Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Will the Smartcode be modified to reflect Lawrence's needs?

Questions for Placemakers

1. Pace of growth of retail space and of housing stock

Like many cities nationwide, Lawrence has a lengthy history of building retail space faster than the growth in demand for that space. This produces "dead malls," usually older shopping centers, blighting their surrounding neighborhoods. In an effort to reduce losses on these properties, owners are leasing space for office uses, spreading the problems of an over-built market from the retail sector to the office sector.

Like many cities nationwide, Lawrence also has a lengthy history of building housing faster than population growth. The new units tend to be located at the perimeter of the city. The result is an out-migration from the older neighborhoods. In these older neighborhoods, owner-occupied units are being converted to rentals, neighborhood schools are being closed, homes are deteriorating, and value is being lost.

The Smartcode being proposed appears to rely on zoning and the development of infrastructure to set the pace of development. This fails to recognize the problems that Lawrence is confronting. Will the Smartcode be modified to include specific provisions permitting the City to regulate the pace of growth of retail space and housing space, seeking balance between the growth in supply and the growth in demand?

2. Revitalization of downtown and older neighborhoods

Lawrence has invested millions of dollars to foster the revitalization of its downtown. A few years ago, the City built an $8 million parking garage to be financed, in part, by tax revenues from new mixed-used development. The new development did not materialize because of insufficient demand for the space. The taxpayers are now carrying the debt on that garage. Other downtown developments are confronting difficulties landing retail tenants. Yet, the City has permitted competing shopping centers to be developed at the perimeter of the City.

Lawrence has also invested millions of dollars to foster the revitalization of its older neighborhoods, especially in the east and north sides of the City. However, these efforts have not brought sufficient new investment into these neighborhoods to stop their decline and bring about their revitalization.

How will the Smartcode ensure that sufficient investment is directed toward the downtown and the older neighborhoods and not siphoned away to new shopping centers and new subdivisions?

3. Public input on development proposals

Citizens in Lawrence are concerned about the timing, location, design, public sector cost, traffic impact, market impact and other implications of new development. Citizens know that real estate development is complex, with many and varied implications for different parts of the community. The Smartcode appears to provide for very rapid movement from a development proposal to a building permit, with little or no opportunity for public review, input, and negotiation. This process seems to assume that every development implication has been anticipated and properly accommodated in TND charrette process. This seems improbably in the extreme.

Will the Smartcode be modified to provide for citizen review and input on significant development proposals, with decision by the City Commission?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

How do we ensure retail survival?

The editorial on retail survival (Lawrence Journal World, January 7, 2007) correctly identifies the problem but misidentifies the solution. Lawrence, and especially downtown Lawrence, confronts a problem with a surplus of retail space. As you say, “demand has slowed”. Population growth has slowed as has income growth. This leads to lower growth in retail spending, the engine that drives demand for retail space. Unfortunately, growth in the supply of retail space has continued at an unsustainable pace, leaving the city pock marked with vacant and, in some cases, blighted shopping centers.

You suggest that, as downtown competes with this surplus of retail space elsewhere in the city, that it “meet that competition head-on”. Experience in many other markets tells us that this is a prescription for failure. If more space is built than can be supported, competition will pick some winners and leave some losers to deteriorate. The community will be left with the blighting influence of the failed space. Topeka is a nearby example; both its downtown and its White Lakes Mall sit largely empty and blighted because of overbuilding elsewhere.

Lawrence can overbuild and let competition pick the winners leaving the city to suffer with the deteriorated losers. Alternatively, Lawrence can be smart and limit the growth in retail space, keeping it in line with the pace of growth in retail demand. Stores will be occupied, and downtown can thrive rather than just survive.

The market left to itself is not smart enough to pace its own growth; it is prone to overbuilding. Planning for balanced growth is an essential function of local government if the city is to protect the retail centers it already has and is to prevent the blighting influence of surplus growth.