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October 16, 2010

6

This is what a downtown should look like

by Deena Winter


The last time I was in Fort Collins, Colo., I was looking for a pair of 501 Levi jeans. And my only memory of the place was that it was somewhat of a cow town.
But I was in Fort Collins again last week, and my impression was totally different. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a vibrant downtown — especially for a city that size. According to their visitor’s guide, the population was just 137,000 last year.
The downtown had parking on both sides of the streets AND in the middle, in some places, and not a parking meter in sight (!). The sidewalks were wide and inviting, with lots of trees and green space and bike racks.
But most impressive was the wealth of local, independent stores — not just on the main drag, College Avenue, but on side streets and parallel streets. Ten local stores for every chain store, it seemed.
What does that matter? I always assume it’s better for the economy for a local guy to pocket the revenue, rather than a corporate owner in another state.
And they were unique, funky stores with names like the Drunken Monkey, killer rabbit, Kansas City Kitty and the Spicy Pickle. How can you resist checking out stores like that?
My personal favorite was Al’s Newsstand and Smoke Shop, which sold every magazine imaginable. The store has been there since the 1940s.

The owner of killer rabbit said the downtown wasn’t always such a success. About 15 years ago, she said it was mostly bars and “pretty seedy.”
At the risk of a public storning, I’d venture to say that Lincoln’s downtown is still stuck in that stage: There are too many bars and chain stores, too many empty gaps. O Street is a wicked busy street, not a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare at all.
The city has a downtown master plan that envisions Q Street becoming a “retail corridor” like Fort Collins’ and some developers — notably WRK — have made progress toward that end, but there are still too many national chains and not enough momentum.
Lincoln has some good local, independent stores, but they’re far-flung. There are little outcroppings of them in Bethany, College View, University Place, the Haymarket — but no one destination point where you can go to eat, drink, shop and just “be.” No “place to be.”
The Haymarket comes close, but it isn’t there yet.
You can go the Black Market… and then what? Get in your car to drive to the other side of downtown to check out Stella’s unique clothing, and go across the street to the Post & Nickel. It’s not enough to make you want to go downtown again and again and again.
It seems a vibrant downtown has critical mass. In other words, if more of our local stores were centralized, whether in the Haymarket, or Q Street, wherever, Lincoln needs a destination point.
Omaha’s Old Market has it. The Haymarket certainly has the potential to get it. The question is, how does “it” happen?
In Omaha, it seems to have happened organically. The owner of a Fort Collins shop said the city has a very strong downtown business group, and the strength of the downtown tends to snowball. He chose to locate there because it was so vibrant and strong.
Lincoln needs to figure out how to get “it.” It’s not as if the city hasn’t tried. It has a master plan calling for wide sidewalks with trees and pedestrian-friendly promenades (like Fort Collins’). But city officials seem to have a heck of a time getting those plans accomplished. The city’s attempts to require a downtown hotel plan to include those features (as dictated by the master plan) was largely stymied by the developers.
And the mayor’s office is so intent on shaking the city’s reputation for being anti-business that it tends to quickly bow to developers’ demands in a situation like that.
The city has installed just a few bike lanes downtown — very tentatively and hypersensitive about negative reaction — while Fort Collins has them everywhere and that’s probably why they’re ranked “gold level bicycle friendly.” Its downtown sidewalks are imprinted with “dismount zone” to remind bicyclists to be polite.

In Fort Collins, bike racks are everywhere downtown, and they’re used.

Lincoln officials know all about the importance of becoming more multi-modal and bike-friendly — I have no doubt they know exactly what it takes to become everything Fort Collins is, but it seems to take an act of Congress to get there. The mayor’s office is so fearful of criticism that city offices seem paralyzed sometimes. The downtown master plan will never be foisted upon businesses, out of fear there would be revolt.
However, if Lincoln ever wants its downtown to be more than a bar crawl, it’s going to have to get bold about it. Or pray that people make it happen on their own.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. CJ
    Oct 16 2010

    I sure can’t disagree with anything you’re saying about the nature of downtown Lincoln. I’m a little unclear, though, on what exactly has caused it. You seem to be saying the roadblocks have been “a little of this, a little of that.” In terms of overcoming, that’s a difficult offense. Maybe impossible to overcome.

    Reply
  2. Robin
    Oct 16 2010

    The Downtown Lincoln Association has been trying to revive downtown retail for decades, and particularly spent the last 20 years trying to make it mom and pop retail. Blame the city, blame the mayor, blame the lack of bikers, blame the bankers; but at the end of the day, if local entrepreneurs REALLY WANTED to make it happen, they’d take the risk, make the investment, and it would happen. Lincoln can set up all the pieces in place to make it a perfect vision of utopia, but at the end of the day the business owners have want to step up to the plate and do it.

    Reply
  3. patriciados
    Oct 17 2010

    Robin may want to blame the retailers but that doesn’t answer the question of why we don’t have a healthy mix of of small businesses downtown when every other university town I’ve visited does, it not just Ft. Collins. Take a look at Lawrence, Manhattan, Iowa City, Boulder, Ann Arbor…

    My wife and I have owned a downtown “mom and pop” retail business for over 26 years. It seems to us that neither city government nor the DLA has a clue about how small retail businesses work.

    The DLA’s retail recruiting and retention program has quietly died, but only after giving a chain fast food restaurant $35,000 to open their third Lincoln location downtown.

    The city seems to be developer oriented – give them inducements to build it and retail will follow. Small business start-ups need affordable rent, not new or pricey redevelopment.

    I think a large part of our problem has been caused by our city government. Their strategy of tearing down buildings that housed small businesses, to build parking garages (with first floor retail) has not worked out. The Haymarket garage and the University garage at 17th and R were both planned to have retail on the first floor. That didn’t happen. The “P Street Marketplace” concept has been a failure. Although the street banners have been up for years they’ve only recently landed their first retail, a phone store. The city bought out three businesses for the catalyst project along with a building they tore down for a civic park. Both are now parking lots. Anyone who seriously thinks the Arena will promote the proliferation of retail hasn’t been paying attention.

    I spoke to Dave Landis about Homers Music leaving Lincoln because they couldn’t find an affordable space. His response was; “Is that the kind of business you’d want downtown?” Yes, that’s exactly the kind of business we need downtown and it’s the kind of business being ignored by the city and DLA. Banana Republics & Urban Outfitters are excellent stores, but they’re not unique to any area. It’s the small, niche shops like Homers that create the healthy, vibrant downtowns found in other college towns.

    Reply
  4. Roger Yant
    Oct 17 2010

    I agree with you on the downtown. All the money is funneled to the Haymarket. They have no real design for the rest. They have been trying to revive it for over 30 years now, remember the Centrum, now energy square. They rip down businesses to put up a parking garage, or parking lot. 14th & “P”, we lost Wasabi, the $2 movies, and an oriental restaurant. 13th & “P”, now a parking lot. In Lincoln we rip down the old to put in the new that no one wants. Hay folks, we elected the idiots for years now, maybe it’s time to listen to some new people. Padon my tone on the idiots, but what else would you call it?

    Reply
  5. Jeff Poley
    Oct 18 2010

    Deena:

    Our family has been visiting “the Fort” off and on for about 15 years and have been amazed by the transormation of the downtown. It’s now become a shopping and entertainment destination for out-of-town visitors. It doesn’t hurt that the town is located at he base of the Rocky Mountains but people who live there claim that the local folks took charge and gave the city new life. Maybe our Lincoln leaders should go out there and ask them how they did it and how they financed the improvements.

    Reply
  6. Pat
    Oct 20 2010

    Terrific stuff Deena. My son just moved to Ft Collins and loves it. The concept of a walkable downtown (narrow storefront windows with deep business space so it’s easy to walk past and window shop) predominently exists on O Street with a lot of bars and not much to see and not the P Street corridor envisioned by the DLA. So you deal with the state highway (O) traffic and bars on the shopfront blocks vs knocking things down elsewhere and building big long blank walls like the megaplex, Lied, side of the Ross and children’s museum where some consultant decided to “channel” the people. People won’t walk if there’s nothing to look at or enjoy.
    Meanwhile how many people/companies actually OWN the buildings in the Haymarket? How do ownership and retail rents compare between downtown Ft Collins and Lincoln. Sure seems like the owners here don’t mind vacancies or force businesses into long term leases which is a huge risk for mom and pop independants needing small spaces.

    Reply

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