is confusing because people are not used to it. She said the city would continue to work through all of the issues with the layout, which she said is trying to adapt to unprecedented circumstances.

“Their hearts are in the right place wanting to get something downtown that’s going to facilitate and move along businesses so that they can be successful,” Larsen said. “It’s hard for everyone to take a step back and see what will work best for everybody.”

Finkeldei, who also said he’s heard complaints about both the aesthetics and the loss of angled parking, said that he hopes the upcoming changes will bring improvements.

“The intent was to create an atmosphere that would allow people to feel more comfortable coming downtown, and between the increased COVID numbers and the slow rollout of the project, I don’t think we’ve accomplished that, at least not yet,” Finkeldei said.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The pedestrian walkway, outlined in white paint, along Massachusetts Street is pictured on July 10, 2020.


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