A group of dedicated local residents has done a stellar job of sprucing up the Burlington Northern Santa Fe depot in east Lawrence and making the case for preserving the 1950s-era structure. However, from a practical standpoint, their efforts hit a major stumbling block last week when city staff and commissioners decided it would be impractical to turn the depot into a hub for the city’s bus system.
Using the depot as a transit hub would have given the city a valid reason for taking ownership of the building, the first step in seeking outside funds to improve the building. For a number of reasons, the transit hub turned out to be unworkable. Transit officials said the site wasn’t really big enough to handle the city’s large buses, and BNSF wasn’t willing to give up enough office space in the depot to accommodate the city’s transit offices.
So, it’s back to the drawing board for members of the local preservation group, Depot Redux. Carey Maynard-Moody, the leader of that group, urged the city to “get creative and smart” and not give up on efforts to preserve the building.
It’s fine for city officials to be creative in their efforts on the depot’s behalf, but, as noted, they also need to be smart. The city really can’t afford to take over the building unless it can identify some productive use for it. The only purpose the depot currently serves is as a lobby and waiting area for passengers getting on and off Amtrak’s Southwest Chief early in the morning and late at night. Unless the city finds a use that justifies expanded hours and staffing for the building, it’s hard to see how it can justify taking it over. One report estimates the building needs about $400,000 in renovations. Even if there is a possibility of attracting grant money for some of that cost, the city can’t afford to take on that responsibility — as well as long-term maintenance duties — for a structure for which it really doesn’t have a use.
It’s easy to see why the BNSF would be willing to basically donate the depot if the city would accept responsibility for the building while allowing the railroad to continue to use it for its own operations, but that isn’t a great deal for the city. We hope the city and Depot Redux will continue to seek a way to preserve and use this notable structure, but until they do, the city can’t afford to accept ownership of the building.