Downtown’s future looking up

Leaders may consider guidelines for vertical redevelopment

Taller downtown buildings could mean steep decisions for Lawrence city commissioners.

That was a major point that came out of Day 1 of a two-day goal-setting session by Lawrence city commissioners on Monday.

“I see downtown at a crossroads about how it will grow up,” City Manager David Corliss told commissioners. “And I don’t mean chronologically. I actually mean vertically.”

Corliss told commissioners that he expects developers to begin discussing redevelopment plans with the city that would place a lot of emphasis on expanding downtown Lawrence upward.

“We don’t have a lot of values picked out about how that would look and feel,” Corliss said. “That is something I think we’re going to need to talk about.”

Commissioners agreed, and several said they see a need to take action in some way to draw more people to downtown.

“Absent some movement to re-energize, I think we really are on the precipice,” Mayor Sue Hack said. “I think a lot of us have had conversations with small-business owners who are concerned about the times we’re in.”

But more development – and particularly more dense, urban-style development – will create several questions commissioners need to answer. Corliss said the city should start thinking about whether it wants to financially partner with the private sector to redevelop portions of downtown.

Commissioners didn’t reach a consensus, but there was some caution sounded.

“We need to be actively participating, but that doesn’t necessarily mean monetarily,” City Commissioner Mike Dever said. “The private sector is the one that needs to step up to the plate.”

Commissioners also said the community needs to think about how new development – such as redeveloping major portions of Vermont or New Hampshire streets – would change the overall character of downtown.

Commissioner Rob Chestnut said there certainly would be “unintended consequences,” such as rising property values, that might make it more difficult for independent retailers to afford downtown rents.

“Significant redevelopment will have some impact on the character of downtown, no matter how we do it,” Chestnut said. “I wonder if there needs to be a fairly broad discussion about the downtown corridor.”

Commissioner Boog Highberger said he thought the city’s downtown efforts should be focused on encouraging more residential development there. He said if enough residents are added to downtown, new retail establishments naturally will follow.

Commissioner Mike Amyx, who owns a downtown barbershop, said whatever direction the city takes on downtown, it ought to take it cautiously.

While economic times are difficult now, he said, downtown still is performing relatively well compared with other parts of the city.

“It seems like we are doing something pretty right currently,” Amyx said. “I think what a lot of people believe is that if we can make it better, fine. But don’t screw it up.”

Commissioners will continue their goal-setting session from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. today at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.