A proposed downtown bookstore is opposed by the state's top preservationist, local historic experts and 1,400 local residents. Now Lawrence city commissioners must decide whether to let the project move ahead.
Plans to raze a downtown block and build a new Borders bookstore hit a stumbling block Wednesday when the state's top preservation official added his name to a growing list of opponents.
Ramon Powers, the state's historic preservation officer, said the proposed project -- razing the block bordered by New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Seventh and Eighth streets -- would harm the historical surroundings of the nearby Eldridge Hotel, a national landmark at 701 Mass.
Without Powers' blessing, developers cannot tear down any buildings unless Lawrence city commissioners grant them permission. And that would require a public hearing and a legal finding that there were no "feasible or prudent alternatives" to demolition.
"I'm thrilled," said K.T. Walsh, vice president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance. "Now we can show Borders how much we value our downtown. It's a privilege to own property in a historic area, and with that comes a responsibility to take care of that property for the community."
At issue is a storage building at 700 N.H., which was built in the late 1800s as a livery stable and later served as a garage, car dealership and a bar. More than 1,400 local residents have signed a petition calling for the building to be saved.
Winter Inc., which owns the block, wants to raze the building and all others in the block to make way for a large mixed-use development. The centerpiece -- actually at the southeast corner of Seventh and New Hampshire -- would be a Borders bookstore.
Local building, local decision
In a letter delivered to city hall Wednesday afternoon, Powers said he reviewed all relevant materials related to the project, and decided that Lawrence's own Historic Resources Commission (HRC) was correct when it decided last month that the demolition would "encroach upon, damage or destroy" the surroundings of the Eldridge.
Historic preservation is among the highest priorities of the state, Powers said, but local communities should take the lead in deciding what buildings to preserve.
And because the HRC was "not clearly erroneous" in making its decision, Powers said, the HRC's finding stands.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Powers declined to elaborate upon his reasoning in the letter. He also wouldn't explain why he recently allowed demolition of two homes next to the Maupin House, which, like the Eldridge, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Those demolitions also were opposed by the HRC.
"I think it's clear," Powers said.
Wint Winter Jr., a Lawrence attorney representing Winter Inc., said he wasn't surprised by Powers' decision, and would send a letter to the city today asking for a public hearing in late October.
"The real question is whether the strength of downtown, the vitality of downtown and the future of downtown is more important than the preservation of the status quo, even if that status quo is a building of marginal architectural and historical value," Winter said.
"I'm confident that the majority of the public -- and a vast majority of the people who are concerned about downtown -- will support this project."
Commissioner Bob Moody isn't so sure. He wants Downtown Lawrence Inc. to survey its members -- not just its board -- to find out whether they want the Borders to move ahead as proposed.
"That would tell me where downtown wants to go," he said.