City Commission, East Lawrence neighborhood go back and forth on Ninth Street proposal

A plan to make portions of Ninth Street into a unique corridor for the arts isn’t producing much beauty between Lawrence city commissioners and the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association.

Commissioners this week expressed frustration with the neighborhood association, as the association presented a proposal asking City Hall to grant it significant influence over the design of the arts corridor.

The association’s board of directors is proposing that the design team for the Ninth Street project include two paid positions that would be appointed by the board of the neighborhood association. In addition, the association is asking to be made a “full partner” in the project, which would include the design of the project being subject to the approval of the association’s board before it is presented to the City Commission for approval.

“That is not a partnership but is basically creating an authoritarian government,” City Commissioner Mike Dever said of the proposal, which he said equated to veto power for the neighborhood association. “I’m trying not to get angry about this.”

The proposal also drew concerns from Mayor Mike Amyx and City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer during a meeting last week. Farmer particularly said he was becoming frustrated with the association, which has expressed a number of concerns that the neighborhood’s voice isn’t being adequately considered in the planning for the arts corridor. Officials with the city and the Lawrence Arts Center have said the design process hasn’t yet begun and that East Lawrence and other stakeholders will be a major part of the process.

Farmer said he doesn’t want to give increased power to the association, in part, because “it continues to oppose everything that comes before us.”

Farmer also brought up concerns that the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association is not very representative of the actual residents of East Lawrence. Commissioners have been getting some emails about that concern from residents, and Farmer said he picked up on the theme when he walked the neighborhood during last year’s debate about whether to allow a multistory hotel to be built at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, which drew opposition from the neighborhood association.

“We heard everybody in East Lawrence was against that project, and it turned out that it was about four people who were against it,” Farmer said.

Aaron Paden, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association board, said Farmer’s comments were off base. He noted that just within the last few weeks the association had hosted meetings that had attracted nearly 100 people to talk about the arts corridor.

“We have done an excellent job of creating healthy dialogue, but it does happen to be a contentious issue,” Paden said.

Paden said there’s a significant number of residents who are concerned the arts corridor will “incentivize investments that will remove the character of the neighborhood.”

The project is still in its early stages, but the concept calls for a remaking of Ninth Street east of New Hampshire into a more pedestrian-friendly corridor that can house public art and performances.

Paden said he also thought city commissioners were misreading the association’s proposal as a “list of demands” rather than the starting point of a negotiation. Paden said the group would like to have a paid representative on the design team because that would be a good way to ensure that the design team takes into account the unique attributes of the neighborhood.

City Commissioners Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm said they were open to that idea, but want to hear more details about the role of the representatives and how they would be chosen.

“It would need to be very well-defined, though,” Riordan said. “We would have to be careful because we would be setting precedent.”

Paden acknowledged the idea of a paid neighborhood representative on a design team for a city project would be new. But he said this is the type of project to try such new ideas. The project is partially funded by a grant from ArtPlace America. Paden said he believes those grants encourage communities to look at alternative ways to gather input on projects.

“This isn’t just about how to put in an art project,” Paden said. “It is about how to build a team that makes a better place. We’re just making some suggestions on how to do that.”

Amyx told neighborhood leaders that he hopes tensions between the neighborhood, the Arts Center and others will soon subside. Otherwise, he said he’ll have to rethink his support for the project.

“This is something that I thought would be so good for East Lawrence, but now I’m having a hard time staying in the game,” Amyx said.

The ArtsPlace grant is expected to pay for about $500,000 of the project, but ultimately the city will need to come up with about $3 million to rebuild the street. Commissioners may be asked for that funding during budget sessions next summer. They are expected to take action on forming a design team in the next several weeks.