Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Overbuilt Retail in Lawrence

The Saturday Column (LJW 9/2/2006) calls for strengthening downtown. Proponents of downtown and smart growth agree. A strong and vibrant downtown is crucial to keeping Lawrence a good place to live.

Real estate economics instructs that the amount of successful retail space in a community can be predicted from its population size and income. More stores do not create more people or more spending; they only spread the spending more thinly, hurting the older and weaker shopping districts.

This is the basic purpose of the retail market impact procedure, to keep the growth of retail space in line with the growth of demand for that space. Trusting the market to do this has proven to be a mistake in countless communities. Developers will overbuild new space, even if means high vacancy and blight to older shopping districts. Lawrence needs to protect itself from this process.

Retail spending from 1990 to 2005 grew by only 1.6 percent per year after inflation, but retail space grew by 4.1 percent per year, over twice the supportable rate. The City cannot support a strong downtown as well as excessive development elsewhere.

Lawrence need only look at Topeka to understand the consequences of overbuilding by developers. The White Lakes Mall killed Topeka’s downtown; Wannamaker Road killed the White Lakes Mall. Lawrence is following Topeka’s lead. Unless the Planning Commission reigns in the developers who are poised to overbuild this city, the developers will hurt the very downtown that makes Lawrence uniquely attractive.

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