The soundest strategy to protect Lawrence’s most treasured historic asset — Massachusetts Street — is to give New Hampshire and Vermont streets some flexibility to change.
If members of the city’s Historic Resources Commission think as big as they should, they already realize the most significant threat to Massachusetts Street is not the idea of someone tearing down a historic building tomorrow. It is the prospect that, in 15 to 20 years, important buildings simply will decay.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that, in the coming decades, Massachusetts Street will be lined with underutilized buildings broken up by the occasional pocket of bars that excel only at extracting money from Lawrence’s student population. For downtown to increase its vitality, it needs more people who call the district home, and it needs destination-type businesses. The proposed hotel/apartment building at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets provides both.
Neighbors to the east of the project have objected to the proposed building’s height, mass and the traffic pattern it would create, along with several other issues. Developers have worked to address some of those concerns, and the latest proposal for the Ninth and New Hampshire building creates a reasonable precedent for how taller buildings should interact with historic neighborhoods. The building is five to six stories on the side that faces busy New Hampshire Street, but it is three stories tall, about 35 feet high, on the side nearest the neighborhood. In total, the building is significantly shorter than the recently constructed 901 Building on the west side of New Hampshire Street.
In addition, the architects have significantly changed their traffic plans for the building, eliminating all usage of the alley for hotel business. The Historic Resources Commission should feel pleased. Its efforts have helped produce a better design for this project.
Some neighbors are saying the project should be put on hold until a district plan for the downtown area can be completed. This would be a classic Lawrence strategy and one that would further cement the city’s reputation as being unfriendly to business. A downtown district plan would have value — assuming the city could complete it in a reasonable amount of time. The city really ought to have a serious discussion about whether it wants future development on the many city-owned surface parking lots in downtown.
However, this current project should not have to wait. It is not the developers’ fault the city has been slow to plan. The city should have begun planning for taller buildings in downtown when the Hobbs Taylor Lofts were built several years ago. The planning really should have been hammered home when work began on the 901 Building more than a year ago.
Downtown clearly is in transition. The forces of change are at work — and let’s be honest — the fear of change is what has spurred a good deal of opposition to this project: fear that downtown Lawrence or its vitality will change, fear that it won’t attract visitors, fear that the pride Lawrence residents feel for this special place will be lost.
Downtown shouldn’t fear this project. This project deserves the support of the city’s Historic Resources Commission on Thursday evening. Downtown deserves the chance to change.