The best way to save a historic structure is to make sure it continues to serve an important purpose.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets once was a hub of activity for Lawrence. As train traffic and travelers declined, so did the depot building. A volunteer group has worked with city and railroad officials to make key improvements to the building, but the possibility of using the depot as a transfer station for the city’s T bus system could give the depot new life and new financial stability.
City commissioners have asked the city staff to look at the possibility of creating the transfer station for a number of reasons, but the most important may be that it might open up new funding sources to help cover the cost of improving and maintaining the structure. Commissioners have been justifiably concerned about making a commitment to take over the ownership of the depot under the terms that have been put forward by BNSF. For instance, the railroad wants to be able to buy back the depot at any time for a price equal to the cost of any city improvements, minus depreciation. If the city is going to invest in improvements that would allow the depot to serve as a bus transfer hub, it needs to have some assurance that the building won’t be pulled out from under it by BNSF.
City officials are looking at a transfer station that could serve up to seven T buses at a time. Initial discussions have drawn comments from one nearby resident concerned about the traffic created by the buses, but several residents, including some who live near the depot, have expressed support. Even if the depot isn’t the perfect spot for a transfer station, it has advantages over the current transfer point at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, which sometimes clogs downtown traffic.
Moving the transfer point to the depot would allow passengers to wait inside the building and perhaps use the restroom or grab a snack from a vending machine. If the city’s transportation offices moved to the depot, passengers also could purchase a bus pass, check transit schedules or get other information. Perhaps the depot also could provide telephone access to local taxi services for those who need it. And, of course, the depot would continue to serve two Amtrak arrivals each day and perhaps more if another Amtrak connection is extended to the city.
If the city can reach an acceptable agreement with BNSF and then use the building for a transit hub and perhaps some office space, it becomes more feasible to make a long-term financial commitment to improving and maintaining the building.
Many questions remain about the idea of turning the historic depot into a local transportation hub, but city officials are on the right track by considering the possibility.