Wanted: A new use for an old train depot.
Local transit officials are now urging Lawrence city commissioners to scrap plans that would convert the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Depot in East Lawrence into a hub for the city’s bus system.
Transit leaders are contending the site at Seventh and New Jersey streets is too small to accommodate the large buses that are part of the city’s T bus system. But if commissioners abandon plans to use the depot as a transit hub, it could throw into doubt whether the city would be in a position to buy the 1950s-era building, which historic preservationists contend is at risk of decay if it remains owned by the railroad.
“We have to maximize our tax dollars by coming up with some other use for this building,” City Commissioner Aron Cromwell said. “Right now it is used only as a train depot a couple of times during the night. The rest of the time it is empty. That is not enough use for us to justify purchasing and maintaining the building.”
Cromwell said he doesn’t have ideas now for what type of secondary use would be feasible in the building. He said it may be time to ask members of the public to come up with ideas for how the building could be used.
Carey Maynard-Moody, leader of the group Depot Redux, hopes commissioners don’t give up on the idea of buying the building.
“We just have to get creative and smart about it because we still need to protect that building,” Maynard-Moody said. “The neighborhood needs to be involved in helping us come up with a secondary use that would work for everyone.”
Maynard-Moody said she wants the city to take a hard look at whether it can use a portion of the depot space for office space for a city department. Preservationists, though, want the main portion of the depot to continue to be used a lobby and waiting area for train passengers. Amtrak stops at the depot twice a day — once early in the morning and once late at night — as part of the Southwest Chief route.
The idea of using the depot as a transit hub was considered, in part, because commissioners thought that might help the city garner outside funds to improve the building. But several neighbors objected to the idea of large amounts of buses coming through their neighborhood to access the station.
Transit administrator Robert Nugent said further study indicated the building probably wasn’t large enough to house the offices of the transit department, given that the railroad wants to reserve some of the office space for its use.
The railroad has been interested in selling the building to the city for a nominal fee. But commissioners have resisted taking ownership because there are multiple repairs that need to be done to the building, plus other renovation costs. A previous report has indicated about $400,000 worth of repairs are needed at the building.
Commissioners have sought grant funding for the building, but it has been difficult for the city to win a grant for a building it doesn’t own. Thus far, though, commissioners haven’t wanted to take over ownership of the building and hope that it will receive grant funding later. Cromwell said that is still his position.
“When you think about what we are doing with real estate, we need to be careful,” Cromwell said. “We’re expanding the library, we’re talking about a recreation center, we’re talking about police needs. Owning another building at this point is something we need to be careful about, but I do want to do what we can to save that building. It is a great landmark for the community.”