A new task force that will focus on the possibility of significantly changing how the city directs and handles development faces a daunting task, but it has the potential to set a positive tone and direction for Lawrence's growth for years to come.
Mayor David Dunfield is assembling a group of developers and others interested in how Lawrence grows to look at ways for the city to guide development rather than simply responding to individual development requests. In Dunfield's words, "It's a way of making it possible to put the planning ahead of growth so we're not always reacting to pressures but are providing a clear direction."
It's a fine goal, but it won't be accomplished easily.
One of the great debates about long-range planning documents in Lawrence is whether they should be rigid or flexible; should they be a guide or a bible. On one hand, developers want the process of building new projects to be predictable. They want to know at the beginning of a project what the requirements will be. Even more than that, they want to know that once they've invested in a project, the city won't change its mind about such vital factors as traffic flow and access to their property. On the other hand, they want to be free to do what they want, within reason, with the property they own and not be overly constrained by difficult planning restrictions
Members of the public have many opinions about where they want development to take place. For some, it's as simple as the old NIMBY principle, "not in my back yard." Others are concerned about urban sprawl and traffic congestion.
The task force will have to balance many interests.
If the city is going to direct rather than react to development, it will have to get ahead of the process and come up with a plan it is willing to enforce about where commercial and residential development can occur. It also will have to invest in infrastructure that will act as an incentive for developers to follow the city's vision. Developers will get the predictability they crave, but it will cost them something in terms of flexibility.
What Dunfield seems to envision is the type of long-range plan for which many local residents have advocated for a long time. It's a way for Lawrence to set a vision of what it wants to look like in the future and then work toward that goal.
That may sound easy, but it clearly is not. In an active, opinionated community like Lawrence, there are many views of what the city's future should hold. Lawrence is a wonderful place to live, but it also needs to be a great place to work. Many local residents love the small-town feel of Lawrence, but it's essential to allow development that will feed the local tax base. It's a complicated balance.
The vision of the development task force is laudable. Hopefully Dunfield, an architect, will assemble a diverse group of people dedicated to looking at the big picture of how Lawrence can grow in the best possible ways.
Lawrence has not been known for its vision and courage to dream. Some local residents also may be concerned or suspicious of the new planning effort because of how far off-base previous planning projections have been. The long-studied Horizon 2020 blueprint was out of date before it was approved
Yogi Berra, former coach of the New York Yankees, offered many fractured words of wisdom. Among the quotes attributed to him is: "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."
Without a plan, Lawrence has little chance of achieving great goals. Dunfield's task force has a Herculean task but also a great opportunity to help guide the city to a bright and prosperous future.