There were a set of "outside eyes" trained on Lawrence this week, and City Commissioner Boog Highberger said he hopes they'll be able to help the community get over some of its growth-related fears.
A two-person team from the American Institute of Architects was in Lawrence from Wednesday through Friday as it prepares to write a special report on how Lawrence can grow and develop in more "sustainable" ways.
"Lawrence has a character that everyone really appreciates," said Highberger, who led the efforts to have Lawrence studied by the group. "A lot of people's fear of growth is that we'll lose that character. I think we all now realize that we're going to continue to grow, but we have to figure out how to do it in a way that we don't lose our character."
The two-person team was in town to pave the way for an eight-person team of planning experts that will arrive in November to dig deeper into various aspects of the community.
William Gilchrist - team leader and director of planning, engineering and permits for Birmingham, Ala. - said the group will look at economic, environmental and social issues that affect how Lawrence grows, develops and lives.
For example, the group likely will look at what natural competitive advantages the community has in terms of job attraction; what environmental resources need to be conserved or enhanced; and how the universities and the community interact.
Highberger said he hopes the visits by the AIA group spur a full-fledged "visioning" process that will create some clear-cut goals or ideas for the community to work toward.
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Gilchrist said that could be a valuable process for Lawrence. He told community members at a meeting Friday morning that if done right, a vision process will create much more than just ambiguous feel-good statements.
In Portland, Ore., for example, the community spent two years to come up with just two statements, but they have served as a guiding force for the city for decades. Goal No. 1 was to ensure that every child in the city could realistically walk to every type of public facility, such as libraries, schools, parks and even police stations. Goal No. 2 was that every person in the city would have a clear view of Mount Hood.
Those two goals, though specific in nature, produced broad changes in how the city grows and develops, Gilchrist said.
The AIA team - which is not charging the city for its work other than for about $5,000 in expenses - talked with members of the development community, neighborhood organizations, the university and the chamber. The team also held a special session with city commissioners.
Some of what the team heard:
l Mayor Mike Amyx told the group he wants the community to focus on creating a variety of jobs.
"I think one of the things we're missing is understanding the various levels of job needs we have in the community," Amyx said. "There are career jobs, part-time jobs, noncareer jobs. I think we need to understand we have a need for all of them."
l Commissioner Mike Rundle said he wanted help in bringing together different viewpoints and groups in the area.
"I think the biggest challenge we have is in coming together," Rundle said. "We need to come to some true agreement so we can move forward."
l Commissioner David Schauner said he's growing increasingly concerned about downtown. He noted that in his West Lawrence neighborhood many residents do not go downtown.
"As we develop more opportunities away from downtown, it is going to be easier for more people to not go downtown," Schauner said.
l Highberger said he wants the community to not only think about when and where new developments should be allowed, but also about how they look and feel.
"People like to think that Lawrence is different than the rest of Kansas, but what we have been building for years now is the same stuff everybody else in the country is building," Highberger said.