Commission to propose designating downtown area a ‘cultural district’

It’s no secret that the heart of Lawrence is ripe with culture. A group of stakeholders led by the Lawrence Arts Center wants the area to have an official definition that reflects it.

The Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission on Sunday heard the group’s pitch, liked it and will propose designating as a “cultural district” the area roughly bounded by the Kansas River, 15th Street, Vermont Street and the north end of the Burroughs Creek Trail.

The proposal will be forwarded to the City Commission this week, Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard said.

The proposal doesn’t suggest rezoning or sweeping changes to the landscape. It’s more about improving the image and accessibility of what’s already there.

The stakeholders hope the city will develop a plan for the area that includes improved lighting, sidewalks and shared-use pathways to help link — for foot and bicycle traffic — historic, arts, natural and cultural heritage sites such as the Arts Center, New York School, the river and art galleries downtown and in the Warehouse Arts District.

“We firmly believe that this will put Lawrence, Kansas, in the running for national recognition in the areas of public health for walkability and biking, historic preservation, support for the arts, creative placemaking, and neighborhood revitalization,” stakeholders said in a letter to the Cultural Arts Commission. “A nonrestrictive and broadly defined ‘Cultural District’ designation will strengthen grant applications from the city of Lawrence and all arts, historical and cultural entities within this framework.”

The more than two dozen signees included Arts Center director Susan Tate, Downtown Lawrence director Cathy Hamilton, Lawrence Public Library director Brad Allen, a number of artists and the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association.

Unofficial discussions among the stakeholders have been going on more than a year.

Tate called the Cultural Arts Commission’s support for the idea an acknowledgement of the area’s deep artistic, political and cultural roots.

“The delineation of this district marks the beginning of cultural and artistic planning for a city that has already proven its commitment to arts and culture,” Tate said. “Historians, neighbors, artists, business people and leaders of arts, cultural and social service organizations are discussing ways to leverage the energy around the arts in Lawrence. The LCAC is forward-thinking and ready to support creative placemaking efforts, and we are excited to work with partners from all sectors of the community.”

Cultural Arts Commission member Richard Renner said a common sentiment from stakeholders and fellow commissioners during Sunday’s discussion was, “We’re just stating what’s already there.”

“I do like the idea of it being recognized by other cities that we have a cultural arts area,” Renner said. “Lawrence has that rep already … we want to encourage this.”

Details and potential costs of improving such a district have yet to be outlined.

However, requests from the Arts Center and other stakeholders include repairs to brick streets and alleys, public art, sidewalks with solar-powered lighting, free Internet access and a city arts and culture administrator to implement such a plan.

Their letter also indicates such a plan should be dedicated to maintaining the area’s unique culture and its socio-economic mix.