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Downtown direction needed

An alleyway in Fort Collins, Colo., where the downtown is bustling with local, independent restaurants, bars and shops.

I like the discussion spurred by my last post; I think it’s an important one.
Roger raises a good point: The city has gotten into the habit of getting a few steps ahead of itself on downtown development. Some developer comes up with an idea for a portion of downtown (regardless what business is currently operating there) and then the city sends out an RFP “searching” for a developer to do what the developer intends to do, awards them the gig, and then sets about razing buildings.
Remember the Taste of China, anyone? Where is it now? In a storage warehouse. Yes, the owner was paid handsomely for his property, because he didn’t want to give it up for any price. It was more than a job; many of his relatives worked there, too.
Talk to city officials about it, and they act like the owner was just greedy. No, he wanted to save his business. He lost.
Remember Wasabi? It was trucked down the street and melded into Phreddy’s Phillies. The owner of that business is not happy with the way he was treated by the city, either. He lost.
Douglas Theatre, the owner of the discount theater, was different: They wanted to shut ‘er down, and got paid well for both the $2 theater and vacant theater at 13th and P streets.
Lincolnites tell me the city did the same thing on the block that now holds Embassy Suites. It was once filled with independent businesses like Arturo’s — the Mexican restaurant that had to move on down the road and
whose owners were apparently so unhappy about it that they documented the dispute on their menus. They closed a few years ago.
And now, the city is on the move again, displacing a chain of downtown businesses — Chipotle, Valentino’s, Quizno’s and Coldstone Creamery are being asked to kindly step aside for the city and WRK developers’ $27 million parking garage/condos project called Urban 38.

The city and developers at WRK intend to tear down these businesses to make way for their parking garage and condos at 13th and Q streets. The city has already torn down the Taste of China, Wasabi, StarShip 9 and vacant Plaza 4 theaters for a previous project that never got off the ground.

I’m all for progress and cool stores downtown — which I hope WRK can deliver — but if you knock out four businesses in historic buildings, you’d better be able to replace them with at least that many, in a better-looking building.
It’s not quite as disturbing to me when a national chain is displaced, but still, this is a vibrant little pocket of downtown Lincoln in charming old buildings that will soon be erased. One of the most impressive things about Fort Collins’ downtown is that all those stores are in old buildings.
Lincoln’s historical society seems to be largely asleep at the wheel when it comes to these things, however. In North Dakota, the historical society was so active we called it the Hysterical Society. In Lincoln, I’ve yet to see them come down to city hall to fight anything. At least publicly.
If Lincoln continues to let old buildings and independent businesses get razed by the city, its downtown will be even less historic, less unique and less alive.
I think Neal Obermeyer said it best in his Sunday cartoon in the LJS:


This is what a downtown should look like

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.


Suburban office space in “freefall”

Got a flier in the mail from Robin Eschliman’s commercial real estate company, and she says suburban office space is “apparently in free fall” in Lincoln.
(I know, that seems to contradict my previous post about one thriving mini-mall, but there it is.) Robin says she tracked 17 sales of commercial office buildings outside of downtown since early 2009 and the highest sale price was $144 per square foot. She says the most stunning sale was for the Perot building near 16th and Old Cheney for about $55 per square foot.
“Not at all what you would expect for relatively newer construction in south Lincoln,” she wrote. “Even more stunning was that the investor had a tenant lined up to move into the space.”
She concludes the average sale price this year has dropped more than 17 percent compared to last year. She said it took awhile for rents to drop — as leases come up for renewal — but now developers are dropping rents.
“Three to five years ago, you would have paid $14 to $16 a foot for base rent,” she says. “Now we are hearing tales of leases being signed for $9.”
She says she’s seeing more people looking to lease retail space inside the city rather than on the outskirts.


Where did all these new stores come from?

I was at that shopping center at 14th and Pine Lake Road yesterday and couldn’t believe all the new stores that have popped up since the last time I was there.
It’s already a great little mini-mall, what with the Sam & Louie’s pizzeria and Rocket Fizz retro candy store, but now it also has several more stores that were news to me: tiaras (a kids boutique), “b” yourself (a boutique), Bernina Sewing Studios, Edge (clothing store), Fiji Sushi Grill and Elite Performance nutrition center.
Some of these may have been there before and I just didn’t notice, but all those clothing stores are definitely new, because I never miss a new clothing store. Didn’t have time to go in and check them out.


Ice center cost skyrockets based on “more detailed cost estimates”

Breslow Ice Center

I’ve finally gotten somewhat of an answer as to why the projected cost of the Breslow Ice Center has gone up more than 100 percent in recent months.
Parks & Recreation Director Lynn Johnson said the original cost estimate was based on “estimated square footage for a two-surface ice arena” and cost estimates for similar projects in other communities.
Then there was another cost estimate based on a “a schematic floor plan specific to the Breslow Ice Center” for the original location, just north of Harris Overpass. The most recent cost estimate of $20 million or more is for a two-surface facility in the newly proposed location, closer to Haymarket Park.
I’m still waiting to hear back from Lynn as to whether any of the increase is attributable to the new proposed location, which would displace a public works facility (although I assume that’s going to happen no matter what). As you may recall, the public works facility is one of several the mayor wants to move to the Experian building, if the City Council agrees to buy it. Right now, that’s a pretty big “if.”
The ice center is being designed by DLR Group, the Omaha firm also designing Lincoln’s $168 million arena. This wouldn’t be the first time a DLR project’s cost crept up significantly. The company took heat when the cost of a Sarpy County minor league baseball stadium “crept” up some $6 million. See the story.


Dirt moving east of Wilderness Hills

Anderson Ford has begun moving dirt to make way for a new sales and service facility straight east of the Wilderness Hills commercial area.
Now the question is, when is something going to start happening at Wilderness Hills itself? (You know that largely-idle shopping area south of Williamson Honda?)
If anybody knows what’s up there, drop me a line.


City using smaller buses

I thought the city buses whizzing by my house every day were shrinking.

Every once in awhile, one of those small Handi-Van size buses has been going by instead if the regular, huge StarTran buses that can barely squeeze through my neighborhood — especially if someone is dumb enough to park on the no-parking south side of the street.

But I digress.

StarTran head Larry Worth tells me indeed, the city has begun to use small “light duty” buses for the StarTran shuttle and other routes “with levels of ridership that can be accommodated by the smaller vehicles.”

In other words, little-used routes. Indeed, on the buses that go by my house, you can often see buses go by without a single person on them. And city council members have occasionally lobbied StarTran to use smaller buses, usually to no avail.

Worth said federal stimulus dollars were used to buy 10 new hybrid HandiVans and three small 17-passenger light-duty hybrid buses, as well as 13 30-foot biodiesel buses.

So those who’ve lobbied the city to use smaller buses are finally getting their wish. However, the big buses still run during busy times of the day on my route, so it’s a partial victory, but progress.


Experian purchase heating up

More and more questions are arising concerning the city’s possible purchase of a huge building owned by Experian in northwest Lincoln.

Questions like: Why didn’t city staffers tell the City Council they were thinking about moving the planned Breslow Ice Center from its current planned home just north of the Harris Overpass to the current location of a public works center, closer to Haymarket Park?

According to a missive from LIBA calling on the mayor to be transparent, the City Council was told the moving the public works center would allow the property to go back on the tax rolls. (Although if the ice center is owned by the city and/or university foundation, it won’t be taxed, right?)

As it turns out, city officials were privately talking about moving the Breslow there.

“Why wasn’t the City Council told about this?” LIBA asked via press release.
The city’s arena coordinator, Dan Marvin, told the paper it was just a coincidence that the public works might be among the city departments moving into the Experian building. To which LIBA retorted: “While it is simply a coincidence, it is not an excuse for a lack of transparency.”

Another legitimate question: The city will soon have an empty Pershing Center on its hands — and even though it seems pretty clear the city intends to convert it into a new downtown library, it will then have an empty downtown library on its hands. Couldn’t any of that space be utilized?

It is getting hot in here?


Not your everyday average Crimestopper alert…

LOVE this Crimestopper alert. With an artfully inserted trombone. Chief Casady, you’ve outdone yourself this time…


LIBA flexes muscle at city hall

LIBA and Jon Camp appear to have successfully stalled the city purchase of the Experian building, and now have set their sights on the location of a new LES transmission line.
LIBA has increasingly proven its power over City Hall — when LIBA speaks, people listen. Just look at how swiftly Councilman Jonathan Cook and the Beutler administration backed off on allowing departments to raise fees without consulting the City Council, once LIBA began bombarding the council with emails and calls.
I’m beginning to wonder if LIBA isn’t more powerful than the Chamber of Commerce, at this point. What do you think?