Tuesday night, Lawrence city commissioners will consider whether to override the city’s Historic Resources Commission and allow plans for another tall apartment and commercial building at the corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets to move forward.
The plan submitted for the southeast corner of the intersection has many positive aspects. However, there may be ways to lessen the impact the six-story building would have on neighboring structures to the east. It’s reasonable to be concerned about nearby structures, including some that are listed on various historical registers. The structure is shorter than the new seven-story building nearing completion across the street to the west, but it also is located directly adjacent to a district of historic homes in the 900 block of Rhode Island, including some of the oldest residences in the city.
The challenge of this proposal and others like it is to allow downtown Lawrence to change in ways designed to strengthen its vitality and economic viability without encroaching on the area’s historical character. Many development experts contend that one of the best ways to preserve a vital downtown district is to increase the number of people who live in that district. Having a concentration of residents in the area helps support a variety of retail businesses in addition to the restaurants and entertainment-related uses that have grown significantly in Lawrence in recent years.
The only practical way to build new residences in downtown is to go up. There isn’t enough real estate downtown to add significant residential units in one- or two-story apartment buildings; six- or seven-story buildings are much more to the point. Such buildings also provide a density that many people think is desirable to counteract urban sprawl.
Tall buildings in downtown are a significant change, but even some strong historical preservation supporters see the value of such developments. They also, however, see the need to take a broad look at where taller developments should be situated. A number of vacant properties downtown should be considered, along with the possibility of redeveloping some of the large city-owned surface parking lots on New Hampshire and Vermont streets to accommodate both parking and other uses.
Most local residents would agree that downtown Lawrence still is the heart of the city, but it’s no longer the commercial center it was a few decades ago. Attracting more residents will help encourage additional businesses that serve those residents like drug stores, a deli or even a grocery store. Projects like the one proposed on the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire can be a step in the right direction for downtown, but it also makes sense to work with neighbors and city officials to get the best possible structure to enhance and strengthen the downtown area.