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.”
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.”
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.”