One factor is more important than any other when it comes to the long-term vitality of downtown Lawrence: people.
Downtown needs people to eat in its restaurants, shop at its retail stores, visit its professional offices and support every aspect of its business community. One way to get those people is to draw Lawrence residents in from other parts of the community or attract visitors from outside Lawrence. Another way is to bring them downtown to live, making downtown not just their destination but also their neighborhood.
No one apparently embraces that concept more than developer Doug Compton who this week announced plans for yet another multi-story apartment building in Lawrence’s downtown. The latest project will be developed in partnership with Lawrence businessman Rand Allen on the former Allen Press property between Massachusetts and New Hampshire streets on 11th Street. Plans call for a seven-story apartment building with 120 units, an underground parking garage and ground-floor retail.
One of the most exciting aspects of the project is the prospect of attracting a national drug store chain, reportedly either CVS or Walgreens, to locate in that retail space. Such a store is an ideal way to meet the needs of downtown residents — as well as people in central-city neighborhoods — who need easy access to a variety of items ranging from prescription drugs to milk or toilet paper.
The latest project would be the fourth one developed by Compton-led groups downtown. There’s no doubt that these projects change the downtown skyline. The existing 901 Building and the planned apartments at the northeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire both are seven-story structures. The hotel and apartment building under construction just north of the Lawrence Arts Center will be five stories.
The latest proposed project will be just across the street from two of downtown’s most historic structures — the Douglas County Courthouse and Watkins Museum of History — which means the new building will have to meet design standards that make it compatible with its surroundings. That’s as it should be. Taller structures may be needed to attract the residents that are part of downtown’s future, but that doesn’t mean the city can discard or ignore the historical ambiance that attracts many people to Lawrence’s downtown.
There certainly seems to be adequate demand for the kind of housing Compton is building. The apartments at 901 New Hampshire are 100 percent occupied with a waiting list, he said this week. Downtown Lawrence officials say they receive regular inquiries from people who want to live downtown, including many retirees, a group Lawrence has launched a special effort to attract.
The fact that Lawrence’s downtown is vital and energetic enough to attract both new residents and new development money is great news for the city. Watching downtown Lawrence change and grow is far preferable to the central-city decline being experienced by many communities of our size.