Could city’s creative placemaking efforts downtown lead to unwanted gentrification?

Some fear low-income residents would be pushed out of neighborhood, experts say prevention is in the process

A taste of the attractions to be found inside Lawrence's newly designated downtown cultural district. First Row: The Granada Theater, Lawrence Arts Center, Aimee's Coffee Shop, Second Row: Bowersock Mills and Power Company, SeedCo Studios in the Warehouse Arts District, Site of Langston Hughes' home, Row Three: The East Lawrence Waltz mural, Pachamama's, St. Luke's A.M.E. Church, Row Four: Turnhalle Building, Wonder Fair Art Gallery, Americana Music Academy.

As Lawrence looks to take advantage of its cultural heritage in hopes of encouraging economic development, it faces a dilemma: What if the efforts end up pushing out some of the very people who give the targeted neighborhoods their unique flavor?

The area covered by Lawrence’s newly designated cultural district is home to many low-income residents and artists, some who fear attention and improvements might increase property values so much they could no longer afford to live and work there.

That’s called gentrification, and it’s an unwanted consequence that experts say is a real concern as the Lawrence Arts Center pursues a prestigious “creative placemaking” grant. But it’s one that can be avoided by devising the right plan and executing it the right way.

“It’s a question that always comes up,” said Laura Zabel, a Kansas University graduate and executive director of Minnesota-based Springboard for the Arts, an artist-centric economic development organization.

Zabel said the key to successful placemaking is involving all stakeholders from the beginning to ensure they’re part of changes and that plans represent their interests.

“I feel like this is a strategy that really is more about authentic community development,” Zabel said. “It’s about growing and supporting and feeding what’s local, and in that way it can be a strategy that allows a neighborhood to grow … without displacing the people who are already in place.”

Lawrence is pursuing two avenues for creative placemaking.

The Lawrence Arts Center successfully spearheaded the City Commission’s recent designation of downtown and adjacent residential neighborhoods as a cultural district, which a grant from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission could help flesh out at the city level. The Arts Center also is a national finalist for an ArtPlace grant that would fund creative placemaking efforts in the form of a public art project.

Dozens of stakeholders signed a letter in support of the cultural district, including the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association.

Neighborhood President Josh Davis said he’s cautiously optimistic. Davis has refurbished and lived in two old houses during his 13 years in East Lawrence, and grown to love the potpourri of personalities that are his neighbors.

He wants to be sure planners remember they’re dealing with people’s lives, not just landmarks and dots on a map.

“It’s a phenomenal conglomeration of a lot of different folks,” Davis said. “It feels like an itty-bitty small town inside of a big town.”

Davis is trying to represent the neighborhood’s many artists — who stand to benefit from attention Lawrence could receive for its placemaking efforts — and other residents who live there but, frankly, just want to be left alone.

“While we try to support one group, I don’t want to forget about the other,” Davis said.

Winning the ArtPlace grant would enable the Arts Center bring in an international public art duo called Sans façon to work with the community to create an art project unique to Lawrence. Sans façon is known for creating unusual art projects that reflect the local flavor of communities.

“I’m impressed with the work that those fellows have done,” Davis said. “I think they will make an earnest effort to tell a good story.”

He’s more cautious about how the city will decide and execute plans for the cultural district — and hopeful the city won’t let cultural district efforts supplant infrastructure needs or other important projects in East Lawrence.

“We want there to be positive development in the neighborhood, and the cultural district could be used as a weapon or a shield for positive development,” Davis said. “It can either help to preserve what is already unique and great about the area, or it can be used as a means to allow outside influence that compromises that.”

Muralist Dave Loewenstein‘s studio is highlighted on the Arts Center’s cultural district map. He also lives in the area, near Eighth and Rhode Island streets.

Loewenstein said he remains skeptical of the effort. He wonders if creative placemaking is just a rosy term for calculated gentrification. And if having an arts institution lead the charge is supposed to make change more palatable than if a developer was doing it.

If efforts increase property values across the board, he assumes they’ll be reflected in rent for his home and studio.

“I especially worry about my studio,” he said. “If the rent goes up on that, I’m out.”

Loewenstein himself often works thanks to grants aimed at creating public art. He said it’s commonly accepted that arts and culture can help attract high-wage earners to communities.

“I think that’s good and probably somewhat true,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean you leverage a low-income neighborhood for that goal.”

Loewenstein said he’s hopeful progression will be thoughtful.

He’s heard of placemaking-style projects that have worked while avoiding gentrification, such as Project Row Houses in Houston’s Northern Third Ward. As Loewenstein summarizes it, instead of bringing resources to the poor neighborhood to make it accessible to people with money, the project used arts as a model in support of people who already lived there. Low-income housing and programs for the people in it are part of the effort.

Former National Endowment for the Arts chairman and ArtPlace chairman emeritus Rocco Landesman said there are creative ways to give artists or low-income residents “equity” in a transformation.

“ArtPlace is not about poverty-fighting per se,” said Landesman, who supports Lawrence’s ArtPlace grant request. “It’s really about creating vibrancy and activity in a place.”

Fred Conboy, who oversees the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, said he’s optimistic Lawrence will be able to pursue creative placemaking that’s appealing to visitors and residents alike.

“Lawrence has a history of being a controversial place,” he said, “and it is that controversy that has really created what I think is the spirit of Lawrence itself. We welcome it, we embrace it, and we always resolve it. …

“I think Lawrence will do a fantastic job of balancing that equation. They always have.”