Frozen in time?

If Lawrence’s downtown is to survive and thrive it can’t be architecturally frozen in time.

Lawrence residents have to decide what they want for their downtown.

Do they want to maintain downtown as a center of commercial and residential activity? Or do they want to preserve it as an architectural monument to the city’s past?

That’s more or less the dilemma that faces the city as it evaluates a project proposed by developer Bo Harris for the northeast corner of Eighth and New Hampshire streets. The project is exactly what many residents and city officials say they want downtown. It would mesh retail stores on the first floor with office uses and condominiums on upper floors. It even has its own parking with a 52-space underground parking garage. There’s just one problem: According to the Historic Resources Commission, the building is too tall.

The proposed building would be four stories on the north and five stories on the south. At 74 feet tall, the review panel has determined, the building would encroach on historical downtown structures, specifically by restricting the view from the Eldridge Hotel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic places.

What’s a developer to do? He’s told the city wants to mix residential uses with commercial uses to attract more people to live downtown. To make the project work financially, without public subsidies, it has to be of a certain size. The footprint of downtown is small and property is expensive so the logical way to build is up. A taller building even fits with “smart growth” principles that call for higher-density development to reduce urban sprawl.

But the Historical Resources Commission says “no,” so the only hope is that the developer can work something out with city commissioners to move forward on the project.

Lawrence’s downtown is a wonderful spot, and every effort should be made to maintain its character and the historical structures and flavor that add to its ambiance. But, if it is to survive as more than a monument to the past, downtown also has to evolve and adapt.

Do we want downtown to be living, growing and vital or frozen in time and in danger of extinction? It’s a question local residents and city officials need to resolve.