Archive for Saturday, November 19, 2011

Vertical expansion of downtown Lawrence draws more than shadow of a doubt

Sunshine falls on downtown Lawrence and the river valley to the northeast as viewed Saturday from The Oread, 1200 Oread Ave. Downtown’s tallest building include the Hobbs Taylor Lofts at 730 N.H., rising at far left, the U.S. Bank tower at Ninth and Massachusetts streets, and the new seven-story apartment/retail/office project at Ninth and New Hampshire streets at center right. As downtown development brings taller buildings, city commissioners are dealing with the issue of how these buildings produce long shadows and what it means for the surrounding neighborhoods.

Sunshine falls on downtown Lawrence and the river valley to the northeast as viewed Saturday from The Oread, 1200 Oread Ave. Downtown’s tallest building include the Hobbs Taylor Lofts at 730 N.H., rising at far left, the U.S. Bank tower at Ninth and Massachusetts streets, and the new seven-story apartment/retail/office project at Ninth and New Hampshire streets at center right. As downtown development brings taller buildings, city commissioners are dealing with the issue of how these buildings produce long shadows and what it means for the surrounding neighborhoods.

November 19, 2011


Lawrence city commissioners get asked to answer all sorts of odd questions, but this one seems unique even by City Hall standards.

Does Lawrence want to keep its small-city sun?

Sure, technically, the sun in the sky is the same star for everyone. But anyone who has been to a big-city downtown — a New York, a Chicago, even The Plaza in Kansas City — can attest that the sun is different there.

In short, it is felt and seen less often. Big buildings do that. It is an almost inescapable fact of Mother Nature that tall structures produce long shadows.

Soon, city leaders will have to decide how they want to grapple with that fact. A team of developers led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton is trying to win City Hall approval for essentially a six-story building at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.

The proposal follows construction of a seven-story building that is nearly complete on the corner across the street from the proposed site. Yes, it, too, produces a shadow. Just ask the outdoor coffee drinkers at the nearby Bourgeois Pig or Z’s Divine Espresso.

But this latest proposal is different because it is adjacent to a district of historic homes and businesses in the 900 block of Rhode Island Street. The block includes some of the older residences in the city and businesses like the Social Service League Thrift Store and an east Lawrence art gallery.

Several neighbors in the area have come out in opposition to the project for a variety of reasons, but the shadows are near the top of the list. It has left developers with a tough argument to make. It is tough to deny that a big building produces a shadow.

So, instead, they make the argument that it is tough to deny that downtowns are meant to have tall buildings.

“Unfortunately, there are going to be some houses next door to these. Oftentimes there are,” said Mike Treanor, a Lawrence architect who is a partner in the project. “That’s the way it is in a lot of cities, and it works.”

But city, and how you define that, seems to be the key word here.

“We’re not a truly big city,” said Town Peterson, who has lived in his home in the 900 block of Rhode Island Street for 14 years. “I’ve lived in Chicago and Mexico City. Those are truly big cities, and when you’re deciding to live in their downtowns you approach that much different than you do downtown Lawrence.”

The dilemma

Put more simply, the question that city commissioners soon may be facing is: What’s the future of tall buildings in downtown Lawrence?

One Lawrence architect said he thinks it is “inevitable” that New Hampshire and Vermont streets will be home to many five- to seven-story buildings in the coming decades. (That’s tall by Lawrence standards. No one seems to be thinking more than 10 stories tall.)

Dennis Domer is no big-growth, development-paid architect. He’s the former associate dean of architecture at Kansas University, and is perhaps best known for some of his work to protect historic structures. But he thinks downtown’s future is going to call for more tall buildings.

“The only way you can make Massachusetts Street more viable over the long term is to increase the density you have on the side streets around it,” Domer said.

But now the question becomes how? There seems to be broad agreement among planners and developers alike that expanding the footprint of downtown into east Lawrence or Old West Lawrence would be a bloody battle that all would rather avoid. And the idea of tearing down buildings on Massachusetts Street to build larger ones would cause coronaries throughout the city.

“We need to recognize that the game is on New Hampshire and Vermont streets,” Domer said.

Architects such as Treanor are convinced that taking underdeveloped lots along the side streets and building them up is the best way to increase density, and in particular the number of downtown living units.

“If you are going to change the demographic of downtown, you are going to have to have some more density,” Treanor said. “I think a supermarket, for example, would have a different attitude about downtown if there were more people living downtown.”

Neighbors would love to see a downtown grocery store, but they may not subscribe to the theory that building up is the best way to do it.

K.T. Walsh, a longtime east Lawrence resident and also an artist who shows frequently at The Percolator Art Gallery that would be behind the new building, said the city needs to consider other ways to boost density. She said there could be more work done to remodel existing second-floor spaces in downtown.

But she also said maybe downtown just isn’t being sold correctly to those businesses that supposedly need more density. She notes that downtown is surrounded by three of the more densely built neighborhoods in the city.

“Are we chopped liver?” Walsh asks when the density argument comes up. “We live very densely in east Lawrence.”

Other architects agree that there needs to be more people living within downtown itself. But they’re not totally convinced that it will take a number of new five- to seven-story buildings to accomplish it.

Chad Foster, a Lawrence resident who is an architect for Johnson County government and a member of Lawrence’s Historic Resources Commission, said he thinks the city ought to look at the city-owned surface parking lots that line Vermont and New Hampshire streets.

He said the city might want to consider public-private partnerships to convert a number of those into developments that would have a couple of levels of underground parking and two to three levels of living space above ground.

He said that might satisfy the need to have more people living downtown, but also placate neighbors, who have shown some willingness to consider buildings of three or four stories in height.

He also said those types of buildings might have a better chance of peacefully coexisting with Lawrence’s historic downtown. Foster voted against the six-story building proposal when it was unanimously denied by the Historic Resources Commission last month.

“I think there are plenty of projects that can work in downtown,” Foster said. “You can go too far with historic preservation and become the ‘museum city’ where nothing ever changes. That is pretty unrealistic and rare. The cities that are the healthiest are the ones that evolve and grow.”

A plan

City leaders have been united on the idea that downtown needs more density and it needs more people living in it. But when it comes to tall buildings, it may not have the plans and regulations in place that allow them to happen easily.

The city’s planning staff has recommended denial of the proposed building at Ninth and New Hampshire. It points to the city’s Downtown Design Guidelines. They state, in part: “The height of new buildings and additions shall relate to the prevailing heights of nearby buildings. New construction that greatly varies in height from adjacent buildings shall not be permitted.”

Depending on how you read that statement, it can create a chicken-or-the-egg type of dilemma. The downtown doesn’t have many six-, seven- or eight-story buildings, so likely any new ones will be out of compliance with those portions of the guidelines.

That could be a problem because some architects say downtown is going to need several multi-story buildings to reach its goal of significantly increasing the number of people living downtown. Treanor said he could see downtown needing another 400 living units. That’s not likely to happen with just one or two more buildings.

Domer said he can think of several lots that could house large buildings — the site of the Pachamama’s building at 800 N.H.; the Journal-World parking lot near Seventh and New Hampshire, the vacant lot near the Old English Lutheran Church at 11th and New Hampshire — and thinks Vermont Street probably even has more potential than New Hampshire.

“I know, for some people, happiness is to never have anything change,” Domer said. “But some of us love change. That is the great potential of this downtown. We can move it into the (21st) century and protect what we have but enhance it with what is new.”

Domer thinks the city ought to create a comprehensive plan for New Hampshire and Vermont streets that would spell out potential building heights for particular lots. He said that would avoid “piecemeal planning” that will result in a disjointed downtown.

Treanor certainly doesn’t want to argue against planning, but he also doesn’t want the city to delay the proposal at Ninth and New Hampshire, which probably will be heard by commissioners He said it is important for the city to make a statement about the future.

“We’re going to find out soon,” Treanor said, “whether the city has the will.”


deec 6 years, 5 months ago

If ELIA wants some ammo, they should do a FOIA on the city. These multi-story developments, which are planned to encroach further into, and destroy, East Lawrence, were initially planned in the late 80s or early 90s. ELIA got the documents from the Chamber-city meetings through such a request during that time period. The 1% in Lawrence, the Chamber and their puppets in city government, have been working on this for 20 years in secret. If I remember right, the plan is to expand downtown to Connecticut.

sunflowerpride 6 years, 5 months ago

1) Dennis Domer--former associate dean of architecture at Kansas University?? Perhaps he worked at the University of Kansas?

2) I vote for the sun. If I wanted to live in a city, I would like in Kansas City. Most of the appeal of Lawrence, is the town/village appeal. If you want to increase population density, stop building toward Topeka.

Alex Parker 6 years, 5 months ago

sunflowerpride, the Journal-World's style guide refers to KU as Kansas University. This is done consistently throughout the paper.

Thanks, Alex Parker Digital Editor

werekoala 6 years, 5 months ago

Wow, some people are never happy. Everyone's against suburban sprawl, right? Well, this is how you fight it. For a number of reasons, I'm no fan of Compton, but unless you want people to live like moles, we either have to expand up or out. I think downtown Lawrence would experience a Renaissance if we could get a larger number of people living and working down there.

I can see negotiating it down to 4 stories, maybe, but the "all development is bad" crowd needs to learn to pick your battles. Which is better: a single building that takes up less than a block in the middle of a vibrant downtown, or housing the same people on many acres of gas-dependent suburbia halfway to Topeka?

Bob Forer 6 years, 5 months ago

I am not a member of the "all development is bad" crowd, but on the other hand, I do not blindly believe in the "grow or die" theory.

My family moved to Lawrence in 1970 when it was a sleepy backwater of around thirty thousand folks. Now we are up to around 100,000 folks. . The explosion in population brought with in a lot of appreciated amenities such as selection in the retail market, top notch medical care, a wide variety of cultural events, and bundles of interesting, educated and progressive folks.

However, there has been a downside, including increased crime, increased travel time, crowding at some public venues such as the municipal pool, loss of some sense of community, etc.

In my humble opinion, we have already reached the point where continued growth, such as new housing, brings diminished or even negative returns. I am amazed that folks still cling to the myth that added growth will be good for Lawrence. Nonsense. All of the new housing in the last two decades have brought with it increased taxes, because the added population doesn't pay for itself, and in fact costs in terms of infrastructure and public services. I would phrase it as a "counterintuitive economy of scale."

Also, no one stops and considers the fact that their homes would increase in value if we stopped building new ones. That's simply the law of supply and demand.

I am not against growth per se. But if it only helps the wealthy developers, and is of no benefit to the citizens, I say "absolutely not." Crime is high enough, our taxes our high enough, and we're big enough. Enough is enough, especially when there is a downside, and with tall buildings, there is obviously a downside.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 5 months ago

"Domer thinks the city ought to create a comprehensive plan for New Hampshire and Vermont streets that would spell out potential building heights for particular lots"

Exactly-- and on the lot currently under consideration, no building should be any taller than three stories along the alley, and perhaps four stories along NH street.

The lots to the north along the east side of NH could have up to five-story buildings without encroaching too much on the E. Lawrence neighborhood. There has been a considerable investment in the Pachamama's building, so I doubt that anyone is going to be willing to pay what it would cost to allow for upward expansion any time soon. Seven-story buildings anywhere on the east side of NH are completely unacceptable. City parking lots and other vacant lots are prime candidates for any larger buildings, provided the public parking is maintained.

The notion that "density" can only be accomplished by six and seven-story buildings is absurd. Go to most European cities, and the norm is three to five story buildings, not seven stories and up.

Ward 6 years, 5 months ago

Chicago has very strict zoning regulations. In the neighborhoods, the height of residential structures is pretty modest and maybe reaches four stories. Our downtown's scale is similar to the business areas of many of the neighborhoods in Chicago (Lincoln Square, Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, etc). The boundary or space between six or seven story structures is clearly defined and not just the width of an alley. Be smart about this density thing.

Anne Tangeman 6 years, 5 months ago about we address the issue of the empty store fronts downtown before slapping mini skyscrapers up? Seems we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here. There are several buildings on Mass St that are not occupied and haven't been for a long time. Sure there's a second cupcake place going in, etc etc -- how long will that really last? We need to support and help get unique stores in that will continue to draw folks. A cookie cutter downtown that looks like every other place isn't much of a draw. As for the sun, I'm for it! Compton can deal with a 'short' building. He has enough. You want to keep positive, involved residents near downtown? Keep it a great living area.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 5 months ago

"Go look in their backyards on a sunny day, there's no sun now. It's a NIMBY play."

That's got to be one of the most idiotic things I've seen posted on this forum in a long time.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 5 months ago

Verity already pointed it out, but you apparently don't know the difference between a (likely deciduous) tree in someone's backyard and an immediately adjacent tall building.

Addressing/correcting that level of cluelessness is not possible on this forum, or any other, award-winning or not.

dipweed 6 years, 5 months ago

Don't build them any higher than Fire & Medical can easily get to in a fire. I'm no fan of Compton but urban sprawl or higher density downtown....pick one.

Ronnie24 6 years, 5 months ago

I thought that the concept of building underneath parking, with the living part of the building above ground was a smarter idea than any others I read about.( Only if you have a limit on the heights of the above ground no more than 3 stories.) That would bring more livable spaces without towering above the downtown area, blocking the sun totaly. I also agree that they need to have the empty buildings fillled Not enough things to encourage the non college people to shop in downtown Lawrence. Also, not enough stores that the middle income people can afford to shop in on a normal basis.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 5 months ago

First off do the property owners pay their tax bills? If not why build if it will be a hassle to collect taxes? The Topeka Capitol Journal does raise these questions about Lawrence developers. Lawrence needs tax dollars not more tax dollar give aways. College Hill Taxes Unpaid

Why is the project only providing 80 parking spaces? Soon the two new buildings will occupy the greater majority of parking in the garage across the street. How is that fair to anyone else using it as we speak? The project developers claim there is no legal obligation for them to provide any parking for their tenants.

The Lawrence Arts Center has developed itself substantially and needs those spaces.

Does city hall want to negatively impact what the Lawrence Arts Center has worked so hard developing?

The Percolator has come a long way why stifle that growth?

Yes we want downtown Lawrence as the Central business district.

If not improving the shopping experience how will more people living downtown grow downtown economics? Is the hidden agenda support for more bar/cafe traffic? Yucko.

Focus the retail rehabilitation on downtown with attractive new retail selections such as SONY Style,Function Junction, LL Bean etc etc etc. This will draw a lot more foot traffic that will support the locals as well.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 5 months ago

Lawrence is a college town in which the primary focus is education. That is where the money is so why not focus on more institutions of education? Build a business college,an art institute,a Vo Tech campus and a ASE automotive certification institute.

The real estate executives want us to believe that "shop till you drop" can easily generate the same revenue as the 25,000-30,000 college kids bring to town. Let's bring 45,000 students to Lawrence and watch economic growth take place.

More and more bicycle events are desirable. They work. They bring money to town. They don't need $$$ zillions in new athletic projects.

The Free Market has spoken which says the kcmo/joco retail market is far more desirable to Lawrence shoppers. The KCMO/JOCO market has been about 150 years in the making.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 5 months ago

Recycling posts is killing the planet! (from a source)

Richard Heckler 6 years, 5 months ago

Real estate thinkers keep asking if Lawrence wants retail as part of our economics. Retail has always been a part of our local economics. What the real estate industry is really suggesting is let us intimidate the taxpayers into doing it our way in spite of the fact we have no expertise in such issues. We just want to make tons of money.

The Free Market says stop digging a deeper money hole. Lawrence cannot support massive retail development which only produces economic displacement that which increases the tax burden on the Lawrence population.

Let the focus shine on retail rehabilitation of downtown with attractive new retail selections such as SONY Style,Function Junction and LL Bean. This will create more foot traffic.

Face it the Free Market knows very well that Lawrence is no kcmo/joco retail market. Let's not get duped again. In more than 25 years of shoving that down the throats of taxpayers what we have is a failing philosophy and economic displacement.

Now these same thinkers are draining the wallets of taxpayers building just about anything connected to sports. They are thinking they can sell more real estate by spending zillions of dollars on "athletic projects". In doing so this group has our school district BOE recklessly spending money to support yet another failed philosophy.

The best way to rehab downtown economics is to improve the shopping experience. Downtown living is a piece of the puzzle. Let's not over shadow the rate at which we should grow to satisfy anxious developers desires to expand their wallets under the guise of infill development.

pizzapete 6 years, 5 months ago

We need more tall buildings downtown if we're going to complete with Topeka. Topeka has tall buildings and that's what gives their downtown that special charm. Let's make Lawrence more like Topeka and less like Lawrence.

matchbox81 6 years, 5 months ago

Topeka has a dead downtown because of a poor land use mix, and no attractions (i.e. restaurants, interesting shops, or bars) to draw customers there after the lunch hour. This is probably the result of much of Topeka's downtown vertical height being focused on work, and not a mixture of living and retail. Lawrence already has several attractions downtown. Placing more offices, or more living space downtown, would just increase that customer base. Let's see the espresso shops on 9th street complain after they see a lot more business resulting from students living in the apartments across the street buying their morning coffee while waiting for the bus to go school, or the 50+ first management employees stepping out for a break from the office coffee pot.

irvan moore 6 years, 5 months ago

if you remember downtown 25 or 30 years ago it was a whole lot more interesting then. a few bars, dimestores, places where you could get good real food at a reasonable price, not a lot of beggers, sidewalks not cluttered with outdoor dining, stores where you could buy useable or interesting items, local merchants selling inexpensive items or art. yep, just the ramblings of an old man but i don't think this downtown is an improvement.

Carol Bowen 6 years, 5 months ago

So, we filled Mass. Street with sidewalk dining. Now, we will swing towards downtown residential. There will never be a good downtown mix until we decide what that mix should be. Developer's should be following the city's area plan. The city should not be following dvelopers' plans.

Carol Bowen 6 years, 5 months ago

Last I knew, a ladder truck could reach 17 floors. Of course, a city would have to purchase a ladder truck with that capability. One of costs of growth.

Haiku_Cuckoo 6 years, 5 months ago

I walked past the Pig recently and it was bright and sunny out front. I'm not sure what the fuss about shade is, because I didn't see it.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.